I'm reading happiness at Harvard

Observations on education

You might think Harvard students had plenty to be happy about (apart, perhaps, from the almost $40,000-a-year tuition fees), but undergraduates at the elite American university are flocking to a new course which has the explicit aim of making them happier by helping them lead "a fulfilling and flourishing life".

With 856 students now enrolled, Positive Psychology has become the university's most heavily subscribed course ever, shocking Harvard watchers by knocking Introductory Economics (665 students) off the number one spot it had occupied for years.

The course is not what you might expect from America's most prestigious place of learning. The study material includes clips from Seinfeld and Will and Grace. The course lecturer, Tal D Ben-Shahar, is an Israeli army veteran and college squash champion who appears to have no academic pretensions and no body of academic research. You are more likely to find his books - The Question of Happiness, for example - in the self-help sections of high-street bookshops than in university libraries.

His 90-minute lectures at Harvard offer amiable, free-flowing life advice and are (the ones I have heard, at least) almost devoid of academic content. Students attend three hours a week and turn in e-mailed responses which may require them, for example, to describe the relationship of a couple they admire. These are not graded; to file a response is to pass - which is, of course, one simple way to make students happy.

Yet criticism, even from Ivy League professors, is muted, perhaps because Ben-Shahar is riding a wave of enthusiasm in the US for the new "science" of happiness. Similar courses are already on offer at universities across the country, tapping into a collective anxiety that the richest, most powerful country in the world may have got it wrong.

As its citizens have become richer, they appear to have become more miserable. Thus, the one thing everyone - including students - appears prepared to spend money on is the one thing it famously can't buy.

As so often, what happens noisily across the Atlantic is about to be played out in a quieter way here. British academics, such as the London School of Economics's Professor Lord Layard, who has been a senior government adviser on employment and equality, have for some time been suggesting that a key goal of government should be to concentrate on increasing happiness rather than incomes. In the excellent television series Making Slough Happy, the New Statesman contributor Richard Reeves accosted MPs outside Westminster, urging them to press Gordon Brown to promote national happiness rather than national wealth.

There are signs that it could be happening. After Brown's latest Budget there was a barely remarked on appointment to the Bank of England's monetary policy committee, the team of hard-headed economists who determine the interest rate and, therefore, the fortunes of us all. The new man, Professor David Blanchflower, a Briton teaching in the US, is a pioneer of happiness economics and what Lord Layard calls "the new science of happiness".

Blanchflower made headlines in 2004 when he put an economic value on having sex once a week rather than once a month ($50,000 a year, if you need to know). His purpose was to demonstrate that increasing material wealth seldom increases happiness as much as we expect. Beyond a certain income, better relationships, good health, absorbing work and more sex are far more likely to bring us happiness than a pay increase.

Back in Harvard, 856 students are testing that theory, pursuing happiness - declared by the founding fathers to be an inalienable right on equal terms with life and liberty. Will it work? Judge for yourself. Ben-Shahar's lectures, the intellectual buzz among the world's most privileged students, can be accessed at no cost on the Harvard website. Think of the joy that saving $40,000 might bring.