Well-being: Embracing the sceptics

27 October 2017

I’ve had some interesting reactions to my well-being role. I think some people may see it as fluffy/superfluous. Head of Happiness. Little Miss Sunshine. I get it.

There are many assumptions made about the role of positive psychology and well-being in education. Having conversations and shifting any misconceptions is an important first step in developing an holistic understanding. It’s about getting on the same page. And the sceptics hold valuable perspectives that are an important part of the process.

I thought it might be interesting to share the discourse;

Well-being: It’s nothing new.

Yup, the interest in what makes a flourishing human life is nothing new. For much of human history, religious leaders, philosophers and psychologists have contemplated what makes a good and meaningful life. St Andrew’s College was founded and developed on strong Christian guiding values. In the 1960’s, progressive educationalists and humanist psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers had already influenced education to consider the whole child- cognitive, social and emotional.

What is new, is that in the last 20 years we have generated a scientific body of research in the field of positive psychology and neuroscience. Large and rigorous randomised control studies are showing positive impact.

Australian schools like Geelong Grammar and St Peter’s College, are sharing the quantitative and qualitative measurement of their interventions. There is a road map emerging.

Evidence based approaches in positive education

Well-being: It’s the next thing to detract from our primary focus- academic achievement.

No way. Well-being is fully proven to be synergistic with better learning. A focus on staff and student well-being will impact positively on academic achievement. Research clearly shows that positive emotions influence student achievement. With a positive mood, we broaden our perspective, think more creatively, collaboratively and can focus and memorise.

Teacher’s and student’s emotions matter (a lot!) in learning. Says neuroscientist, Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang: “It’s literally neurologically impossible to think deeply about something we don’t care about.”

Character matters in learning too; perseverance, curiosity, social intelligence, and self-control.

At St Andrew’s College, our learning framework, informed by John Hattie, fully appreciates that students need the skill, the will, and the thrill of learning if they are going to achieve academically.

Mr Happy

Well-being: It’s all about happiness.

No, it’s not. The term positive psychology can be misleading. Some people see it as only promoting positive emotions- like happiness. A focus on well-being is not about making everyone happy all of the time. Of course, we want our students to broaden and build their experience of positive emotions. But to be happy all of the time? That is an unrealistic expectation, and simply not what it means to be a human being.

I think wholeness is what we should be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration and failure: all the things that make us who we are.

The key to well-being is resilience and emotional intelligence. We want our students to bounce back from their inevitable setbacks and understand that they can choose to have control over their thoughts and emotions. By conceptualising that our emotions provide us feedback, about what is working, and what is not – we can continue to grow. It’s about self-awareness.

Well-being is about experiencing accomplishment and meaning. To read about our holistic definition of well-being see here. We want our students to understand that the pursuit of meaningful goals will not always feel comfortable. Short term stress can be a good thing, it’s a call to action.

You can’t teach well-being or character.

Many people see well-being or character as something that is fixed- it just naturally emerges out of life. You can’t teach it. Character and optimism are seen to be determined by the childhood experience and genetic make-up of a person.

Award winning psychologist, Sonja Lyubomirsky has spent years researching the factors that influence human happiness. Her research estimates that around 50% of our positive affectivity is determined by our genetic make-up.  Yes, genes do play an important role. Denise Quinlan, from the University of Otago, likens our genetic set-point to either being born with a weight belt or flippers in the sea of life.

Interestingly, Lyubomirsky’s research estimates only 10% of our happiness is created by our external circumstances. Yes, 10%. You need to read about hedonic adaption.

Importantly, approximately 40% of our happiness is about what we do and what we think- that is, our intentional activities and strategies. And these are things that can be taught and that we can be made conscious of.

Embracing the sceptics

Scientific research is showing us that you can teach well-being, character and emotional intelligence. Neuroscientific research is uncovering fascinating insights about the plasticity of the human brain. I’m intrigued by Richard Davidson’s research. His studies, analysing fMRI scans on Tibetan monks, show the impact that meditation has on the structure of the brain. It seems that we can learn happiness, and compassion as a skill, just as one learns a musical instrument.

We want our students to value knowledge, to think critically and to appreciate different perspectives. As a staff, it is also important that we ask questions and promote discussions about well-being. Debate, scepticism and considering multiple perspectives will be an important part of the process

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