Mini-series: Better living through questionology?

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In this mental health and wellbeing mini-series post, Dr Neil Thin, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Science, proposes that happiness can be explored more deeply if we look to questionology – the study of asking…

“Am I happy?”, seems like an innocent and reasonable question to ask. Why, then, did John Stuart Mill, archdeacon of utilitarian philosophy and happiness scholarship, disapprove of it?

In general, self-questioning is believed to be both intellectually valuable and therapeutic. This University’s ‘wellbeing map’, which tries to promote healthy self-regulation among students, uses the strapline: ‘It’s time to think about your wellbeing’. Was Mill just making a point of logic? Since the question inevitably points to glaring gaps between desires and achievements, evidently it stokes a sense of dissatisfaction. So his point makes logical sense. Or was he making a more pragmatic or normative point about emotional hygiene? When you quiz yourself about your emotions, you’ll feel bad if you focus on your overall sense of happiness. Better, perhaps, to steer your thoughts more pragmatically towards specific ways of living better, than towards a black hole of emotional self-evaluation.

Or if Mill had used italics, could he have steered this towards a different, more sociological critique: Ask yourself whether you are happy, and…“? Perhaps the problem lies with unhealthy self-concern and inadequate interest in other people’s happiness? Ask not, what you can do for yourself, ask what you can do for someone else. Have you really considered the balance between self-concern and self-transcendence in your life? Is it possible that the current reports of epidemics of mental illness among young people might be a product of excessive self-absorption?

So although Mill sounds like a wisdom-bomb dropped from a pulpit onto his disciples, perhaps this quote went viral because it begs so many important questions that we are forced to treat it as a challenge. It makes us curious, forcing us to think along a variety of possible interpretations, each of which seems to have important implications for how we conduct our thoughts and our behaviour. Mill’s quote seems to be less of a statement than a disguised question about self-questioning.

Questionology, the study of asking, is arguably an under-explored area of interdisciplinary collective self-examination. Schools and universities are meant not just to inculcate knowledge. Through interactive learning, we are supposed to cultivate enquiring minds, so that our minds become sustained by long-term curiosities, and we develop a life-long thirst for enlightenment. We learn not just to become more knowledgeable and wiser, but also to feed, strengthen, and diversify our curiosity, and to share it with other people.

In academia, we must all work hard at becoming more intelligent and considerate questioners. Some disciplines – particularly philosophy, theology, psychotherapy, linguistics, and pedagogy – appear to have put in more sustained and systematic efforts in this regard than others. Some courses foster students’ ability to develop and share their own questions, whereas others emphasise learning how to answer questions rather than how to ask. But questionology also seems to offer important potential for linking the pursuit of knowledge with the pursuit of happiness, and linking interactive enquiries with self-reflection. Forms and habits of asking don’t just influence what we learn and how well we learn, they also shape who we are.

The abilities to develop interests, to sustain them through longterm enquiries, and to share those interests with other people, are among the most crucial life skills for happiness. Does anyone enjoy interacting with someone who isn’t interestingly curious about the world? But who hasn’t been driven mad by someone persistently asking too many questions that serve no collective purpose? Self-improvement starts with thinking up generative questions about what we want, why, and how we might get it. Ask these questions badly, or satisfy ourselves too quickly with unsuitable answers, and we risk self-harm. Ask them well, and you may strengthen your lifelong sense that the world – including the world of your own mind and other people’s minds – has valuable secrets that are endlessly fun to tease out.

Another common happiness quote (originator unknown) is that, “happiness is about the journey, not the destination“. More prosaically, mental wellbeing is about staying motivated, and sustaining a sense of momentum in your life. What better way to do this than to ask engaging questions – ones that set you up with a sense of purpose, and that hook other people into a shared pursuit of collaborative learning? Curious has two meanings: interested, and interesting. Stay curious, and it might help you stay happy.

Neil Thin

Neil Thin is a Senior Lecturer in Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. He specialises in crossdisciplinary happiness research, and in ‘appreciative and aspirational social planning’, i.e. engaging multidisciplinary happiness and wellbeing scholarship in public policy and practice. His recent happiness promotion work has included partnerships with the Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament, Government of Bhutan, and United Nations International Expert Panel on Happiness and Development.

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