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Recently, the Peer Support Australia Education Team attended the 11th Happiness & Its Causes Conference to explore the science of happiness and learn about strategies that enhance wellbeing and optimise performance. There were over 60 speakers ranging from neuroscientists to humanitarians, with even the Dalai Lama making a video appearance. Some common themes were the importance of kindness and compassion, the human potential and capacity for transformation, and the need to rethink the ways in which we address mental health and move from a deficit to strengths-based approach.
The benefits of practising gratitude and mindfulness meditation were well documented by a number of speakers who presented their research findings and personal stories to demonstrate that simple strategies can, and do, work. Interestingly, many of those who have spent years researching happiness and the techniques that lead to a more rewarding life admitted that they too struggle at times to maintain these techniques in the long term. It appears that achieving and maintaining happiness for most of us is a work in progress that requires time, attention and dedication for long lasting results. Taking this into account, the need for these techniques to be introduced early on into the lives of our children and young people becomes apparent, as this can assist them to form lifelong habits that are embedded into everyday practice. Equipping the next generation with skills in emotion regulation and allowing them to practice these regularly appears to be key to assisting them to flourish, both in the school environment and the world at large – and hopefully grow to become better adjusted, more self-aware and happier adults.
The talks in the Happiness and Learning stream confirmed that there is an increasing number of schools that are using Positive Psychology Interventions (PPI’s) as a means of increasing the wellbeing of their students and enacting the strengths-based approach of the new curriculum. The Positive Psychology movement, initiated by Dr Martin Seligman almost two decades ago, is based on the notion that in order to address mental health we must focus on strengths and positive emotions as well as the effects of adversity and negative emotions1, and is increasingly being used as a framework for the development of wellbeing programs for children and young people in educational settings.
Why is feeling positive important for learning?
There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that positive mind states such as happiness, lead to better academic performance. This was the case in a recent study conducted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and The Centre for Transformative Teaching and Learning, whose findings demonstrated a statistically significant correlation between happiness and students’ academic achievement2. Speakers echoed these findings, such as Dr Suzy Green who spoke about how positive mood states not only increase feelings of hope but also students’ capacity for goal attainment. Dr Kerry Howells emphasised the importance of gratitude for education and her research demonstrating appreciation as the most optimal state of mind for high cognition.
The application of Positive Psychology to educational contexts sees schools moving beyond the sole focus on academic achievement to include the development of social and emotional skills and practices that cultivate positive feelings, behaviours and emotions3 and is based on the understanding that these are not mutually exclusive, but rather, complementary. It is evident that there has been a paradigm shift in the ways in which we view education and that we are steering in the right direction, but there is still work to do in moving from theory to sustainable practice.
Dr Paula Robinson spoke about her work with schools to improve their wellbeing literacy. She made a clear point that in order to create successful and sustainable wellbeing programs, schools must use the research and existing models to design their own evidence-based, school specific model, take a whole of school approach, and have a clear long term plan well before they implement. The results of her collaboration with schools such as Knox Grammar reveal that partnerships between schools and experts in the field of positive psychology can yield impressive results, but that more needs to be done to assist all schools, regardless of their financial capacity, to develop these. Wellbeing addressed through a whole school framework rather than isolated programs, can shift culture and create measurable improvements.
Implications for teachers
A number of speakers suggested that if we as educators want to assist our students to achieve wellbeing we must begin by looking at our own levels of happiness and satisfaction and address these honestly. We often fail to recognise that how we feel has an impact on the way we teach. Teachers have a powerful influence over student achievement and are significant role models for our young people4. Despite this, Speaker Dr William DeJean makes a valid assertion that teachers are given far fewer opportunities to engage in meaningful personal and professional development and leadership training that can empower positive change than their corporate counterparts. He suggests that teachers must be given the time and opportunity to understand wellbeing for themselves first before they can enable meaningful change in the wellbeing of their students. Indeed this is an area that needs more attention and resources if we want to see real change.
For now, educators can start by focusing on the simple things they can do to improve their happiness and wellbeing on a daily basis using the strategies presented such as daily kindness and gratitude practice and taking time to reduce their stress levels through techniques like mindfulness, and trust that their example, no matter how small, is a powerful agent for change in their students.
The way forward…
Happiness need not be a seemingly elusive and subjective construct. The insights from this conference for me personally are that we can use scientific evidence to cultivate happiness but that this is an ongoing and individual process that takes conscious effort and dedication. The sooner we begin to teach these techniques to young people, the better able they will be to create habits that can lead to a happy life. Schools are getting much better at recognising their role in the development of the whole individual and how they can equip students for the future but must ensure they also recognise and support the role of teachers in this process. As a society, we are getting better at understanding that happiness is critical to success and developing ourselves to reach our highest potential. The results will hopefully benefit generations to come and lead the way for an unprecedented evolution in human consciousness. For now, we can start by something as simple as giving thanks regularly, being kind to ourselves and others, and taking time to be in the present moment on a daily basis. In the words of the Dalai Lama, ‘there’s hope for a better future for us all”.
-Candela Alvaez, Peer Support Australia Wellbeing Education Consultant
1 Seligman, Martin E. P.; Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, Vol 55(1), 5-14. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.5
2 Schiller, L. & Hinton, C. (2015). It’s true: happier students get higher grades. The Conversation July 30, 2015, Retrieved on 07/07/17 from http://theconversation.com/its-true-happier-students-get-higher-grades-41488?sa=pg1&sq=happier+students&sr=2
3 Waters, L. (2011). A review of school-based positive psychology interventions. The Australian Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 28(2), 75-90. (C) DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1375/aedp.28.2.75
4 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2005, Teachers Matter: Attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers, 6th ed, Paris, OECD Publishing cited in Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (ATSIL) – The crucial role of the teacher (2014) Retrieved on 07/07/17 from https://www.aitsl.edu.au/australian-professional-standards-for-teachers/standards/development/the-crucial-roles-of-the-teacher
Dr Suzy Green and Dr William DeJean – Happiness, Wellbeing and Learning: Not an either or proposition
Dr Kerry Howells – How your thanking awakens your thinking
Dr Paula Robinson and Matthew Cavallaro – Case Study: Total Fitness at Knox Grammar
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso – Universal Love and Compassion
Robinson, P. (2016) Practising Positive Education: A guide to improve wellbeing literacy in schools. Sydney: Positive Psychology Institute Pty Ltd.
Howells, K. (2013). Enhancing teacher relationships and effectiveness through the practice of gratitude. Teachers Matter, Vol. 23 pp. 58-59.