Education’s Dysfunctional Relationship with Happiness

If you asked parents “What is it that you want for your kids?” You’d have an overwhelmingly common response of: “I just want them to be happy?” While they may add other things like health, a job they love and good relationships, happiness would top that list and likely cover all those other things as well. So if happiness is what most parents want for their kids, why are schools so afraid to use the word or actually teach happiness?

Certainly there is a legacy that still believes that happiness, fun, play and joy are not compatible with all mighty goal of academic rigour. While most educators may not be this explicit in stating this, it remains an unspoken belief. Whenever children are laughing, having fun, playing its often seen as “childish”. We might tolerate it but we also might be quick to transition to more serious work. While I’m generalizing here, my guess is that you can place this in a specific context in your world. As Jal Mehta says:

People have a lot of false dichotomies in their heads, like either they learn the content or it will be fun and interesting.

The good news is I think we’re getting better at this. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is now a standard for most institutes and while its implementation and focus vary greatly, at the very least it’s a placeholder to better address what we may have been missing and in many cases, what students need most.

But even as we dive deeper I want to encourage us not to be afraid to use words like happy, fun, play and perhaps my favourite, joy. I recall a specific incident in my time as a district leader where I wanted to use the word “play” in one of our technology documents, essentially having “play” as a goal. It was not well received as play was considered anti-intellectual. There seems to be a long history of pushback against words and ideas that weren’t built around some form of rigour. In addition, like other social and emotional skills, these were mostly seen as a family duty. Schools teach academic content and skills, that’s it. It’s interesting to see the happiness movement take route in higher education. The most popular class at Yale is on the Science of Happiness. Dr. Laurie Santos has been doing outstanding work in making these ideas accessible to all through her free course and podcast.

Don’t you find it a bit odd that we are now teaching happiness? Thinking back to the idea of academic rigour, how in the world does this fit in? Some may argue it doesn’t but the simple addition of the science indeed help it meet those standards. Teaching kids to understand and be happy may be the important thing we do. Currently, this is a value add for schools and classrooms. Many teachers have in the past and currently believed joy, play and happiness should be embedded into the learning but maybe we need to go beyond that. Maybe we should be examining the science behind gratitude and other concepts. As adults, most of us are just learning the reasons why being grateful has such a huge impact on our well-being. Certainly, parents and teachers alike want their students to be grateful but in the same way, kids since time and memorial have asked the question, “why do I need to learn this?” might be asking the same thing about things like gratitude. I think most of us are guilty of sprinkling our students with doses of happiness and joy and hoping it has a lasting impact and in some cases, that might work. However, I think we can do better. Ever heard a high school teacher complain about why students didn’t learn x or y in middle school and that now they have to go back and teach something they believed they should have already learned? Perhaps that’s what Yale and other universities are wondering about happiness. Maybe that’s the catalyst for K-12 to get more serious about happiness?

Photo by Ewan Mcintosh