Is schools’ obsession with happiness bad for pupils?

26th May 2017 at 00:00
Experts call for greater scrutiny of wellbeing programmes that aim to tackle children’s anxiety

In the beginning, there was simply the desire for pupils to be happy.

It began – as tales about happiness rarely seem to – at boarding school. A traditional public school started giving its pupils lessons in wellbeing. The aim was to equip them with the skills to make the most of life.

The idea caught the imagination of the media, and of other schools; within a decade, happiness lessons had become a multimillion pound industry.

Today, it is a rare school that does not offer programmes designed to make pupils happier, more relaxed and less anxious and stressed. The Mindfulness in Schools Project, for example, has trained more than 3,500 teachers to deliver its programmes.

This spring, the Department for Education invited bids for multimillion pound contracts to pilot mental-health training in more than 200 schools.

But now an increasing number of public-health and education experts are questioning whether all of these lessons in happiness are merely contributing to the weight of pupils’ unhappiness.

“Schools are spending so much on these things, and some of them are really, really spurious,” says Kathryn Ecclestone, visiting professor at the University of Sheffield, who researches how the national preoccupation with wellbeing is transforming education.

“People can just set themselves up as wellbeing consultants, and some of these are snake oil [pedlars]. It’s a massive industry, and there are questions about evidence: what methods and content are being used in these so-called courses?”

It all started in 2006, when Wellington College first offered pupils lessons in wellbeing. At the time, this was seen as the kind of curious eccentricity in which independent schools can afford to indulge.

Experiencing the fullness of life

“People tend to assume that we’re all long-haired Birkenstock wearers who want to get rid of exams,” says Ian Morris, Wellington’s head of wellbeing, and the teacher who developed the lessons. “But that’s just not true. The important question is: what do people mean by ‘happiness’? Generally, they mean more positive emotions than negative emotions. But I think that sells the idea of happiness short.”

He cites Aristotle, whose notion of a life well lived included tragedy, suffering and pain: happiness is about being able to experience the fullness of life and still flourish.

“It’s started a very important conversation,” he says. “We’re talking more meaningfully about the complete life and what it means.”

Since 2006, more than a hundred schools have sent teachers to Wellington to observe what Morris does there. And, as education faced the perfect storm of high-stakes testing and fears about what such testing was doing to pupils’ mental health, wellbeing lessons began to enter the mainstream.

“Teachers are recognising the pressures that young people are now under,” says ➧ Kevin Pace, who is piloting a wellbeing project in 31 schools in Wolverhampton. “They say, ‘We can’t stop children from being tested. So what can we change?’

“Professionals have asked, ‘How can I work with my children to make them happier, to give them coping strategies, make them less stressed?’ ”

Will Davies, a political economist at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of The Happiness Industry, agrees that the stress and the pressure are real. But he questions the methods being used to tackle them.

“There’s quite a lot of evidence that children are being made incredibly anxious by the amount of testing going on at the moment,” he says. “If you monitor people the whole time, you make them anxious. But, instead of making this obvious connection between where the stress is coming from and the symptoms of the stress, we are bringing all these new techniques into the classroom.”

This is what Ecclestone has observed, too. “The response is always to give more services, give more services,” she says.

‘Glimmers of happiness’

However, Pooky Knightsmith, vice-chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, a campaigning group of mental-health charities, believes that there is value in some of the techniques on offer.

She cites a popular exercise: listing three positive things that have happened every day. “You can find little glimmers of happiness,” she says. “Little things that spark joy. It’s a really nice thing to do as part of a community.”

And Pace uses “Sumo” in his schools: the word is an acronym for “stop, understand and move on”. This trains children to question their own role in a situation – how their behaviour might have upset the teacher, for example – and to move on more positively.

But, Knightsmith says, not all the wellbeing programmes on the market have been empirically tested for effectiveness. The way for the snake-oil salespeople is clear.

“We’re living in entrepreneurial times,” Knightsmith says. “When you’re given a good pitch by a convincing salesperson, you think: for this investment, I’ll be able to make my school a happier place. It’s very tempting.”

There is also a bigger danger, Ecclestone believes: we are recasting the way mental health is understood. “We’re completely caught up in this apocalyptic scenario,” she says. “No one questions it: kids are so stressed; they need counselling.

“Feeling stressed and anxious is being presented as a mental health problem, and the slip from ‘I’m stressed’ to ‘I have a mental health problem’ is very easy now. That’s dangerous.”

An NUS students’ union survey last year found that 78 per cent of students reported having a mental health problem. And a 2013 survey, conducted by the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists, found that the number of young people seeking counselling had risen by 16 per cent in three years.

Ashley Frawley, senior lecturer at Swansea University and author of The Semiotics of Happiness, says that the counsellors themselves are often ambivalent about the increase in demand for their services.

One told her: “You don’t need to come to counselling when your dog dies. That’s just part of life.”

'Something to work at'

What is happening, Frawley says, is that a generation is being raised to believe that happiness is something that must be taught.

“Happiness becomes not something that sneaks up on you, something you might find when you’re looking at a sunset, but something you have to work at,” she says.

“People are going into schools and encouraging young people to think that happiness is quite difficult, and you have to meditate and so on to get there. It’s a complete misunderstanding of how human emotion works.

“All that happiness education does is reinforce the idea that our psychology is vulnerable – it teaches children that personhood is very, very weak, and that they’re likely to be damaged by their experience. And that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Knightsmith, who has advised the DfE on young people’s mental health, says that an intervention such as meditation or mindfulness can be actively harmful to children in genuine need.

“If a child is suffering abuse at home, being given space and time for thoughts to drift through your head isn’t necessarily good,” she says. “Schools need to be aware of the potential risks, even with the most seemingly nice of interventions.”

The trend of medicalising all negative emotions can lead schools to overlook needy pupils in other ways, too, Ecclestone believes. “How do you differentiate, when the spectrum of what counts as mental-health problems is so huge?” she says. “How do you decide who gets the resources? That’s a real problem for teachers.”

Agreement comes from an unlikely source. “We seem to be saying that some emotions are dangerous for children,” says Morris, the man who started it all. “I think it’s pathologising children.

“Saying, ‘Oh, God – anxiety’s bad, and we must eliminate that from children’s experience’, is really absurd, and patronising as well. It’s easy to do quite a lot of damage with this.”


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