Book Review: Why Universities Should Seek Happiness and Contentment

Book Review: Why Universities Should Seek Happiness and Contentment, by Paul Gibbs

London: Bloomsbury, 2017; ebook, £87.48

Reviewed by Claire Skea, Leeds Trinity University | @ClaireSkea

Are ‘happiness’ and ‘contentment’ interchangeable terms? No, would be the firm response from Paul Gibbs. In this exciting contribution to the philosophy of higher education literature, Gibbs draws a sharp distinction between the short-term irruption and fluctuation of emotions, such as happiness, and a longer-term disposition or mood, i.e., contentment. In delineating these two concepts, Gibbs draws attention to the aims of HE and to the ways in which current discourses of student satisfaction do little more than perpetuate a consumerist worldview. Split into three parts, the book considers what it is we are talking about in using terms such as ‘happiness’, ‘satisfaction’, ‘contentment’, and ‘self-fulfilment’. It then moves on to discuss the policy background to student satisfaction and empirical student voice research. Then, in the final part, it explains how ‘contentment’ is a form of ontological education, elucidating what a ‘pedagogy of contentment’ would look like in practical terms (Gibbs, 2017, p. 167). Throughout the book, Gibbs clearly and concisely responds to its title Why Universities Should Seek Happiness and Contentment; in arguing for contentment as an important aim of higher education, the distinction made between ‘happiness’ and ‘contentment’ helpfully moves these concepts away from their ‘enframing’ in purely consumerist and technological terms (p. 171). 

A major triumph of the book is its structure. The three parts work well together, providing a historic overview of different approaches to happiness (from such disparate thinkers as Augustine, Aristotle, Locke, Kant, and Rousseau) in Part One, ‘What are we talking about?’, and attending to the current policy context of student satisfaction in HE in Part Two, ‘Voices of Happiness, Satisfaction or Contentment’. In Part Three, ‘Happiness and the Disposition of Contentment’, attention is given to the opposite of happiness and contentment, anxiety and despair, before explicating the practical implications of a ‘pedagogy of contentment’. The book gives a substantive overview of the current literature, introducing readers to a range of ‘happiness’ measurement scales, and charting the rise of a ‘language of happiness’ in HE through the replacement of a discourse of contentment and flourishing, with a discourse of market effectiveness. After clearly presenting the historical and political background to the rise of student satisfaction and happiness in the HE sector, Gibbs then highlights the edifying potential of a ‘pedagogy of contentment’ informed by the works of Martin Heidegger (p. 167). What it means for Higher education to be an edifying experience is clarified in the discussion of what an educated person should be able to do, where Gibbs is sympathetic to Martha Nussbaum’s ‘capability’ approach; here, an educated person is one who is capable of living a truly human life. This not only necessitates freedom, but also could be seen as a prerequisite for being able to take a stance on one’s own being. The sort of edifying experience that Gibbs advocates is captured in his ‘pedagogy of contentment’, which is delineated in Part Three of the book. 

The book is aligned with that of Paul Smeyers et al. (2006), The Therapy of Education, in its disparaging of ‘positive psychology’ and therapeutic conceptions of ‘happiness’. Gibbs also points to a fundamental issue with using measures of ‘happiness’ as a proxy indicator of economic prosperity or a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP):it assumes there is one conception of happiness that is globally commensurable, thus blurring any distinctions between ‘happiness’, ‘well-being’, and ‘contentment’.  The central distinction that permeates the book, between episodic happiness on the one hand, and contentment as a fundamental attunement of one’s being on the other, makes a significant contribution to current criticisms of the student satisfaction agenda in higher education. By focusing on contentment as the comportment of one’s being in the world, Gibbs argues for the importance of ‘happiness’ in universities’ missions, whereby ‘happiness’ transcends mere hedonic desire satisfaction. The book emphasises that ‘happiness’ (and associated concepts such as ‘well-being’ and ‘flourishing’) is to be distinguished from ‘contentment’ as ultimately ‘conflation breeds confusion’ (p. 84).

Particularly troublesome for the HE sector is that ‘happiness’ is often reduced to, and seen as interchangeable with, ‘satisfaction’. But as Dean and Gibbs (2015) highlight, ‘satisfied’ students differ from ‘happy’ students in terms of their perceived loci of control and motivation for engagement in HE. Student satisfaction is often more instrumental in nature and, hence, the ‘satisfaction’ is based upon external rewards such as the prospect of graduate employability. Student happiness, however, can be considered as a ‘happiness derived from engagement in an edifying experience’ (p. 85).

As Gibbs argues, the current focus on student satisfaction merely reinforces consumerist discourses in the HE sector, and this is to the detriment of its edifying mission. Aiming to satisfy students is a very different goal from that of developing students into critically thinking, responsible citizens. The current emphasis placed on student satisfaction by the UK government seeking to put Students at the Heart of the System (BIS, 2011) exemplifies the rather insidious move in the HE sector from institutional autonomy to a kind of market-based accountability, and this has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the rise in tuition fees since 2012. The ‘happiness’ implied in student satisfaction is of the short-term, episodic kind, in contrast to a disposition towards contentment. In chapter eight (see table 8.1, p. 127), Gibbs adds to his earlier distinction between happiness and contentment by highlighting how different forms of happiness occur in relation to time; directed happiness, ‘whatever’ happiness, and contentment (or profound happiness). 

Directed happiness is that which is directed towards particular events, experienced as irruptions of joy or bliss, and is confined to ordinary, datable time. ‘Whatever’ happiness is seen as more of a disposition; it is not a response to particular events but is a linear accumulation of happiness over time (world time). Contentment, on the other hand, is more of an existential happiness with one’s being that is contingent upon originary (or primordial) time. Higher education and the policy directives that emphasise student satisfaction are currently focused on providing directed happiness. If students’ expectations are met then they will likely experience emotions such as joy; however, such happiness is restricted to a form of consumer satisfaction. Students are increasingly repositioned as ‘customers’ and ‘consumers’ under marketisation pressures (Bay and Daniel, 2001; Beecham, 2009), and if universities are obliged to meet their expectations, then this merely reinforces the commodification of HE, whereby education is a ‘service’ one pays for and evaluates like any other. Meeting student expectations in this way – that is, by providing a ‘pleasurable and measurable’ experience (Roberts, 2013) – also structures higher education in terms of processes of production and consumption.

The current context of UK HE may also provide students with a ‘whatever’ happiness, a feeling of happiness that is not linked to particular events or encounters but pervades the experience as a whole. While this is seemingly less instrumental than directed happiness, Heidegger does describe this as a ‘being held in limbo’, where one’s being is still covered over (1995, p. 122). It is only in gaining a sense of profound happiness or contentment that one realises what their being consists in, and what its capabilities are for directed future action. This form of happiness is not directed towards particular events and, in this sense, is not necessarily a ‘now’ happiness but a ‘future’ happiness that one is working towards, in directing one’s life towards particular goals. A potential issue with this discussion is that it seems to depend on a reader’s previous knowledge of Heidegger’s works, and particularly the structure of temporality evinced in his seminal work Being and Time. While Gibbs does clearly describe these different modes of happiness, and displays their features in a tabular format, I still felt that without being acquainted with central concepts in Heidegger’s philosophy, some readers may struggle to see how these three types of happiness are different. The central distinction of the book, between happiness and contentment, also rests on an understanding of how Heideggerian ‘moods’ differ from ‘dispositions’ or ‘attunements’ towards the world, again demanding a certain grasp of Being and Time

Contentment is made manifest in one’s actions, in being able to take a stance on one’s own being rather than being determined by the opinions of others. As Gibbs explains:

This mood of contentment is neither a state of rest nor anxiety. It is a state of flow, of an emotional underpinning of being that seeks change in one’s personal notion of being, with ebbs and flows of intensity responding to reflection and reaction … It is how we are in the world and how we feel about realising our potential to be (pp. 114-115).

A central tenet of Gibbs’ argument here is that contentment should be an aim of higher education; the current emphasis on directed happiness and satisfaction is not problematic in itself, but it can hinder universities’ edifying mission when consumerism dominates over other aims. Educational consumerism not only conflates ‘happiness’ with the short-term meeting of needs, thus reinforcing a kind of consumer anxiety that one must always own and consume more things, but also it removes any unsettlement and unhappiness from the agenda. But rather than quashing all negative emotions, Higher education has a responsibility to engender critical thinking and this may involve reflecting on one’s own being – being able to take a stance on where one is currently and what one wills themselves to become. It is this sort of ontological reflection that should arguably be part of HE’s edifying aim.

The book provides not only conceptual analysis, however. In Part Two of the book, Gibbs draws on empirical research conducted with students to explore whether satisfaction and/or happiness is considered important to the student experience (Gibbs and Dean, 2014; Dean and Gibbs, 2015). Surprisingly, students explained their future aspirations and decision to attend university in relation to happiness, with ‘happiness’ referring to ‘helping others’, ‘contributing to society’ and ‘doing something I love’ in addition to an increased salary (Gibbs, 2017, p. 98). Thus, consumerist concerns were not as entrenched as the policy landscape would have universities believe. Going to university has always been associated with higher earnings over one’s lifetime, but crucially this did not predetermine students’ aspirations.

Contentment may also be viewed as the opposite of despair, or as an absence of anxiety. Drawing on the works of Leibniz, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard, Gibbs emphasises that happiness and contentment must be considered in relation to their antithetical concepts of unhappiness, despair, and anxiety. While being critical of the idea that happiness occurs when one is not sad or anxious – a negation account of happiness – Gibbs discusses these different approaches as a way of demarcating his conception of contentment from them. According to Schopenhauer, the world is full of despair and any happiness we experience is the temporary removal of some pain or want; on this account, we cannot find true, persisting happiness as the striving of the will is often misguided and irrational. The notion of contentment (as opposed to mere ‘happiness’) allows for one to be unsettled and even unhappy as one strives toward a greater knowledge of their own being, and here the ‘striving of the will’ is guided by ontological, rather than consumerist, concerns. What Gibbs refers to in his other works as ‘profound happiness’[1] could be considered characteristic of this mode of contentment as a disposition towards our being-in-the-world.

Bringing despair and contentment together often leads into a discussion of ‘resilience’, although attempts to inculcate resilience today are often tied in to a positive psychology approach. Contentment may include such factors as resilience and ‘mental toughness’, but it is not limited to these (p. 137). Another insightful aspect of the book is Gibbs’ drawing together Heideggerian concepts with those of Confucius in Part Three, in which learning is conceptualised as ‘an ontological self-cultivation’ (p. 155). As he argues, there is a ‘clear commonality of onto-epistemology’ (p. 157) between Heidegger’s work, Confucianism and self-cultivation (which is inextricably linked to universities’ aim of edification).  The Zhongyong is linked to Heidegger’s Conversation on a Country Path About Thinking (1966) as both advocate for, and exemplify the written embodiment of, meditative rather than calculative thinking. Both neo-Confucianism and Heidegger’s rethinking of self-cultivation as the uncovering of one’s being ‘place learning, and especially thought, at the centre of their way of becoming what one might’ (p. 166). As Gibbs argues, higher education has a responsibility for students’ being and becoming, but this should encompass more than the mere satisfaction of their short-term needs and wants.

Gibbs not only states that contentment should be an aim of higher education, but also he explores what a ‘pedagogy of contentment’ might look like in practical terms, drawing on Heidegger’s concept of ‘letting learn’ (1968, p. 15). Universities cannot guarantee that students will receive an ontological education that leads to contentment (this will depend on how they engage with ‘solicitations of the ontological’ (Thomson, 2001, p. 260) within the learning environment), but what these institutions can do is offer a privileged space for reflection and confrontation with one’s being. Working towards students’ contentment rather than mere episodic happiness will require a pedagogy that promotes ‘self-understanding’ in ontological terms, and ‘taking a stance’ on one’s being (Gibbs, 2017, pp. 175-176). In explicating what a ‘currere for contentment’ might entail, Gibbs highlights that a Socratic examination of one’s life should be central, while learning should be contextualised and put into practice where possible so that knowledge is not considered as a mere ‘thing’ to be consumed (p. 179).

The pedagogy of contentment proposed acknowledges the being of each student, which allows them to question curriculum content in line with personal values; the currere should be jointly negotiated by academics and students, and knowledge is to be seen as more than a mere commodity, but as contributing to students’ ‘contented becoming’ (p. 180). The aims of higher education could be restated as follows: 

The task for education, then, is twofold: to encourage the desire and passion to reveal one’s contentment with one’s being within the world as it is every day; and to provide the technical, moral and intellectual skills to make sense of this newness of being (p. 170).

This book makes a substantial contribution to the current empirical and philosophical literature not only by reframing what it means to be ‘happy’ and/or ‘content’ with one’s education in terms of self-cultivation rather than desire satisfaction, but also by elucidating what a pedagogy of contentment might involve. This can be seen as a manifesto for student contentment rather than satisfaction, which should resonate with all parties involved in the HE sector.



Bay, D., Daniel, H., (2001), ‘The Student Is Not the Customer—An Alternative Perspective’, Journal of Marketing for Higher education: Vol.11, No.1, pp.1-19.

Beecham, R., (2009), ‘Teaching Quality and Student Satisfaction: Nexus or Simulacrum?’, London Review of Education, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp.135 -146.

Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, BIS, (2011), Higher education: Students at the Heart of the System, [online], London: The Stationery Office, [Accessed 15/01/18].

Dean, A., and Gibbs, P., (2015), ‘Student satisfaction or happiness? A preliminary rethink of what is important in the student experience’, Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 5-19.

Gibbs, P., and Dean, A., (2014), ‘Troubling the Notion of Satisfied Students’, Higher education Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 4, pp.416-431.

Gibbs, P., (2017), Why Universities Should Seek Happiness and Contentment, London: Bloomsbury.

Heidegger, M., (1966), Discourse on Thinking, trans. J.M. Anderson and E. Freund, London: Harper Perennial.

Heidegger, M., (1968), What is Called Thinking?, trans. J.G. Gray, London: Harper Perennial.

Heidegger, M., (1995), The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, trans. W. McNeill and N. Walker, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Roberts, P., (2013), ‘Happiness, Despair and Education’, Studies in Philosophy and Education, Vol. 32, pp.463-475.

Smeyers, P., Smith, R., and Standish, P., (2006), The Therapy of Education: Philosophy, Happiness and Personal Growth, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] ‘Profound happiness’ is defined as a ‘contentment in becoming what one wills one’s being to be, in the knowledge of one’s capabilities’ (Gibbs, 2015, p. 56).


Read an interview with the author, Paul Gibbs, here.