Can you learn to be happy?

The problem: The corona pandemic has led to a significant increase in psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and sleep disorders in children and adolescents.
The solution: School happiness classes that teach children to talk about feelings, to feel gratitude, and to understand and regulate their emotions.

At a primary school in Braunschweig, fourth-grade students are planting an “emotional garden”. One by one, they come to the front of the class, holding a yellow or orange paper flower on which they wrote down what made them happy that morning. “That I saw my dog ​​and cuddled with him,” says a girl to NDR, who was allowed to film the scene for a TV report. “I found a euro today,” calls a boy. “My dad cuddled with me this morning,” says another.

Happiness lessons have been on the timetable in 16 elementary schools in Braunschweig since November last year, taught by student teachers from the Technical University of Braunschweig. But what is happiness anyway? And why should we learn that in school? “Happiness is subjective well-being,” explains happiness researcher Tobias Rahm, who is doing his doctorate at the TU Braunschweig on the subject of happiness education and who heads the Braunschweig project. »What do children really need? Do you need the math?” he asks provocatively. Rahm is certain that parents generally want the best for their children, which also means that the children can go through life happily. “There are skills that can be taught in a structured way,” says the researcher. »For example, regulating emotions, but also being happy about beautiful things and being able to feel gratitude and a willingness to help. If you can practice all this, then you should do it at school – because it contributes to a more successful life.«

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Carina Mathes and Tobias Rahm are in charge of the Braunschweig “GlüGS” project – the acronym stands for “happiness lessons at primary schools”.

Photo: Private

Carina Mathes, who is actually a trained speech therapist, created the curriculum for the Braunschweig project. She discovered happiness research more or less by accident 15 years ago when she read an article about Martin Seligman, the pioneer of so-called positive psychology. “Until then, I didn’t know that happiness could be learned,” says Mathes. “I thought you’re either happy or you’re not.” She delved into research and in 2016 published the two volumes of the Curriculum school subject happiness competence. The aim is to convey scientific knowledge in the classroom in a way that is fun for the students and from which they derive lasting benefit.

In Bavarian schools, happiness was on the timetable for the first time as part of a pilot project in 2013; in India, where more than a million children learn happiness every day, even the Dalai Lama came by to start the class; and at a flagship Australian project, Geelong Grammar School, children receive two hours of well-being, emotion regulation and meaningfulness classes every week from the first grade through the end of their school years. The best known in this respect in Germany is the non-profit Fritz Schubert Institute, which has trained almost 2,000 happiness-skilled teachers since 2009, most of whom teach the subject as an elective.

Studies of such projects have so far had encouraging results: the children report greater well-being and self-confidence, there are fewer conflicts in the classroom and the students say they learn more easily. Tobias Rahm also wants to scientifically monitor and evaluate the Braunschweig lessons. He can already reveal this much: »The first preliminary results are positive.« In questionnaires, for example, pupils more often ticked »In the last week I liked myself« and less often »In the last week I was often in a bad mood«. He also gets positive feedback from his parents, says Rahm. The main happiness factors for children are family, pets, friends and hobbies. “The grandparents are also mentioned very, very often,” observed Mathes. “Material things, on the other hand, hardly ever occur, sometimes the odd computer game, but that’s really rare.”

An unanswered question is whether happiness education also increases students’ resilience, their ability to deal with disappointments and difficult life events. The need for this is high: The COH-FIT study, a large-scale, international study on the psychological consequences of the corona pandemic, showed a significant increase in mental illnesses among young people compared to the year before the pandemic. In the US in 2021, more than a third of students said their well-being had deteriorated during the pandemic and 44 percent described themselves as constantly sad or hopeless.

This is what the “feeling garden” looks like when a whole class has planted their flowers in it.

So far, Rahm has not specifically recorded resilience factors, but he often heard from the teachers how great it was that the program was being implemented right now, after the particularly strenuous pandemic years. »Due to the fact that there had been a pandemic two years before, we knocked in a lot more open doors. Teachers and parents have seen many more social benefits in doing something like this now.«

Rahm and Mathes, who are both parents of elementary school children themselves, emphasize “that all feelings are important and that all have their tasks, including the negative ones”. Mathes believes that positive psychology is often misunderstood as “positive thinking”, “it’s more about being really in touch with your own feelings and expressing them appropriately”. Mathes has defined well-being for himself in such a way that the feeling fits the experience. “When I go to a funeral, I feel sad. That belongs there.« She finds it particularly remarkable that the children themselves often come up with suggestions for a solution when a child brings something sad to the class, for example that grandpa died. »The other children then comfort me and a girl says: I wrote my grandfather another letter, that helped me.«

Happiness lessons also include explaining to the children in age-appropriate language “how the brain works and why it makes sense to focus on pleasant things and feelings from an early age,” as Mathes says. The idea behind this is neuroplasticity, because just as you learn to play the piano better through regular practice, you can also practice happiness. For example, by folding a paper airplane, children learn that fold lines become deeper and deeper the more often the paper is folded at this point. According to Mathes, the neural pathways responsible for well-being are trained in the same way if you concentrate on positive experiences.

Interestingly, not only the children benefit from happiness lessons, but also the teachers. “When I read through all the neurobiological backgrounds, I get to know them myself and something automatically sticks,” says Mathes. Rahm even hopes that happiness competence can contribute to increasing the attractiveness of the teaching profession. “We have a shortage of teachers,” he says. »I consider everything that makes the profession more attractive to be a very valuable measure.«

Rahm primarily trains students to become teachers, but he has also volunteered as a teacher himself for happiness lessons. Once he made “gratitude chains” out of paper with the children, on which the students wrote what they were grateful for or for whom. The gratitude exercise is one of his favorite exercises anyway, which he loves to teach teachers and students alike. Robert Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis, showed that expressing gratitude regularly leads to better grades, better sleep and greater well-being.

The happiness lessons should give the children equipment for well-being. The children literally pack a backpack “for life” and collect all pleasant things in it. What was good today? What am I thankful for? What do I like best? “The children now pay more attention to what is actually beautiful in everyday life,” says Mathes. »Because there is always something that is good at the moment or for which you can be thankful.« The two architects of the program are particularly pleased that one thing is at the top of the list of happiness factors for many children: the happiness lessons themselves.

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