Letting Happiness Flourish in the Classroom

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Emma Seppala

Emma SeppalaCredit

When I look out into my classroom, and take the emotional temperature of my students, I’m usually checking for engagement. I want to make sure they feel supported, are interested in the lesson at hand, and that the lesson is relevant to each student.

But happiness? I stopped looking for happiness long ago. I see it periodically, when the conditions are perfect, and the stars align just so. When happiness strikes in my classroom, I relish it as I would any other rare anomaly, like thundersnow or a two-faced calf. Regular sightings, however, seem too much to hope for given the inhospitable climate in many American classrooms.

Emma Seppala, however, the author of “The Happiness Track,” and science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, has not lost hope. Dr. Seppala admits that yes, happiness can be a rare beast in our classrooms, but we can create and protect learning conditions in which happiness can flourish.

Happiness, Dr. Seppala explained in an email, is not something we can afford to lose at home or in our classrooms, as it forms the very foundation of deep, meaningful learning. Happy kids show up at school more able to learn because they tend to sleep better and may have healthier immune systems. Happy kids learn faster and think more creatively. Happy kids tend to be more resilient in the face of failures. Happy kids have stronger relationships and make new friends more easily.

Unfortunately, we put our children’s happiness at risk when we model what Dr. Seppala calls the “myths of success”: the belief that success is inextricably tied to stress and anxiety, perseverance at all costs, avoidance of personal weakness, and a myopic focus on cultivating expertise in a specialized niche.

We may tell kids that we want them to be happy, and that we care about their learning more than we care about their grades, but when we model the myths of success in our own lives, they know the truth. Perpetuating these myths, whether through our words or actions, undermines the very happiness and learning we claim to value.

If we truly want to cultivate happiness in our homes and schools, we can’t just pay it lip service. We must model behaviors that, according to Dr. Seppala, make us happier, healthier and more productive.

Live in the moment. Rather than encouraging children to live from one to-do item to the next, help them focus and enjoy whatever activity they are engaged in now. “Research shows our minds wander off task 50 percent of the time. Yet when our mind wanders, we have more negative emotions. While a little bit of stress about the next to-do can serve as a motivator, long-term chronic stress impairs both physical health and intellectual faculties such as attention and memory,” Dr. Seppala said in an email.

Model resilience. “While we can’t often change the work and life demands our children face in their lives, we can help them train their nervous systems to be resilient, and to thrive in the face of difficulties and challenges,” Dr. Seppala said. Talk about how you have overcome challenges, model healthy resilience, and help kids find respite from the pressures of achievement. Techniques such as meditation, yoga and breathing exercises help your children rest their minds and bodies, and allow them to recover from the physical and emotional damage stress can impart.

Manage your energy. While negative emotions can be damaging to kids’ mental and physical health, our society’s penchant for constant, high-intensity positive emotions takes a toll as well. “Western societies value excitement and other high-intensity positive emotions over low-intensity positive emotions such as calm. While there’s nothing wrong with excitement and fun, children need to know how to balance excitement with the ability to calm down and function from a centered, peaceful place, saving precious mental energy for tasks that need it most,” Dr. Seppala said.

Do nothing. “Taking time off to disconnect and relax focus helps promote kids’ creativity and insights,” Dr. Seppala wrote. “Children need time for idleness, fun and irrelevant interests, and as research shows C.E.O.s currently value creativity higher than any other trait in the incoming workforce, it behooves you to let your kids relax and access their inner inventor.”

Be kind to yourself. While it’s good to strive for improvement, excessive self-criticism can backfire, and become self-sabotage. Self-criticism maintains focus on the negative, leaving kids anxious, afraid of failure and less likely to learn from mistakes. Self-compassion, however, improves children’s ability to excel in the face of challenges, to develop new skills and to learn from their mistakes.

Be kind to others. Research shows that people who are supportive and compassionate toward others are more successful. Fortunately, Dr. Seppala said, “Children are naturally compassionate and kind; we simply need to protect these traits.”

Children should not be surprised by joy. If they are, the responsibility for its absence lies at the feet of parents, teachers and administrators who have pushed happiness out of its native habitat to make room for the toxic, invasive species of anxiety, stress and fear.

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