Can happiness be taught?

Can happiness be taught?

In many different polls asking people what they want from life, the most frequent answer seems to be “to be happy”1 . However, this priority is not reflected in the current education we are giving to our children.

Prominent positive psychologist Martin Seligman was surprised at the discrepancy in the answers he received when he gave a quiz to thousands of parents with two simple questions2 : 1) in one or two words, what do you most want for your children? and 2) in one or two words, what do schools teach?

In the first question, the answers were like “Happiness,” “Confidence,” “Contentment,” “Fulfillment,” “Balance,” and the like – answers that all fall under the general realm of well-being. However the second question gave answers like “Achievement,” “Thinking skills,” “Success,” “Conformity,” “Literacy,” “Math,”  – all things oriented to succeeding in the workplace. What struck him – and me – was how little overlap between the two lists there were! But there is no reason why schools can’t aim towards teaching both at the same time – after all, personal well being has a well-documented positive effect on performance at work3 .

But what if my idea of happiness is different to what’s being taught?

The notion of happiness education naturally raises fears about some kind of uniform approach to happiness being taught in schools that will override the huge variety of cultural, spiritual or other convictions that different people hold. However there is a wide consensus that there is no one size fits all definition for happiness – indeed, personal perceptions of what constitutes well-being can vary even within small groups of people4 .

It seems that the key to happiness education in schools is not to fixate upon a particular definition of wellbeing, but rather develop a set of skills to help maintain a person’s well-being in the face of the many problems and pressures that children (and adults) face in daily life. It helps that there is an increasing body of research evidence for the health and emotional benefits of simple practises like stilling the mind, and practising conscious gratitude5 – many of which have been around in some form or another for thousands of years.

So how are happiness tools in education proceeding right now?

This is an area I am very interested in – but right from the start I will admit I don’t have a complete picture, which of course varies from region to region around the world. However looking at one story from my own country of Ireland, I think it does make for interesting reading.

For many years, any kind of happiness education in schools was limited to some alternative schools and individual approaches by educators. For example, one primary school teacher who attended some meditation courses which I taught with some friends on behalf of the Sri Chinmoy Centre, decided to set up some kind of practice for the students she was teaching. At the time she was teaching in an area where the average income was quite low relative to the rest of the country, and which had a good deal of tension between different cultural groups in the community. To start with, she originally set up a 10 minute practice in the morning – she would play some relaxing music, and do some exercises with stilling the mind by focusing on the breath. Of course, there is initially quite a bit of fidgeting by the children as they grew used to the practise, but within a couple of weeks it got to the stage where the children really values the practise, to the point of asking the teacher ‘where’s our quiet time’ if she forgot to start the day with it.

As months passed, she noticed a very tangible increase in ability to focus and stay still as well as an overall increase in harmony, not only in the class room but also when they went home to their families (this included children with troubled home situations). Indeed, some of her teaching colleagues were inspired to also include some ‘quiet time’ as part of their daily programme. (As a small aside – I visited that school in my capacity as one of the organisers of a worldwide peace relay called the Peace Run, and it seemed to me that in the whole school assembly her students seemed the easily the best behaved!)

However, now this teacher there is a more organised push for including some kind of schools, including conferences where she can learn more approaches to use in her classroom. In the year 2013 in Ireland alone, quite a few media articles have come out in the national press, interviewing a cross section of schools in middle class and working class areas and finding that they have a overwhelmingly positive experience with teaching meditation in schools6 . It seems that tools for wellbeing are still a little bit away from being added to the syllabus, but that the push for doing so is starting from the bottom up.

  1. see, for example, Snyder, 2010 []
  2. Seligman writes about this in Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being []
  3. e.g Baldassare, Rosenfeld, & Rook, 1984 []
  4. Craig, 2009 []
  5. e.g Emmons and McCullough 2003, Seligman et al. 2005 []
  6. e.g. the Irish Independenthttp://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/education/mind-over-matter-in-the-classroom-as-pupils-enjoy-benefits-of-meditation-29645366.html  and the Irish Examinerhttp://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/features/irish-students-are-loving-new-positive-ethos-244436.html  []
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