Health is part of every public-school education. But what is health? It’s more than just nutrition and gym class.
As early as 1947, the World Health Organization defined health as a state of mental and social—not just physical—well-being. Today, more and more schools worldwide are integrating social-emotional learning into their curriculum, teaching skills such as self-awareness, empathy, and active listening.
Research demonstrates that happy people are successful across multiple life domains, including marriage, relationships, health, longevity, income, and academic and work performance. They are better able to multitask and endure boring tasks, and are more creative, trusting, helpful and sociable.
So how do we teach the skills of well-being to students?
A few years ago, working with my colleague Lucy Ryan, we developed a comprehensive Well-Being Curriculum that is now being implemented in many elementary schools and high schools in the UK, France, Japan, and Australia. The Well-Being Curriculum is based on the principles and findings of positive psychology, and can be used with students from about 9-14 years of age. Every other week, for 50 minutes, students learn about the major factors that seem to influence well-being, and they try out happiness-enhancing practices and activities.
A recent study of the program showed that it protected students against the decline in satisfaction with self, satisfaction with friends, and positive emotions—and the increase in negative emotions—that typically occurs in the first years of middle school. Other studies have shown that the schools teaching happiness skills academically outperform the schools teaching a standard health curriculum.
In other words, focusing on well-being can even contribute to the core mission of education. Here are my suggestions for teachers who want to share these lessons with their students.
Teaching positive emotions
The “broaden-and-build” theory of positive emotions, developed by Barbara Fredrickson, shows that positive emotional experiences have long-lasting effects on our personal growth and development. Specifically, positive emotions broaden our attention and thinking, enhance resilience, and build durable personal resources, which fuel more positive emotions in the future.
During this part of the program, we teach the important adaptive functions of both positive and negative emotions, ways to cope with our tendency to focus on the bad things in life, and how to enhance positive emotions through savoring and reminiscence.
We also talk about the importance of relationships, one of the best predictors of happiness. It is well known that strong social ties are at the very core of our well-being, regardless of whether we are introverts or extraverts. Many of the valued strengths, such as kindness and forgiveness, are of an interpersonal nature. Close friendships (not the mere number, but rather their quality) have far greater influence on our happiness than an increase in income.
This part of the program focuses on the basic relationships skills, such as being able to form and maintain friendships, negotiate, listen, and, even more importantly, hear. Forgiveness, kindness, and gratitude are also included, as the main relationship strengths. The stream finishes with happiness across cultures, a lesson that highlights factors that allow countries to flourish, taking the scope of relationships to the planetary level.
How to get started
Teachers often feel pressure to concentrate on forthcoming tests and exams, and spend significant amounts of time on “firefighting”—i.e., dealing with discipline and conflicts. These constraints often mean that it might be difficult, if not impossible, to schedule a well-being class every week.
In this situation, we advise teachers to use the Personal Well-Being Lessons (as well as many other available educational volumes) as piecemeal resources, picking up interventions and activities that can be run one at a time.
Here are a few examples of short activities that you could incorporate into a day’s lesson:
- Create a What Went Well wall (a whiteboard with colorful markers would do just fine) and ask all students to write three things that went well for them during the lesson, school day, or school week.
- Run the “Can you hear me?” exercise. Ask the class to form pairs. Instruct student A to talk to Student B for one minute about a topic that excites them, such as a holiday, a hobby, or an adventure. B is instructed to deliberately not listen, appearing uninterested and distracted, though they should not leave their seat or walk away. The teacher stops the exercise as soon as 60 seconds is up. In round two, A is instructed to continue talking for a further minute (again about a topic that excites them), and this time, B should listen, acting genuinely interested without going completely over the top. Students are asked to tell the teacher the emotional effect it had on them when they were being ignored vs. when they were being listened to, and the teacher confirms with students how important it is for us to be listened to.
- Play “Go fish” with cards from the Happiness Box that also encourage your class to participate in evidence-based positive psychology exercises.
As you begin teaching well-being, don’t be surprised if some of your fellow teachers are a bit skeptical. When we brought the Well-Being Curriculum to two schools in London, one teacher talked about facing resistance from other staff. “They think it’s just loads of clap-trap” because, she said, “it’s not real work, you are not writing stuff down, you are not being tested every week…and there is no nice little certificate that you can have at the end of five years.”
Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Given their importance for the future mental health of our nations, happiness and well-being skills deserve to be taken seriously—and teachers can lead the charge, one classroom at a time.