The happiness program at Wellington College in Berkshire is described by Anthony Seldon, the master, Ian Morris, head of philosophy, and two Year 12 students
Focusing on the whole child
We have schools wrong at the moment. They should be places of enchantment, wonder and joy. Instead, they are too much about testing, conformity and exams; about dividing up those who pass from those who don’t. This is not the point of education.
We tend to think that parents are only concerned with exams. However, I hardly ever meet a parent who does not want their child to be happy, to smile and even talk to them sometimes. And young people will perform better if they are calm and happy; which means they are more likely to end up doing what they want to in life.
Our focus should be on developing the whole child. That involves understanding what it means to be a child, then helping our students to discover:
- who they are
- what they love in life
- what they want to be and can really contribute.
This is the goal behind our decision to offer classes in wellbeing at Wellington College.
What we are trying to do is to create a fundamentally intelligent organization, and to break that word ‘intelligent’ out way beyond the narrow view of intelligence into the idea of an intelligent community. This means you need teachers who are deeply centered.
Getting people on your side means overcoming that hump of cynicism which leads to them saying it is all about more work, more training and it’s all psycho-babble anyway. Our teachers at Wellington are coming on board bit by bit, as they see that it works. We have also set up a program called Every Adult Matters which we are offering to all the schools in Wokingham, our local authority.
It is also important for the person at the top be fully on board. Every head or principal has the potential to create a negative, fearful environment, or an accepting and loving one.
An owner’s manual
Imagine giving somebody a beautiful car with a wonderful engine, body and interior, but not giving them any idea of how that car operates. The result would be that the car would run in first gear all its life, have breakdowns and cease to work. Everyone would then rush in to mend it. But it’s so much easier to stop people falling off a waterfall than to put them together at the bottom. We should give students an owner’s manual. You have this wonderful body; this is how it works. You have this wonderful mind; this is how it works. Teach people these things when they are young, and they will have them for life.
All young people
Wellington is a fee-paying independent school. But we want to use our experience to help ensure that all children and young people experience their schools as places that teach them how to live a happy life. If you can live in harmony with yourself and in harmony with others, then you will be happy.
Skills that make lives go better: developing the happiness program
We developed the happiness course with Dr Nick Baylis, a psychologist at Cambridge University. The basic principle behind the lessons is that we can learn the skills of living well. This is not new. Aristotle wrote about it in the Nichomachean Ethics. And the discipline of positive psychology is teaching us this as well, with empirical evidence to back it up.
It should be obvious that a student will not be able to access the curriculum effectively if there are barriers to learning in their lives. We all arrive at school carrying our own emotional, psychological, social and physical issues with us. When these issues are unresolved, they cause us problems and throw up barriers to progress. If we can teach our students the skills that will enable them to start overcoming these barriers, they will be better equipped to access the curriculum.
The course is aimed at students in Years 10 and 11. It is designed to show them that life is something to be lived skillfully, and that there are certain skills which they can learn and employ to make their lives go better.
We have divided the course into nine areas. Each area represents a relationship that we want our students to get right. Through their coverage of these nine modules, students learn:
- how to improve the way their mind works through the way they manage their bodies
- how to manage their subconscious mind and be aware of how it can influence the conscious mind
- how simply being out in the natural world can increase their wellbeing
- that it is not good to immerse themselves in the fantasy world of television and video games
- how to resolve conflict with others
- the benefits of stillness and mindfulness meditation.
The lessons take place once a fortnight and last for 40 minutes.
Each lesson begins with some mindfulness meditation. Research has shown that people who meditate regularly can have:
- increased activity in their cerebral cortex
- increased resistance to disease
- a stronger capacity to deal with the stresses and strains of life.
The other thing we do is something called counting blessings. Research shows that people engage more fully with life and have a generally higher level of wellbeing if they:
- count their blessings regularly
- say thank you
- are grateful for the things that happen to them on a daily basis.
In this way, we teach our students to be grateful for the things that happen to them.
We do a lot of biographical learning, looking at the lives of other people and seeing what the ingredients of a happy life are. We might use film clips as a stimulus. Ken Loach’s early film, Kes, for example, shows various examples of wellbeing. We use a variety of techniques to teach young people how to:
- manage their anger
- resolve conflict
- act out the mental processes they will need to go through to get their neocortex working to get them out of these intense emotional states.
For me, the aim is to equip the young people with the skills they will need to live life successfully. We want to make them more self-aware and resilient so as to help them to flourish as human beings.
When Wellington’s wellbeing campaign launched, we were all a bit skeptical. We thought the new master was just doing it to look good. Happiness lessons seemed an unlikely proposition. How could we be taught to be happy? We had already sat through PSHE and citizenship. We had this vision of getting D mark for being gloomy or the occasional pubescent mood swing.
But our happiness lessons are actually wellbeing lessons. That is an important distinction. Because you can’t teach someone to be happy, you can only teach them to pretend to be happy. And, if they are only pretending to be happy that is no use to anyone. What the school is trying to do is give us some sort of basis, so that when we have a time of sadness or grief, we can deal with it constructively rather than turn to false comforts of drugs and alcohol.
It is easy to get trapped in unhealthy relationships. What enables you to step out of them is your own self-worth and individuality.
What difference has it made? Part of what we pick up is that some things are just not that important. That allows you to think about things objectively and say if I don’t do really well in it, it is not going to be the end, it doesn’t mean I am rubbish at this subject. That allows you to be less stressed about it and actually do better in the subject because of it.
There is also a much more practical aspect. I know a lot of people use meditation to help them go to sleep. Small things like that can make a big difference to your day. An extra hour’s sleep can really impact on your learning.
It comes across in different ways for different people. You get out what you put in. What you get out is different for everyone. It helps you objectify what you are doing and be more constructive in your learning.
The happiness program has given me a better understanding of how to control pressure. The meditation techniques we learn help me to calm my nerves, whether before an important sporting fixture or an academic examination.
For me, the purpose of the lessons is to instill some values that we will keep with us; so that when a difficult time comes around, we make better decisions.
The lessons offer a welcome break from the rigors of academic work. Having a timetabled lesson in which you, as a pupil, know that you can relax and be yourself is a relief. You can take your mind off work and learn something about yourself for a change.
Our culture is dominated by advertisements about wealth, cars, and the happiness which material possessions offer. This provokes feelings of inadequacy and a general view that, in order to be happy, you must be rich. We have lost contact with the meaning of true happiness, which goes hand in hand with overall wellbeing.
These lessons bring us back to the roots of living a healthy and productive life. So what if you have failed the test or you didn’t get into the university that you wanted? If you are happy with your surroundings, and with the people around you, you don’t have to be hard on yourself.