Teaching Happiness 101
What was the most popular course offered at Harvard University in 2006? What class at the University of California at Berkeley was so in demand that it has now become available online for free where nearly 30,000 people have already signed up and there is an expectation that up to 100,000 will enroll? Not law. Not economics. But rather…drum roll please…“Happiness”.
One in 10 Americans take antidepressants (one in four women between the ages of 40-50) and, in a study done from 2005-2008-most likely the statists have increased-antidepressants were the 3rd most common prescription drug taken by Americans from the ages 18-44 years old. According to the Center for Disease Control, as of 2010, suicide was the 12th leading cause of death in the United States. Is it no wonder that we are searching for ways to learn what seems to be so illusive; happiness?
Through a wide range of studies, it was found that happiness can be learned through habitual and conscience actions. One can choose to be happy. If happiness is an important enough topic for Harvard to teach, perhaps it is prudent for us to help our children build skills towards finding happiness in their lives.
The University of Pennsylvania found that people who believe that they are relatively competent, have a sense of control over their lives, know that most of life’s challenges are temporary, have hope that things will get better, and have a strong social support group, tend to be happier. Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar’s Harvard course covers similar topics including: happiness, self-esteem, empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, music, spirituality, and humor. He found that happiness occurs when there is a combination of both pleasure and meaning-that there is a greater purpose beyond your own self-interest- in the present as well as an expectation that these will continue into the future. In addition, he found that happy people follow rituals which actually free them up to be creative and spontaneous, leading to greater happiness.
Once we present to our students the importance of happiness in life, we can teach practical steps on how to achieve and maintain this. Here are some important highlights.
- Have students keep a gratitude journal. Noticing the daily gifts in life leads people to a greater sense of happiness.
- Create a social atmosphere of giving, sharing, helping, respecting and compassion.
- Do relaxation exercises-Richard J. Davidson, PhD discovered through the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, that there is a significant increase in activity in the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions and traits like optimism and resilience following the repetitive practice of meditation which focused on contemplation and compassion. (Oprah Magazine March 2008)
- If your students (or yourself) are overextended, encourage them to limit their after school activities. Lack of down time can cause a lack of enjoyment in the activities in which we are participating.
- Encourage regular exercise, adequate sleep, healthy eating habits, and positive self-talk.
- Learn about “laughter therapy” on the web and youtube. Even faking a smile can make us happier. Do silly exercises in class to encourage good humor, an instant mood lifter.
- Spend a few minutes each day encouraging students to share a “miracle of life” experience-perhaps they saw a beautiful sunset, caught their bus just in time, found an item that they thought they had lost forever. Noticing daily wonders encourages happy feelings.
- Persuade students to find joy in non-money oriented things. Study the beauty of a rose, slowly enjoy the taste of a fresh apple, feel the wonder of the heart beating. We all know that we can’t buy happiness so let’s find things that we can enjoy at any moment.
- Explain that no one can always be happy. Acknowledge and honor feelings of grief, sadness, fear, loneliness, and then build skills for letting these feelings go.
- Work on team charity projects. Helping others is known to build happiness. Collect dry goods and toiletries to donate to homeless shelters. Put on a show for people in an old age home. Read to the blind. The opportunities to give to those less fortunate are endless.
Please share your views on teaching happiness as well as any additional ideas you have for building a happy classroom atmosphere. And, most importantly, have a happy day:)!