Can happiness be taught?

This is an excerpt of an article that was originally published in the July 2011 print edition of Teacher.

As teachers and school leaders we’re not often afforded the luxury of time to consider the bigger picture about what we are all trying to achieve – we have classes to teach, budgets to organise, parents, staff and students to meet.

It’s vital to actively promote student wellbeing for a number of reasons, despite the complexities involved. At the core of this argument is the notion that developing a holistic approach, where due regard is given to student wellbeing, should become a key aim.

Can happiness be taught? Probably not, just in the same way as it cannot be bottled or demonstrated on a spreadsheet. It seems to me, however, that it’s possible to recognise three scientifically credible constituents of happiness that can be shared in classes.

The first route to greater happiness is hedonic, increasing positive emotion.

Within limits, we can increase our positive emotion about the past, for example by cultivating gratitude and forgiveness, our positive emotion about the present, for example by savouring and mindfulness, and our positive emotion about the future, for example by building hope and optimism.

A second route to happiness involves the pursuit of ‘gratification.’

The key characteristic of a gratification is that it engages us fully. Although there are shortcuts to pleasures, no shortcuts exist to gratification. Martin Seligman, former Chair of the American Psychological Association, argues that the pursuit of gratifications requires us to draw on character strengths such as creativity, social intelligence, sense of humour, perseverance, and an appreciation of beauty and excellence.

A third route to happiness comes from using individual strengths to belong to and in the service of something larger than ourselves; something such as knowledge, goodness, family, community, politics, justice or a higher spiritual power.

The third route gives life meaning. This certainly chimes with our current fascination in the UK with the notion of citizens contributing to a ‘big society.’

The role of schools in the promotion of happiness

If happiness cannot be taught I suggest that it might certainly be feasible to provide students with the necessary skills with which to nurture happiness themselves. Simply described, schools have a twofold role in the promotion of happiness.

Firstly, the school itself must be a happy place to be. The basic needs of the students need to be met, the curriculums – formal, informal and hidden – must enable students to discover and develop their physical, intellectual and social strengths and abilities, and above all the school must create the conditions for excellence and allow its students to discover a sense of meaning and purpose that will carry them well beyond the school gates. This might be termed ‘education as happiness.’

Secondly, schools should give explicit guidance to their students on how happiness might be achieved in life and not just assume that happiness will result from the ordinary activities of school life; this might be termed ‘educating for happiness.’ It is this second suggested role that is controversial and that has attracted a great deal of media attention in recent times.

Wellington College in the UK is leading the way in this respect. I researched Wellington’s program thoroughly through a five-year longitudinal study. The school’s work has been informed by a positive psychological approach, espoused by Martin Seligman, Daniel Goleman, Richard Layard and more indirectly Howard Gardner. Wellington’s wellbeing course is divided into six areas. Students learn:

  • How to improve the way their mind works through the way they manage their bodies;
  • How to manage their subconscious mind and be aware of how it can influence the conscious mind;
  • How simply being out in the natural world can increase their wellbeing;
  • That it’s not good to immerse themselves in the fantasy world of television and video games;
  • How to resolve conflict with others; and
  • The benefits of stillness and mindfulness meditation.

The lessons take place once a fortnight and last for 40 minutes. Students who took part in a study I conducted in 2010 reported:

‘When the school’s wellbeing campaign launched, we were all a bit sceptical. We thought the new master was just doing it to look good. Happiness lessons seemed an unlikely proposition. How could we be taught to be happy? We had already sat through PSHE (personal social and health education) and citizenship. We had this vision of getting a D mark for being gloomy or the occasional pubescent mood swing.

‘But our happiness lessons are actually wellbeing lessons. That is an important distinction. Because you can’t teach someone to be happy, you can only teach them to pretend to be happy. And if they are only pretending to be happy, that is no use to anyone. What the school is trying to do is give us some sort of basis, so that when we have a time of sadness or grief, we can deal with it constructively rather than turn to false comforts of drugs and alcohol.

‘It is easy to get trapped in unhealthy relationships. What enables you to step out of them is your own self-worth and individuality.

‘There is also a much more practical aspect. I know a lot of people use meditation to help them go to sleep. Small things like that can make a big difference to your day. An extra [hour of] sleep can really impact on your learning.’

Students comment on the unique, useful and enjoyable nature of the wellbeing lessons, with 88 per cent indicating that they highly enjoy their wellbeing lessons and look forward to them; 85 per cent strongly agreeing that the lessons have meaningful content and are very worthwhile; 68 per cent stating that the lessons help them to become resilient and challenge negative thoughts; 72 per cent reporting that the lessons encourage them to become calmer in their thinking and more thoughtful and understanding; and 66 per cent reporting that the lessons help them change their behaviour for the better and to recognise their individual strengths.

Relationships matter

A key finding of my study is that relationships matter a great deal. The centrality of teacher-student relationships in the everyday experience of schooling is underdeveloped.

While it may seem more powerful to devise a program of activities, it’s the everyday and pervasive power of relationships that affect learning, social development and mental health. Reforming the curriculum is not sufficient: it will need a skilled and empathetic workforce to deliver such a program.

The challenge for teachers and school leaders is to ensure that this vitally important aspect of school life does not become implicit or hidden at a time when the main pressure is on assessment or a school’s position on league tables. This will require a new sense of conviction and a new style of courage on the part of teachers and school leaders, particularly as school leaders decide on priorities and then decide what is really worth fighting for.

What’s clear is that the wellbeing of students is a long-term project that is vital to improving attainment. The expectations of students as well as families and employers have to be addressed. This requires a new way of looking at how teachers and school leaders work as they attempt to follow their best instincts.

This is an excerpt of an article that was originally published in the July 2011 print edition of Teacher. The author biography remains unchanged and may not be accurate at this point in time.