Curriculum - What makes a happy chappy

19th February 2010 at 00:00
Twenty two British state schools are piloting a US-inspired positive psychology programme which is claimed to improve the social and emotional wellbeing of pupils. But should 'the science of happiness' have a place in the classroom? Meabh Ritchie reports

Positive psychology, or the "science of happiness", is big business right now. While overall book sales in the UK fell last year, the mind-body-spirit sector, which is dominated by self-help books, bucked the trend, soaring by a staggering 25 per cent.

But quite apart from providing welcome fuel for the publishing industry, could positive psychology also have an impact in schools? Currently, 22 state schools are involved in a UK pilot of the Penn Resiliency Programme, devised in the US by happiness "guru" Professor Martin Seligman, best known for his belief that we can teach ourselves how to be happy.

Three years ago, a group of teachers from Adeyfield School in Hertfordshire went to Pennsylvania to see the programme in action and came back converted. Staff now receive training in its principles and teach wellbeing classes once a fortnight to Year 7s. Since the visit in 2007, the programme has become integral to the school's ethos.

Pat Camp, who teaches children's care, learning and development at the school, went on the course two years ago. "I was so impressed by (the training) that I applied to be a facilitator, and this year I'm going to be a trainer," she says. "It makes you, as a person, come to terms with things that you might not have dealt with and gave me different ways of looking at things. I think the adult skills are very powerful. It helps with everything you do in class, and you model that behaviour in front of the kids."

Kim Bristow, English and resilience teacher at Adeyfield, recalls that the initial media reports about the scheme were derogatory because of what she calls "the happiness label". But Schools Secretary Ed Balls has since given the go-ahead to designated wellbeing classes for pupils, while the UK resilience programme, now coming to the end of its third year pilot, has been embraced by the schools involved.

Teachers at Adeyfield have noticed a marked difference in their pupils. "Even forgetting their PE kit is a big deal for year 7s," says Ms Camp. "A lot of it is quite intimidating for them, so much of (the programme) is about helping them to identify their emotions, allowing them to talk about their feelings, and building their confidence so that they feel comfortable."

An evaluation of the first year of the UK programme by the London School of Economics found that it had a significant positive impact on the 11 to 13-year-olds who took part, and they are less likely than their peers to suffer from depression and anxiety. Adeyfield sets aside an hour every two weeks for resilience training, but this is only one part of a whole-school Seal (social and emotional aspects of learning) strategy. It also held an anti-bullying day this term, and the skills learnt in resilience training are encouraged in all aspects of school life.

Since the implementation of Every Child Matters in 2007, schools have a duty to promote their pupils' wellbeing. But the way this is done is left to the individual school. Some opt to provide dedicated wellbeing or Seal lessons dealing with specific social and emotional skills, while others encourage pupils to take part in extra-curricular lessons to try to develop so-called soft skills without the pressures of academic assessment.

But should it really be the job of teachers to educate pupils in how to be happy? Dr Judith Suissa, an educational philosopher at London University's Institute of Education, has voiced her concerns about bringing positive psychology into the classroom. Her chapter in the book, New Philosophies of Learning, acknowledges that there is much to be gleaned from the quantitative results of research into happiness - for example, that once a certain level of comfort is reached, increasing the amount of money people have does not increase their happiness.

"But it becomes very problematic when you translate that into education," she says, "because you can't make any nominative conclusions about how individuals should live their lives based on those correlations."

Even defining happiness is something philosophers have wrestled with for centuries, and the idea that we can teach children how to be happy is presumptuous and dictatorial, says Dr Suissa. She also takes issue with the way positive psychology shifts the emphasis from the social, objective causes of problems on to the individual.

"Kids come to school and they might be miserable, and sometimes that's because of really objective factors like not having enough to eat, or not having adequate housing," she says. "To say that it's all a question of attitude and learning to think positively and to do a bit more meditation, seems to me, politically, really worrying. It's part of a broader political problem of shifting emphasis on to individuals and away from social solutions."

John Lloyd, policy adviser for the PSHE Association, is also sceptical about the benefits of happiness lessons. "I am not convinced that happiness can be taught, as happiness is an emotional response to stimuli," he says. "Happiness ... results from being physically, mentally and emotionally healthy, and other factors such as where you live, having a job, money, security and so on."

Many critics of positive psychology object to the argument that if we cannot think ourselves into a state of happiness we are simply being stubborn. And Dr Suissa is worried about bringing this school of thought into schools.

She says: "Sometimes you think why should you be resilient if something truly awful has happened? Also, I don't think that being happy is the most important thing in life."

Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book, Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, hit the headlines recently for damning the way in which positive psychology is increasingly being viewed as a cure for all ills. It looks at her own experience of being treated for breast cancer and how she was repeatedly told to "stay positive" despite feeling terrible and suffering the effects of chemotherapy.

Literature on the UK Resilience Programme specifically steers clear of the term "happiness", and Lucy Bailey, resilience programme manager for Hertfordshire education authority, is not keen on what she calls the "fluffy" connotations. But at the same time, she believes that data findings tell a consistent story.

"The UK does notoriously badly in life satisfaction surveys, I don't think we should shy away from that," she says.

Last month's report into children's wellbeing in Years 6, 8 and 10 by the Children's Society found an average of two children in every class are unhappy, with feelings of unhappiness becoming more common as they get older.

The schools on the UK pilot of the resilience programme are by no means the first to try "teaching happiness". The first British school to teach wellbeing was the independent Wellington College in Berkshire. When Anthony Seldon became headmaster in 2006, he made a lot of changes to the school, which has strong links with the military and was, apart from the sixth form, all boys.

Religion teacher Ian Morris had taken over the PSHE programme and was, he says, "distinctly underwhelmed". "It seemed to be about what you shouldn't do, rather than what you ought," he says.

Dr Seldon arranged for Nick Bayliss, who lectures on "the skills of wellbeing" at Cambridge University, to visit the school and he inspired Mr Morris to devise a happiness and wellbeing programme for pupils.

The classes are based around an activity approach to happiness - the idea that humans experience happiness when they do things well. "It goes right back to Aristotle," explains Mr Morris. "You can't really aim at happiness, but happiness will result from doing something well. The philosophy of happiness in education that we look at is that if the curriculum and the pastoral care are well delivered, and there's a varied extra-curricular provision, then children will be happy ... But we also need to teach them discretely about how they can improve their own happiness."

Unlike the more down-to-earth approach of the resilience programme, Mr Seldon and Mr Morris are comfortable with the "happy" label for their classes. But the crucial difference is that Mr Morris doesn't necessarily equate happiness with positive-thinking.

"(Happiness) is much more complicated than that," he says. "Immediately (after he started the programme), some people said: 'you can't force people to be happy - it's appropriate for people to be sad sometimes'. And of course it is."

Dr Suissa criticises Wellington's 10-point plan for happiness, especially its recommendation to carry out random acts of kindness, which the course claims, "goes towards making you feel good". However Mr Morris is keen to point out that the 10 points were devised to help parents get an idea of what was being taught, and were only a very small part of the overall programme.

"I imagine that any concerns (about the happiness classes) would be that we would somehow try to impose things on the children - this is what happiness is, this is how to find it - and that there is no freedom of thought. That is not how we go about it," he adds.

Staff at the Wellington's medical centre report that pupils have acquired a much more developed vocabulary with which to talk about how they feel.

"Four years ago, they would have known something was wrong but not how to deal with it," says Mr Morris. Similarly, in Hertfordshire Lucy Bailey's pupils have taken the skills on board. One pupil, whose parents had split up, spoke in the resilience class about how he had managed to articulate his feelings, even when his mother was angry that he had contacted his father without her knowledge.

"It hasn't solved the problem," says Ms Bailey, "but it has given him the skills and the ability to acknowledge that it's an issue for him and start taking some responsibility about what he can do about it."

Mr Morris concurs: "I think it does a massive disservice to school education to say that we can't have lessons on how to overcome problems because that's not the place for it. Well, it is.

Happiness or wellbeing resilience lessons, regardless of what they're called, are another attempt by educators to provide that help.

"Resilience lessons aren't about happiness - they are about flexible and accurate thinking," says Kim Bristow. "But if at the end of the day that makes you a happy or optimistic person, that's great."

RESOURCES

PRIMARY

- How are you feeling? Animated slideshow demonstrating different emotions - www.tes.co.ukhow-are-you-feeling

- Kindness wall: Promote a happy class by inspiring children to be kind to each other - www.tes.co.ukkindness-wall

- Colour me happy: Help children remember colours through a fun interactive lesson - www.tes.co.ukcolour-me-happy

SECONDARY

- Happiness and mental wellbeing: Encourage pupils to engage in enriching activities and set smart goals - www.tes.co.ukhappiness-well-being

- Money or smiles? Video and lesson plans exploring whether culture has an effect on happiness - www.tes.co.ukearth-money-smiles

- Happiness and success assembly: Get pupils thinking about their perceptions of success - www.tes.co.ukhappiness-success.

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