TEDx Talk: Happiness Education

Happiness Education:

TEDx Talk, Wilmington, Delaware, August 6 2014


Link: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Happiness-Education-%7C-Anthony-A;search%3Ahappiness%20education


Empowering students’ pursuit of happiness should be the explicit primary purpose of education.  This is the most moral purpose of education, and the most in keeping with our democratic ideals, because it treats our children as ends in themselves, as beings of innate worth, by serving their deepest personal aspiration first and foremost rather than using them for the purposes of the state.

Aristotle said that happiness is the only “self-sufficient” end, for all we do is for the sake of happiness while we seek happiness for its own sake.  Happiness is the deepest human aspiration. There’s no consensus on what happiness is and how to get it, but it is useful to simply acknowledge that happiness is a highly desirable feeling.  It is useful because it highlights the importance of feelings.

The subjective quality of our lives is the quality of our feelings.  The personal value of any experience in the moment we are experiencing it is what we feel about it.  Think about it.  No feeling, no caring; caring implies feeling.  It is the heart that bestows experiential value, not the cold reasoning of the mind.  Ultimately, the value of education is what it contributes to the aspirations of a human heart.  I grossly understate the case when I say little we do in our schools is designed with this insight in mind.

But what if it were?  What if we took feelings—took happiness—seriously in our schools?  Would it make a difference to the quality of children’s lives?  It would make a big difference if we understood empowering the pursuit of happiness in terms of enhancing students’ ability to feel better than otherwise from moment to moment as well as the long run.  Can schools do this?  Yes!  Schools have done this.

I see five main components of such a curriculum: inner awareness, social awareness, mental practices to feel better, expression and engagement, and inquiry.

Inner awareness—or mindfulness—is the foundation of a happiness pedagogy.  Awareness of feelings turns them into matters of choice rather than unconscious reactions.  You have to be aware of feelings to decide what you prefer to feel.   You also have to learn to be aware of the connection between what you are thinking and what you are feeling in order to manage feelings.   Feelings are not directly responses to our perceptions; they are responses to our interpretations, our judgments, of our perceptions.  The art of managing feelings is essentially the art of managing judgments.

Another benefit of inner awareness—mindfulness—is that when you consciously observe what you’re feeling, you reduce the power of your emotions to control you.  You gain some emotional independence.  And awareness of feelings introduces an intrinsic motive—an internal reward–to be kind, generous and helpful, to treat others well.  It feels good to do good.  It feels good to think well of others.  The opposite is also true.  In the accounting of the heart, how you treat others and how you judge them is instant karma.  You immediately reap what you sow.  With inner awareness, kids would repeatedly experience this.  It would transform the teaching of values in our schools.

A related aspect of a happiness pedagogy is social awareness.  Social and emotional learning has been taught in tens of thousands of schools for several decades.  One of the techniques used is to have students talk about their feelings, to describe how they feel in the present or felt at some time in the past.  Hearing others talk about their feelings makes a child more aware of his or her own feelings.  And it opens the door to empathy and understanding by shining light on the inner lives of others.  Children will learn to appreciate others more and fear them less, which will enrich their relationships.

Children should learn mental practices to feel better.  Mindfulness is the most effective practice to get off a train of negative thoughts and stop gnawing the bones of the past and worrying about the future and to smell the roses of the present moment.  Visualization of a calming place or situation can provide immediate relief from stress or distress.  Gaining perspective by standing back to see the larger picture can turn the mountain of your present problem into a speed bump on the road of life.  Practicing gratitude and forgiveness puts you in a positive state of mind and a positive state of feeling.

Expression and engagement is feeling by doing.  Kids should have more opportunities to feel the joy of creative expression in school, opportunities to engage in creative activities just for the fun of it.  Through inner awareness, kids would discover what they most enjoy doing, they would discover where their passion lies.

Engagement focuses on what students do outside the classroom.  It might include an assignment to perform random acts of kindness or to engage in a service project. I would emphasize engagement with nature.  I think this is missing in the lives of many children.

Systematic and ongoing inquiry into the fundamental value questions of life should be the academic heart of a happiness curriculum. Such questions include: “How should I live?,” “What is the Good life?,” and “What is the social good?”  “What is happiness, love, freedom, and justice?” A great deal of research shows that turning learning into a quest to answer an open-ended question—a question without a definite answer—is a more engaging and effective way to teach critical and creative skills, problem-solving skills, and communication skills.  It is also a superior way to get students to gain and retain knowledge.  More importantly, though, inquiry into the fundamental questions of life would shine the light of the examined life on the important decisions they will make.

What outcomes can we expect from a happiness curriculum?  Students would gain greater awareness of what they’re really looking for in all they do.  They would have a deeper sense of purpose.  They would gain the ability to find mental shelter in the stress and storms of life.  They would be aware that a deeper peace and joy are possible.  They would be more aware of where their passions lie.  They would better understand themselves and others, which would enrich their relationships.  They would be aware of how good it feels to be kind, generous and helpful, which would also enrich their relationships.  They would have the light of the examined life to illumine their paths in life.  And the fruits of such an education would be immediate; children would not have to wait until they’re grown up to taste the fruits of their education.  If improving the quality of children’s lives is our aim, these are among the most important outcomes of education.

But would a happiness curriculum have a snowball’s chance of being implemented in our schools?  I address this question in my book Educating Angels: Teaching for the Pursuit of Happiness.  The short answer is that various components of a happiness curriculum have already been implemented in some schools to some extent.  And a lot of people and organizations are pushing happiness as the main purpose of education.  The makings of a movement are in place.

But the cause of happiness education will succeed or fail on its moral appeal.  All the great social causes of the past—the cause of freedom and equality, the ending of slavery, the emancipation of women, the extension of human and civil rights—prevailed over ferocious resistance because they appealed to people’s better angels.  They appealed to a higher morality than the status quo.

I chose the title Educating Angels for my book in order to introduce the core moral argument: If we thought our children had the worth of angels, we would more likely honor their worth by serving their deepest aspiration first and foremost rather than using them largely as means to serve the national economy.

Whether or not our children are angels, they are miracles of the universe.  Their worth is beyond our calculation, and certainly beyond their mere usefulness to society.  If we can improve their chances for lasting happiness in our schools, if we can improve the moment-to-moment quality of their lives, how could we refuse to do so?  To so refuse would betray our children, our ideals, and our own hearts.

More and more people will hear this, and the happiness education movement will grow.  One day happiness education will be part of the debate on the future of our schools.  And one day it will win the debate.  Awakened hearts shall not forever be denied.

About Tony Armstrong

Professor of political science at Wesley College, Dover, Delaware. Author of Educating Angels: Teaching for the Pursuit of Happiness
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