This week I had a conversation with a group of elementary school students about happiness. It started with an exercise I adapted from David White’s book Philosophy for Kids (I have written about this exercise in the past). I gave the students a list of 8 activities — having fun with a friend, reading a book, thinking, sitting in a dentist’s chair, eating your favorite foods, etc. — and asked them to rank them according to how important they were as elements of their happiness.

Many of the children listed either sitting in a dentist’s chair or thinking as the activity on the list that was least important for their happiness. Many of the students said that they really didn’t enjoy going to the dentist, that it made them uncomfortable and anxious. One student noted, however, that even though it might not be pleasant, taking care of your teeth was important for your happiness. Another child responded that no one could tell her how to feel, that even if going to the dentist was important, it did not increase her happiness. We had a long conversation about the relationship between feeling happy and long-term happiness.

A student pointed out that a lot of this has to do with your thoughts — some experiences lead you to worry a lot beforehand. I commented that many of the students had also listed thinking as one of the activities they understood as less important for their happiness. Why?

Several students commented that thinking is not something they can control and so it  doesn’t make them happy. “I never know where my thoughts are going to lead,” said one child. “I start thinking about something and then I end up thinking about something very different.” The students talked about how they sometimes couldn’t help from thinking about things about which they would prefer not to think, and how stressful that can be.

But we also talked about how some of the activities the students listed as important for their happiness — spending time with friends, playing games — involve thinking. “It’s different when you’re focused on something else,” one student said. “When you are just sitting and thinking, it can make you anxious.” “But sitting by myself and thinking is one of my favorite things to do!” responded another student.

A student then commented that you can’t think of two things at once, and he said that he likes thinking because it involves focusing on one thing at a time. This led to a spirited conversation about whether this claim is true. Some students observed that you can taste food and think about something else at the same time, for example. That led to an exchange about the relationship between feeling and thinking. One student said, “You just think you can think about more than one thing at a time. But there is always maybe a millisecond between thoughts. You can’t actually think of two things at the same time.”

At the end of the session, a student who had not spoken said, “I want you all to notice that you began everything you said with ‘I think.’ So if you like philosophical conversations, you must like thinking!” It was a great way to end the class.

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