How Should Schools Incorporate Happiness Into Curricula?

Special Focus : Well-Being for Better Learning Outcomes
Access and Inclusion December 11, 2018

In a previous piece, I discussed the role of happiness as one of the purposes of education and argued that we can learn how to improve our well being. Even though it is not possible to teach how to be happy in a prescriptive way, research has found patterns that show the influence on how we feel about ourselves. Awareness about these scientific findings can assist us in changing some mindsets and behaviors for the better. But should K-12 schools consider using the science of happiness in their curricula?

There are two compelling arguments in favor of addressing the topic in schools. The first one is student performance; a meta-analysis found that, overall, happier students tend to do better in school. Other studies show that happiness-related factors, such as the quality of relationships with colleagues and teachers, also play a role in performance. The second argument is well being itself. Research shows that the most important predictor of adult life satisfaction is emotional health, both in childhood and subsequently. So if a curriculum manages to have a positive influence on children’s life satisfaction, this should already be a good reason to consider implementing it.

What should a well being curriculum look like?

Even though the positive effects of student happiness on performance and overall quality of life are straightforward to detect, there is less clarity about whether delivering happiness-related content can actually boost students’ well being. So far, there is little research on how a change in curriculum might cause an improvement in life satisfaction and academic achievement.  However, a set of experiments in schools in Mexico, Peru, and Bhutan, has shown some positive results. Students were randomly assigned to two different types of classes: in the first one, well-being skills were included as a component of their curriculum; whereas the second did not experience any change in curriculum. The research showed that students in the first group reported higher levels of personal well being than the second group. They also performed significantly better on standardized national exams.

The experiments in the three countries were tailored to the local contexts, yet the core components were similar: “mindfulness (awareness of thoughts, emotions, and surroundings); empathy (identifying what other individuals are feeling or thinking); self-awareness (understanding of personal talents, strengths, limitations, and goals),” among others.

Despite the good results of the study, we cannot conclude that all schools will be successful by replicating the initiative. Teachers’ capabilities, students’ engagement, and many other external factors could lead to different results in different contexts. Even in the 3 countries of the research, it is unclear whether the intervention is the ideal way of approaching happiness in school: would a different curriculum format have led to better results?

Further trials need to emerge to shed more light on this question. Public education systems have developed their own approaches. In New Delhi, India, since July 2018, a hundred thousand public school students spend the first half-hour of each school day learning through inspirational stories and activities and doing meditation exercises.

Those examples can serve a benchmark  for other education systems, but they also open room for many questions:
– Does a stand-alone course work better than an interdisciplinary approach across subjects?
– What are the trade-offs in time and human resources if such a curriculum is to be implemented?
– How can teacher training programs be adapted to address the theme?
The Greater Good Science Center, at the University of California, Berkeley, mentioned in my first article, offers resources that can help schools to answer some of those questions. Personally, I find it very challenging to institutionalize a full-fledged discipline on happiness, especially in large public school systems that face budget constraints and significant learning gaps in subjects that are part of the already existing curriculum. Perhaps a more feasible approach would be to encourage teachers to incorporate some of the well-being elements into already existing activities that address social and emotional learning.
However, regardless of whether and how school systems decide to design and implement a curriculum with a greater focus on happiness and well being, it is positive that educators consider the emotions of their students as an important component of their personal and intellectual development. While teaching how to achieve it might be impossible, schools can at least help students to be aware that they have the right and means to pursue it.