Why we Need More Happiness in Education

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Anne Nicholls looks at the value of happiness education following the International Day of Happiness on 20th March. 

At the time it sounded a bit loopy – a blend of Californian psychobabble and the Teletubbies on speed. So, when former headmaster Sir Anthony Seldon introduced happiness classes at Wellington College back in 2006 eyebrows were raised.

How attitudes have changed. What seemed weird and whacky then is being taken seriously. Wellbeing and mental health are now regarded as top priority from politicians to pedagogues, with endorsement from the royals. A major cause of this shift is the alarming rise in the numbers of students from schools, colleges and universities who are suffering from mental breakdown, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and much more. Cases of mental health amongst children and young people were already increasing at an alarming rate before the start of lockdown last year. Since then they have risen further, as students have become isolated from face-to-face contact with teachers and friends.

In an Observer article in February 2021 charities, paediatricians and psychologists reported a 70 per cent increase in demand for mental health services from school children compared to the same three months in the previous year, warning of another likely surge at the end of lockdown. Colleges and universities show a similar pattern. Even before lockdown they were experiencing a huge rise in the number of students requiring help with mental health conditions, amidst long waiting lists for counselling.

Some universities have come up with imaginative solutions. Pet therapy is being used at the University of Surrey to help stressed students in the run up to exams, St Andrews University offers students a free personal coach to help deal with pressure and the University of Bolton offers cognitive behavioural psychotherapy, provided by their postgraduate students. The University of Bristol has become the first university in the country to create a 12-week  ‘Science of Happiness’ course that draws on the latest research in psychology and neuroscience to teach what happiness is and how to achieve it.

There is evidence that happiness can be taught or learned, according to psychologists and neuroscientists. Research shows that an eight week mindfulness meditation class, for instance, can lead to structural brain changes in the areas associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism have known this for centuries, so it is surprising that this approach has taken so long to gain credence in the West.

The Nordic countries, however, appreciate the benefits of social emotional learning. It’s no accident that Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland usually appear in the top ten happiest countries in the world, according to the World Happiness Report. These countries also place a big emphasis on teacher-based assessment, developing self-knowledge and positive social relationships in their approach to education.

Up to now the main focus in UK education has been on preparing young people for the world of work. Many schools, colleges and universities value academic achievement over students’ mental health and wellbeing. This is reflected not only in the way students are taught, but also how they are assessed. The pressure of a system that values league tables and exam success leaves little time for “frills” such as happiness education.

When education returns to some form of normality we will need a radical rethink about the curriculum, how we teach and the purpose of education. Helping children and young people (and adult learners as well) to lead happy and fulfilling lives is something that should be at the core of our education system. It’s worrying that, a 2020 report from The Children’s Society says: “Children’s happiness with life has been in decline for most of the last decade and this year is no exception. Worries about relationships with friends, appearance and school seem to be key factors. Even before the pandemic, 15 year olds in the UK were among the saddest and least satisfied with their lives in Europe. It is time to listen to what young people need.”

We need to tackle the roots of unhappiness and anxiety. Classes in happiness cannot alone provide solutions for students sitting isolated in student accommodation learning online with little contact with others, worrying about mounting debts and exam stresses. Nor can they help children from poor families learning from home without internet access, laptops or a space to work without distractions. Schools, colleges and universities need to take a step back and examine their approach to education and whether they are equipping children and young people (and adult learners as well) with the tools to cope with a challenging and constantly changing world. Good schools focus on educating ‘the whole person’ and provide excellent pastoral care, but many struggle to provide that support despite best efforts. Students in universities and colleges have access to counselling but services are hugely oversubscribed at the moment, leaving many students having to cope alone.

Perhaps it’s time for a rethink. Expanding mental health services and counselling is important, but essentially a ‘sticking plaster’ approach, dealing with problems when they become acute. What’s needed is a culture change so that teachers are given the skills and space to provide emotional support for students. Classes in happiness are not a hippy dippy optional extra. They need to be taken seriously.

 The International Day of Happiness (20 March) is a global celebration coordinated by Action for Happiness, a non-profit movement of people from 160 countries.

Anthony Seldon’s book Beyond Happiness has eight steps people can follow to achieve a life of joy.

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