Don’t Just be Happy…Flourish

From the Headmaster's Desk, September 11, 2018

Many people talk about happiness, but this is often superficial and short-lived.  I’m happy when England win or when I have a cookie at break time, but happiness can be elusive – sometimes I don’t get a cookie and sometimes England lose.

This morning I’d like to consider the idea of flourishing, which is a much deeper concept than happiness.  Flourishing is about living life well and fulfilling your role in life.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote extensively about the idea of flourishing.  He believed that all humans have a function or a purpose in life.  When you fulfil your purpose, then you flourish.

The idea of fulfilling your function well is rather straightforward and it applies to everything in life.  Let me give you a few examples to explain this: Aristotle wrote about someone who plays the flute – when they play this well, they are happy and everyone else is happy.  But this is more than a fleeting sense of happiness.  If you’ve ever seen a good musician or actor after a great performance, their sense of satisfaction is much deeper than a superficial happiness.  It is a profound feeling of fulfilment – they had a task in front of them, and they executed it well.  The same goes for a sculptor or an artist, when they produce an excellent piece of work.

And the same for a great sportsperson.  A good fly half kicks well and directs the game well – and afterwards is often deeply satisfied, and you can see it in the post-match interview.  And when they do this very well over a long period of time, like Dan Carter or Jonny Wilkinson, Aristotle might say that these great athletes found their function or purpose in this sport, worked hard at it and got to the point where they flourished in the game.

It applies in professional roles in life as well.  A good doctor helps their patients get better – and of course there is great satisfaction in this.  A good investment manager makes money for their investors.  A good solicitor or lawyer helps their client win cases.

When we say a doctor or a dentist or a programmer is good, what we mean is that they are good at their job.  They do their job well.  They flourish in their professional role.  And everyone respects that.

For Aristotle, this was precisely his point: something is good when it fulfils its function well.  A good eye sees well.  A good coffee machine is one that makes good coffee.  A good music speaker plays music well.  And a good professional does their job well – and they benefit from this, and so does everyone else.

And of course the same can apply in schools.

What makes a good school? Well, schools are made of students and teachers, so it’s rather obvious.  When students are working well, doing all that good students do, then they will flourish.  The same for teachers – when they are teaching well and doing all that good teachers do, then they will flourish.  And when good students have good teachers and everyone is fulfilling their function, there will be a deep satisfaction for everyone in the community.

The students will make great progress and achieve success in academics, co-curricular pursuits and personal development.  The teachers will be proud and feel rewarded by supporting this.  And the parents will be delighted and say it’s a good school.  And this is not a one-off brief moment of happiness; it is developed over time by people learning good habits and fulfilling their function.  The school would be flourishing, as its teachers and students flourish.

Aristotle warns that such fulfilment does not always happen immediately or easily. We have to learn how to do each role in our lives, and we must develop good habits through practice.  Education, practice and forming good habits are all essential in Aristotle’s concept of flourishing.  A new student at Blue Coat hopefully learned some good habits at their previous school, but they might have to practise for a while before they learn to be a really good student.  In the same way that a good guitar player will need to practise for a long time before they can play famous riffs in full flow with their eyes closed.

Jonny Wilkinson only got very good at kicking by kicking a ball thousands and thousands of times.

It is through repetition of the right acts that we acquire the right type of character required to then flourish as individuals.

Flourishing is one of my favourite concepts.  I love to think that pupils – all of you – are flourishing at Blue Coat.  You might make mistakes and occasionally get it wrong, but that’s part of Aristotle’s point.  Jonny Wilkinson has missed kicks in his career, and even the best artists can occasionally get it wrong.  But the point is to keep practising, and eventually one day what seems hard now becomes rather habitual and comes quite naturally, and it is very satisfying.

So, as this year gets going, gain knowledge of yourself and your role in this school.  Work to develop good habits, ensure everything in your life is in good order: all this leads to a state where you can ensure that you are flourishing.

Have a good day today, and a very good week.


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