H is for Happy

Happy makes the learning happen

As parents we all voice the same sentiment for our children: “I just want them to be happy.” But do we actively practice that sentiment? Do we teach the frames of mind that would ensure happiness in our children? Do we really know what being happy actually means? Much research has been done of late that has clarified a great deal about “happy”. Turns out, it has far more to offer than a sunny disposition and feeling contented. Parents are right to want happiness in their children albeit it is unlikely they know the science of why. Rebecca Alder, consulting editor of Edutopia, outlines the research of Dr. David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, in her article How Are Happiness and Learning Connected? Rock intones “There is a large and growing body of research which indicates that people experiencing positive emotions perceive more options when trying to solve problems, solve more non-linear problems that require insight, [and they] collaborate better and generally perform better overall.” In short, happy people learn better.

Scientifically speaking, happiness produces chemicals, specifically dopamine and serotonin, in the brain. When these substances are released it has positive effects on our memory as well as our brain’s ability to learn. Essentially our capacity to make connections, be creative and problem solve are all enhanced just by being happy.

Christina Hinton, Ed.D.’12 and lecturer from Harvard Graduate School of Education, examined the interplay of happiness, motivation, and success to find out just how important happiness is in learning.

Hinton used surveys to collect data on students’ happiness and motivation; collected qualitative data on happiness and motivation; and further data on students’ grade point averages all of which was then analyzed to explore the relationships among happiness, motivation, and academic achievement.

Key to Hinton’s findings were associations that show how we can optimize students’ learning experiences. Namely:

Happiness is positively associated with intrinsic motivation (a personal drive to learn) for all students, and also with extrinsic motivation (outside sources like rewards, praise, or avoiding punishment) for students in grades K–3.

Happiness is also positively associated with GPA for students in grades 4–12.

Happiness and standardized test scores did not seem to be related, but further research is needed to confirm this.

Happiness is predicted by students’ satisfaction with school culture and relationships with teachers and peers.

Because I’m Happy by Victoria Jones

Further to Hinton’s research, other benefits that have been shown by IWEN happiness lessons are:

  • Improved problem-solving abilities
  • Broadened horizons and expanded thinking
  • Building physical, intellectual, and social skills
  • Counteracted negative emotions
  • Protected mental health
  • Reduction in aggression in class
  • Improvement in school performance

So now we can appreciate how vitally important being happy is, not only for children’s well being but also their learning and future success. But how does that happen? How can we support happiness? There are many researchers who focus on happiness today; Sonja Lyubomirsky, Barbara Fredrickson, Ed Diener, Martin Seligman, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi to name but a few, and they all agree on one thing: happiness can be learned.

Martin Seligman is a psychologist and university professor and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. His work ranges from positive psychology to the study of helplessness, depression, optimism and pessimism, and flexibility. Seligman has come up with a formula for wellbeing he refers to with the acronym PERMA. PERMA stands for:

Positive emotions: in essence, being optimistic. Having a positive outlook is necessary because it helps our relationships, sparks creativity, and allows us to see possibilities. It also strengthens us when we hit tough times because we can see which way steer to make things better.

Engagement: being fully engaged in activities allows us to build creativity, reduce stress, and feel fulfilled and satisfied.

Relationships: humans are social beings, so relationships are essential. Positive, supportive relationships are a key part of being happy and spreading happiness.

Meaning: eventually we all realize the meaning of life is not money or popularity, rather it is something deeper. 

Accomplishments: the sense of satisfaction as a result of our work towards our goals. Accomplishments give meaning to all performed tasks and are essential in achieving happiness.

Having happiness broken down in such a way is one example of how it can be taught. There are a number of learning programs and apps that support the sort of learning Seligman espouses. Happiness Lessons, out of Hungary and based on the work of Martin Seligman and Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky, aims to provide methodological support to develop the ability to nurture happiness in children through their scientifically approved curriculum. Launched in 2014, the program now boasts more than 3700 teachers providing the instruction to 60,000+ students. Another learning program, this one out of Australia, is Smiling MindThe not-for-profit organization works to make mindfulness accessible to all. You may wonder “Why mindfulness?” Mindfulness is about focusing attention on the here and now, rather than thinking about the past or worrying about the future, both things that we know are generally unproductive and do not promote well being and happiness. Being mindful can aid students in being more aware of their mindset and thus lead them to be more positive and optimistic. Mindfulness also plays an important role in your mental & physical wellbeing and can play a role in helping to

  • Reduce the physical wear and tear on the body

  • Increase your immune system

  • Switch off excessive inflammation in the body

  • Relieve cardiovascular stress

  • Switch down cortisol and damage to your bones

There are many other apps and programs that promote learning happiness. Happy Feed is a daily gratitude journal whose aim is to promote positive thinking and optimism by helping people focus on the good things in their life. Happify takes you on a journey to better well being using evidence-based interventions in the form of games and activities. Based in the fields of positive psychology, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral therapy, the goal is to re-frame negativity thus forming meaningful improvement in life satisfaction. Another game based strategy, SuperBetter, aims to build resilience, an important factor in happiness as it allows people to stay strong, motivated and optimistic even in the face of change and difficult challenges. Jane McGonigal, an award-winning game designer, powered SuperBetter with a framework that activates the psychological strengths of game-play to build resilience in real life. The Dalai Lama has weighed in on happiness saying that “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions”. And in that spirit, Action for Happiness works to help people take action to create a happier, more caring world. The end goal is a happier world, reduced mental health problems, and ultimately more well-rounded, happy, functioning people who help not only themselves but others as well. The movement embraces the spirit of community-mindedness which works to improve relationships and positivity at the same time. Community is important in supporting happiness as it helps build positive relationships, helps people feel supported and gives them a sense of belonging. The Happy Community Project works to do all those things and more. The project aims to “provide a process by which any community can increase its capacity for wellbeing and resiliency in an era of disruption.” Similar to Seligman, the Happy Community Project determined factors that create long term happiness.

  • Belonging
  • Meaning
  • Sufficiency
  • Security
  • Fairness

    Building a strong, happy community promotes strong social connections and fosters a sense of belonging, members develop a sense of responsibility toward other members of the community, reciprocal supportive relationships occur and promote peace and security, and ultimately give all a soul-nurturing experience.

I’m sure there are countless other programs, apps, and curriculum that support the idea of improving happiness. The bottom line is, happiness should be seen as a fundamental, integrated part of the school system. Science shows that the results are win-win. The child wins because they lead a more successful, fulfilling, happy life and society wins on numerous levels. First, it actually reduces cost burdens on society at large. Happy people are healthier, have a stronger immune systems and fewer mental health problems. Just given those factors, health care costs and strain on an over-burdened health-care system are lessened. Secondly, we gain more caring, community-minded people to build a better world. What could be better than that?



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