Happiness 101 with Erin Threlfall

In my last post I asked the question, should we be teaching kids how to be happy? Thank you to those of you who wrote in to share your thoughtful comments and resources. To examine the subject further, this month I interviewed my friend and former colleague, Erin Threlfall, who is the founder of Happiness 101, a social and emotional curriculum that seeks to teach kids the habits they need to develop into happy adults. Here’s what she says about how and why we can teach the habits of happiness.

Tell us about Happiness 101. How did it start and how does it work?

Happiness 101 is a social/emotional learning curriculum that teaches children the habits for well being. Based on research from the world’s leading gurus on happiness, as well as scientific research on health and vitality and the benefits of meditation, Happiness 101 is a curation of practices (many of which are ancient) that are easy for children to embrace, enabling them to have a solid foundation for well being as they move into adulthood.

Often in life, we don’t seek out habits for well being (happiness) until we are experiencing a crisis, a loss of some kind, divorce, sickness, discontentment with life choices, etc. Rather than waiting until we are “broken adults,” I believe that we can empower children, at an early age, with the tools that they need to be happy, resilient, healthy adults who are poised to make a positive difference in the world. This isn’t to say that they won’t experience sadness, but with the knowledge of Happiness Habits, they will be more resilient and better able to deal with those moments of crisis. My students like to think of the program as their “happiness tool box,” filed with strategies to help them lead the most meaningful, happiest life possible.

Happiness 101 started out as an action research project I carried out with my grade 3 class at Bali International School. My students and I asked the question: What happens when we teach children the habits for happiness?  At the time, I focused on 5 basic habits: Exercise (we used Yoga), Meditation, Expressing Gratitude, Reflecting on Happy Memories, and Practicing Random Acts of Kindness. Over the years, my students have helped me to expand the habits, (they’ve even renamed some!) and have shaped the lessons so that they are most effective. We saw that Happiness 101 was a perfect tie-in with the IB Learner’s Profile, and the habits actually helped us to deeply embody the attitudes. Happiness 101 now has six key pillars: Build Into Relationships, Express Gratitude, Reflect on Happy MemoriesPractice MindfulnessSpread Kindness, and Take Care of Our Bodies.

Happiness 101 came with me when I moved to the United Nations International School in New York. My students here have fully embraced the program, and I have had fabulous feedback from both the students and their parents. Other teachers in lower grades have picked up the habits as well and are seeing positive results with their learners.

I consider myself the curator and chief promoter in this project, which has taken shape with the help of Jackie Rendina, a teacher at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong; Carl Massy, a life coach and Happiness strategist who founded the World’s Biggest Gym; The David Lynch Foundation, the leading organization promoting Transcendental Meditation, and about 200 students who have made significant contributions to the Happiness 101.  (Just to name a few of the inspiration sources!)

 What age group is Happiness 101 for? How can high school teachers effectively use your strategies with skeptical teenagers?

 The program is great for children of all ages, as the habits can be modified to be developmentally appropriate. Because I am a grade 3 teacher, this is the age group with whom I have done the most work, but I also have teachers in grades K-6 who are putting elements of the program into practice.

High school teachers won’t have to prod the children- the high school students have been incredibly receptive when I give workshops to this age group. Ideally, we would target students before they get to the challenging middle school and high school years, and then just continue to build upon and reinforce the habits.

Why do kids need to learn the habits of happiness?

Research conducted in the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, South Korea, and through UNICEF reveals that debilitating depression amongst children is rapidly increasing. Drug abuse, self-mutilation, eating disorders, and suicide amongst youth are increasing at alarmingly high rates, and are happening earlier and earlier. This seems shocking for most of us, as we believe children are inherently happy, but data is telling us otherwise.

I begin Happiness 101 with a class survey to assess the student’s well being, and their perception of their own happiness.  On average, a third of the students who take the survey reveal that they are not happy. They site high pressure to succeed, stressful schedules, bullying at school, and difficulties in their home lives as the main causes for their unhappiness.

With this knowledge in front of us, I would say that it is incredibly important that we intervene early to help change these statistics. I have seen that children who practice the habits show increased self confidence, greater connection to community, and higher success rates in school as a result- it’s a win-win!

Many critics say our obsession with happiness is a concern of privileged developed countries; what do you say? 

I’ve wondered a lot about this as well, but through my work within developing countries, I know that we all want to be happy. Many of the habits within Happiness 101 are already embedded in the cultural practices of countries in South America, Africa and Asia, which is why I believe that many of these children could teach those of us in “first world countries” a thing or two about happiness! I know I learned the most about this topic when I was living and working on a refugee camp in Ghana. So maybe it is true- maybe happiness is a first world concern because we have gotten so lost along the way.

Either way, the UN acknowledged the importance of happiness and well being as “universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world.” In July 2011, the UN General Assembly invited countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use this to guide public policy. The UN has also declared March 20 as “International Day of Happiness.”

I can’t help but wonder what would happen if schools measured the happiness of their community and used the results to guide school policies. I can say that my classroom environment has shifted dramatically since taking on the practices. If we teach children about happiness at a young age, I dare to believe that they could go on to create happier societies as adults.

What I love most about Happiness 101 is that the program does not promote coddling children or praise where praise is not due. Instead we look at ways to empower children to deal with life’s upsets, establish resilience, and take responsibility for their own happiness while recognizing the part they play in creating a happier community.

Where can we learn more about Happiness 101

To learn more, people can like the Facebook page: Happiness 101, Teaching our Children the Habits for Happiness. There, I post strategies and updates.  I am in the process now of creating a website, student workbook and teacher guide, and am also available for workshops.  My TEDx talk also tells more about the program.

Thanks, Erin!

Teachers, I’d love to hear from you. Are you using similar strategies in your classroom?

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3 Responses to Happiness 101 with Erin Threlfall

  1. Maggie Weis says:

    This is fabulous! Would you be willing to share your happiness pre-assessment?

  2. Seungwan Lee says:

    Thank you, Ms. Threlfall. I read your article with great interest.
    You may find more information on happiness in the research guide compiled by the Dag Hammarskjold Library at UN.

    http://research.un.org/en/happiness

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