Head start for happiness

27th June 2008 at 01:00
Teachers can set pupils on the road to joy and fulfillment. The secret is instilling a sense of balance in themselves first, says Dr Nick Baylis
Teachers can set pupils on the road to joy and fulfillment. The secret is instilling a sense of balance in themselves first, says Dr Nick Baylis

I can think of no profession more important than teaching. Do a good job here, and the future will require fewer medics, psychotherapists, debt counsellors and divorce lawyers. When teachers inspire in our young a good-hearted zest for living, those children become capable and fulfilled adults. But having such an important role, teachers must first take care of themselves.

My study of wellbeing has taught me that at the beating heart of a beautiful life is a profound sense of progress. Our hard-wired priority in life isn't to feel ever greater happiness or pleasure - this is obvious in the way we willingly embrace hardship in order to improve our skills, see the world from a hilltop or offer help that puts us out.

Our emotions, both painful and pleasurable, simply provide the energy to carry us forward, which is why changing our hair, clothes, car, kitchen, or even partner, won't work. We need to progress "our relationship with life".

But it's no good progressing in a disjointed way. By improving everything together, all at once, we minimise the chance of simply slipping back into our old habits, dragged down by all those parts of us that haven't changed yet. Besides, only all-round progress will bring all-round satisfaction. Improving our career alone won't satisfy our hunger to sail around the Greek islands.

Secondly, we need to develop the synergetic balance between our thinking, emotional, physical and spiritual dimensions. These different elements are clearly intended to work together beneficially. Exercise, for example, can be the best anti-depressant. Playing to these natural synergies, we could design our professional and personal lives to "actively balance" each other.

If we're emotionally self-restrained, cerebral, sedentary and verbal at work, then our evenings should be emotionally expressive and highly physical, which might mean gardening, dancing, jiu-jitsu, or hare'n'hounds. And let's not forget that progress needs to be balanced by recuperation and consolidation: stillness, savouring of your experiences, and sleep.

Goals that reflect our values help orientate us, but they have to be sufficiently exciting to overcome our inertia. What missions or journeys would you deem worth getting up early for, breaking a sweat for, staying sober for, after even your hardest day? Nothing less will do. Start small, but aim big. To which end, could you walk to school this month, or put away the TV to find out what fills the silence?

It's the unfulfilled or unacknowledged parts of ourselves that cry out for recognition, but too often we anaesthetise the pain of frustration with everything from over-eating to over-work. We all know deep down what will nourish our spirits, if only we dare own up to our needs, and make helpful plans for creatively expressing our passions - not least the ones that harbour fear, shame, regret, anger and loneliness.

For this to happen, we need to develop a rapport with our subconscious mind. It's our super-computer, our sixth sense and inner child, yet it's the part of us we least appreciate. It might be choosing to hold back our personal or professional progress because of emotionally traumatising incidents or relationships from our past; whether five weeks or 50 years ago. It could be worth spending six sessions with a therapist recommended by the local GP, so as to dissolve this "emotional shrapnel" that can pull our whole personality out of kilter and cause depressions, anxieties and physical ills.

In all of the above endeavours, partnering with others will allow us to achieve far more together than we ever could alone. Better still, could an exploration of wellbeing be part of everyday school for colleagues and pupils alike? Could it be de rigour to debate the lifecourse of inspiring individuals, through autobiographies and guest-speakers?

Dr Nick Baylis helped to introduce wellbeing lessons at Wellington College in 2006. He now runs practical workshops on wellbeing at Cambridge University, as well as on-site training in schools. He is writing Penguin's first Rough Guide to Happiness.

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