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Headmaster's Address

How To Be Happy

We had some excellent results on the cricket pitches this week. The 1st XI girls team were at their best on Friday in the cup game against Kimbolton. Bea bowled beautifully and demolished their top and middle order and finished with remarkable figures of 6 wickets for 8 runs off her 4 overs meaning her name will deservedly go up on the honours board. Freya and Eve hit the required runs off in just 4.3 overs to put us through to the next round. The U15A cricket team also had success in their cup fixture against King’s Ely, Reuben T and Reuben C built a good batting partnership to knock off the 79 runs set by Kings Ely to win the game.

There were also some top knocks on Saturday. Ollie E scored a massive 104* off 57 balls, James P and Ollie S also hit half centuries for the 2nd XI to help them to victory.

On the tennis courts the boys continue their success winning 6 out of the 7 games against Oundle. The 1st VI came back from behind and the 2nd VI won three sets in tie breakers. The girls teams fought hard with results not always going their way, but the U14A and B teams had the pick of the results with both teams winning 5-4.

On Wednesday and Thursday last week we saw 23 Year 9 pupils take on and perform three one act plays by Moliere, the famous 17th Century French writer. The cast performed with incredible maturity and their audience responded with great attention and laughter, and laughter is just what everyone needed. Everyone played their part in making this a thoroughly enjoyable evening in the theatre and there were so many tour de force performances but perhaps Lucas M who led the company as Moliere could come forward and as ever, as we applaud him, we applaud and acknowledge the achievements of the entire cast and crew.

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week and of course this time of year is a stressful time for many, with school exams for many of you here, and public exams for all those in Year 11 and the Upper Sixth who aren’t here today.

But there’s the point.  Did you see what I did there?  In my first sentence, I mentioned ‘mental health awareness’, but in my second, I moved onto exam stress.  I honestly did it without thinking about it.  I think we all do.  We say ‘mental health’, but all too often, our brain hears ‘mental health problems’, ‘mental health issues’.  Similarly, I have heard of schools who have introduced ‘happiness weeks’, and I remember asking one Head what they did in ‘Happiness Week’ and the reply came: “Oh, all sorts of things, exam stress, coping with loneliness, bullying, e-safety and so on.”  Yes, indeed: ‘Happiness Week’ sounds like a laugh a minute.   So it can turn out to be a bit depressing to focus on mental health awareness. So, to combat that, I wanted to tell you a little bit about positive psychology.  I first spoke on this subject a few years ago, but for those of you who have heard it before, it won’t do you any harm to hear it again.

Basically, positive psychology is a relatively new school of thought.  It is underpinned by the principle that psychology shouldn’t just be concerned with diagnosing and treating the bad stuff: depression, anxiety and so on.  Instead, it should also look at the good stuff: the science of happiness and well-being, in an attempt to draw valuable conclusions about what it is that makes people happy and fulfilled.  Rather than focusing on what the various forms of mental anguish and how we interrupt and tackle those problems, positive psychology is about analysing what makes people happy and fulfilled, what one might call wellbeing, and trying to promote that.  It’s still in its infancy as an academic discipline, but to me is a fascinating, ambitious and hugely worthwhile quest.

I’ve read a fair bit on this subject.  The older I get, and the more I read, and the more convinced I am that the single most important determinant of human wellbeing is not money, or status, or power, or celebrity, but the ability to develop warm and fulfilling relationships with other people.  To my mind, if you had to select just one key ingredient to The Good Life, that would have to be it.

But don’t take my word for it.  If one man has a right to speak authoritatively on the subject, it is George Vaillant.  For forty-two years he was in charge of the Harvard Study, which was perhaps the longest-running, and most exhaustive, longitudinal study of mental and physical well-being in history.   The ‘longitudinal’ method of research, here, means tracking relatively small samples over long periods of time.  In this case, the study, based at Harvard University, tracked the lives of 268 healthy, well-adjusted students in the  undergraduate classes of 1942, 9142 and 1944, at that most prestigious of institutions.  It tracked their progress, their mental and physical well-being, over a seventy-five year period, starting with their time at Harvard, and continuing, in many cases, until their death several decades later.  Some of them are still alive today – they must be in their late nineties now – and they are still being studied.  Throughout their lives, they have allowed themselves to be subjected to regular medical examinations and psychological tests – as well as completing regular questionnaires and interviews.

The man who for 42 years processed all this data is the psychiatrist, George Vaillant.   And when he was recently asked what his life’s work had taught him about the secret to happiness, he replied: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.”

That is so important that I am going to repeat it:

“The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.”

To unpack that just a little bit, Vaillant’s main conclusion is that the warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on life satisfaction. Put differently, Vaillant has also summed up the conclusions of the study in five words, of which two are merely for emphasis: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

If warm, positive relationships are so crucial, then it surely worthwhile thinking about how you best go about cultivating them.  So let me share with you one tip from Martin Seligman, perhaps the leading practitioner of “positive psychology”, and one of the founding fathers of the ‘positive psychology’ movement.

It is a great tip, which has its roots in the world of marital therapy, but it has applications wider than that – you don’t need to be married to find this good advice, and I commend it to you.

“Each of us has active or passive, constructive or destructive options,” says Professor Seligman. “Now, what most people do is “passive constructive”.”  Imagine, for instance, your partner comes home from work to tell you that she has just been promoted.

Most people do “passive constructive”: “Well done, dear, that’s great.”  If you’re feeling particularly sensitive that day, you might even turn the telly onto mute whilst you say this. Well, at least that is better than “passive destructive”.  When the partner of the ‘passive destructive’ comes home from work to tell him that she has just been promoted, the passive destructive says: “What’s for dinner?” – a fairly unsympathetic response, I am sure you’ll agree.

Even worse than this type of response is the ‘active destructive’ who, when his partner comes home from work to tell him of her good news, will say something like: “Oh no – that’s a nightmare – do you know what tax bracket that’s going to take us into?” or “Great – I guess that means I will be expected to pick the kids up from school now, will I?”

Unsurprisingly, the one which makes for the best relationship is the ‘active constructive’ response. When the partner of the ‘active constructive’ comes home from work to tell him her news, the active constructive doesn’t just turn the TV volume down, he switches the telly off.  He then jumps up, gives his partner a big hug, and then says: “Wow, that is brilliant. How did you hear? Who was there? What did your boss say? How were you feeling? How shall we celebrate?”

I think it would be a good thing for anyone to think through what category of responses are typical of their interactions with others.

I suppose, like a good golf swing, it is something you have to keep working on until it becomes second nature.    But it is surely worth the effort, because, says Professor Seligman, it turns out that getting people to be ‘active constructive’ is a pretty good way of repairing or improving their relationships.  That has to be an important thing, doesn’t it?  If Vaillant is right in stating that “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people”, then it is worth working on them.  I am not saying that being ‘active constructive’ is the secret to happiness or well-being – but I’m convinced it may help us towards it.  If so then maybe, just maybe, I’ve told you something today that could make you, and me, and those around us, a little happier in the future.