Should we be teaching children about happiness in schools?

The National, 21.12.15, HMC member Mike Lambert, headmaster of leading independent Dubai College writes on teaching happiness in schools.

In recent times, Anthony Seldon, the former headmaster of Wellington College in the UK, has become the most high profile advocate of happiness in schools. Now the happiness agenda has really begun to take root in schools and educational authorities the world over, even extending as far as the KHDA in Dubai.

Inspired by the work of American psychologist Martin Seligman, Dr Seldon introduced what were dubbed “happiness classes” at Wellington. Since then, lessons in mindfulness meditation, for example, have taken root in even more schools worldwide in order to reduce pupils’ stress levels.

Tay Lai Hock’s Ground Up Initiative in Singapore has also pioneered the idea of a back to the land element to education, a wholesome attempt to reconnect human beings with the earth on which they depend for all life. Both of these initiatives plus many more can be a very good thing for education.

Unfortunately, the initiatives in and of themselves do not tell us why we should pursue happiness but only suggest how we can achieve some form of it. To most people it seems a self-evident truth that the pursuit of happiness is a human birthright. However, confusion and conflict arises when we actually try to settle on a definition of the word.

Much like people’s approach to Christmas there are two very different schools of thought on the matter. The first argues that happiness results from the pursuit of personal pleasure and the reduction of personal pain. This definition of happiness is ultimately bound up in our narcissistic and materialistic age of consumerism, in which self-satisfaction is seen as the ultimate prize. Advocates of this type of happiness are the Christmas shoppers as it were.

In a world experiencing enormous challenges, teaching our pupils to be happy can be something of a shallow ambition.

Yet, the mental and psychological health of every child is our primary concern as teachers and teaching pupils how to manage in this themselves should indeed be one of our objectives as educators.

A second school of thought, however, argues that a life lived in consideration of others is the only way to achieve true happiness, since happiness is actually a collective rather than an individual outcome. These are the people who traditionally campaign for shelter for the homeless during the biting winter months and work in soup kitchens on Christmas Eve. For these people, their privileged Christmas meal only tastes good if they know they have done something to help their fellow man.

Meditation and gardening in and of themselves can lead to both types of happiness, the personal self-satisfied kind, which leads to a reduction in pain and a sense of joy. They can also, when combined with the right kind of education and mindset, lead to the second kind of happiness: a bigger picture of collective well-being.

Plenty of recent research shows that those who meditate physically alter their brain. They grow their insula, the part of the brain associated with a sense of compassion, which helps them to acknowledge and empathise with the plight of their fellow man. Similarly the selfless kind of care and attention required to help life grow, whether in a vegetable patch or a community, also cultivates a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others.

So as we approach a newl year, we must remember it is not only the season to be jolly, but also to hope for peace on Earth and goodwill to all men. Today’s students need a double helix of happiness lessons, those that enable personal joy and but also those that engender a sense of collective social responsibility in our future generations.

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