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How do we ensure the happiness of the next generation through education?

Tech in education supporting actor, not leading role
Tech in education supporting actor, not leading role

Young people are struggling with the pressures of life and between 10%-20% of them are likely to experience mental health problems as a result.

Half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14, and three-quarters by mid-20s, according to a World Health Organization report.

And, if untreated, these conditions can adversely influence a child’s development, education and potential to live a fulfilling and productive life.

But, against this bleak background, mounting evidence shows positive education – which blends schooling with wellbeing – may help to improve children’s view of the world and themselves.

You can teach wellbeing

Schools have a critical role to play here as children from four to 18 spend most of their time in them, according to Lea Waters, president of the International Positive Psychology Association.

She told the 2018 World Government Summit in Dubai that schools that ran wellbeing programmes could successfully improve the mental health of their students.

But this is also the time when our brains have the most ability to change and develop, known as neuroplasticity. The two key periods for this development are from birth to six and from 12 to 26.

“Teenage years are the years when we are most likely to suffer mental disorder,” Waters said.

She added these are also the periods when the brain is the most receptive. “It’s the perfect time to set up a brain that is mentally healthy,” she said.

This makes the teenage years a critical period for the teaching of wellbeing. “It takes the same mental processes to learn maths or geography that it does to learn about mental health,” she added. 

This is why many schools are now teaching wellbeing.

“When students are taught skills for resilience, their mental health is better,” said Waters. “The proof is in the pudding. Over 300 scientific studies show us we can teach wellbeing.”

The happiest days of their lives?

Waters’ view was backed at the Summit by Hollywood star Goldie Hawn.

Fifteen years ago, the actor and producer established the MindUp! programme, a curriculum that uses the latest information about the brain to improve student behaviour and learning.

Hawn asked experts from different aspects of wellbeing – gratitude, empathy building, meditation and mindfulness – to design a curriculum for schools.

MindUp! takes a biological approach to resilience by teaching children about the inner workings of the brain. Hawn said: “Children learn how a muscle works but not how the brain does.

“Children that have undertaken the learning programme now understand what’s going on in their brain.

“When they’re scared or fearful, or sad or angry – and a lot of them are angry – they now know that it’s is their amygdala system that is at fault, the part of the brain that releases stress hormones. We call this the “barking dog” – they know how to calm it down through a specific type of breathing.

“When they calm the barking dog, their prefrontal cortex lights up, what we call the “wise old owl”, the bit that makes better decisions.”

“The results speak for themselves; 83% of our children were able to make themselves happier. “There is more empathy in our classroom than ever before,” said Hawn. 

Financing wellbeing

But convincing governments to invest in this type of education can be tricky.

Many would argue that making children happy is reason enough, but ministers must justify their budgets with results. The recently launched Global Happiness Policy Report 2018 is a tool for governments that helps to do just that.

Among the studies outlined in the report were three that showed positive intervention can raise attainment as well as happiness levels.

Alejandro Adler, a doctor at the Positive Psychology Center in the University of Pennsylvania, undertook studies in Bhutan, Mexico and Peru. He provided positive intervention training to teachers there and returned two years later to find out what the impact on happiness and national standardized exams had been.

“Happiness went up in schools where happiness was taught. Schools in which children learn wellbeing have markedly higher literacy, numeracy and scientific understanding,” said Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center, who presented Adler’s findings at the Summit.

“That’s the most convincing evidence I’ve seen that it’s not only an intrinsically good thing, but even if all you care about is grade point average, you should do it.”

Critical measurements

Seligman said we need to have scientific measurements of the results of these interventions before governments will buy into them.

“We need to measure the fidelity of interventions; are we doing it well? We need a cost-benefit analysis to show how much it costs and what the long-term financial benefits are, and finally we need to do this over a long period of time and in different cultures.

He added: “Everyone wants to make children happy. Well, it turns out there are validated techniques that raise the happiness and the meaning they have in life.

“We have a case for happiness and achievement. This is a beacon of hope for the future of our young people.”