Should we be teaching students how to be happy?

This post is the first in a series exploring happiness and mindfulness in the classroom.

One of the most powerful educators I’ve ever experienced was my Critical Theory professor in university. He was a gifted thinker and orator, and he didn’t give a damn about making us happy. On the first day of class, he told a group of 40 fresh-faced students that only one of us would earn an A by the end of the year. One A! The following class went from 40 students down to 30.

After his brutal and heavily weighted mid-term essay on Plato and Aristotle in October, (for which most of us received D’s,) the class size shrunk even further. The professor wasn’t concerned at all. In fact, he seemed pleased: his class had been vetted down to a small group of curious D-range students who stayed despite the risk of failure. Now we could get down to work.

Teaching for happiness wasn’t part of his objective—just the opposite. He crafted his lectures and assignments to make us all quite uncomfortable, to provoke intellectual and emotional reactions, and to force us to think and write at the edge of our capacity. His class was so intellectually challenging and his grading so discerning that we had to forfeit our attachment to getting high grades and allow our passion for the content to motivate us. After a full year of the hardest writing and thinking I’ve ever done, my capacity for discomfort greatly expanded, and so did my ability. What a gift.

But that was university in a very different time. As a high school teacher in the private system, teaching for happiness is often an implicit expectation from students and the phrase, “I’m not happy with my grade,” is one I hear regularly. I would love this phrase to be the beginning of a reflective conversation about how the student could improve, but most often, “I’m not happy with my grade,” really means, “when can you change it?”

Perhaps what needs to change is the expectation on the part of the student that happiness is a relevant emotion to education at all. Then again, I often take comfort in my favourite fuzzy teaching quotation when I’m feeling discouraged about whether or not what I’m teaching is really sticking. It goes something like this: Students may not remember the content of your class, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. Inspired, challenged, frustrated, humbled…happy? Hm.

So what role do happiness and being happy play in education? As a science and an art, happiness has been examined for thousands of years, but happiness as a more conscious practice and buzzword has gained popularity in the west with the success of books like The Happiness Project, among many others, scholarly, philosophical and New Agey. So it’s not surprising that the concept of happiness is appearing more and more in the realm of education and curriculum.

But happiness is a very complex experience to teach and learn, and the question of whether or not it’s even possible to teach happiness is controversial, don’t you think? Back in 2008 The Guardian ran part of a debate between two educators, Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, and Frank Furedi, sociology professor at the University of Kent. The question put to them was simple: can we teach people to be happy?

Seldon says yes–we can and we should, as educators, teach children how to be happy, and he suggests three main reasons: “First, if schools do not [teach happiness], children may never learn elsewhere. Second, depression, self-harming and anxiety among students are reaching epidemic proportions. So are drinking and drug-taking. Teaching schoolchildren how to live autonomous lives increases the chances of avoiding depression, mental illness and dependency when they are older. And third, since the development of the positive psychology movement under Martin Seligman and developments in neuroscience, we now know how to teach wellbeing, and have empirical evidence of its effectiveness.”

Furedi disagrees, calling programs focused on improving wellbeing “silly,” suggesting they encourage children to be inward focused rather than engaged with the outside world. He says, “everyday experience suggests that not everything that has to be learned can be taught. How to feel well is not a suitable subject for teaching. Why? Because genuine happiness is experienced through the interaction of the individual with the challenges thrown up by life. One reason why well-meaning educators cannot teach their pupils to be happy is because feelings are contingent on encounters and relationships.”

Click here to read the full discussion; both educators make compelling arguments.

For me, I think the question of teaching happiness is too subjective and complex to answer definitively. My Critical Theory professor did not teach to make me happy, and yet the transformation I experienced in his class 12 years ago is still in my cells. It still has power for me. When I saw my final grade was an A, I did feel a kind of thrill, but it was weightless and fleeting in comparison to all the heavy work we did that year, the value of which I feel every time I get a new class of students and tell them, as I was told, to release their expectations for high grades and seek instead to increase their capacity for thinking and writing, and ultimately, disappointment. Because this is what builds resiliency, and nothing makes me happier than that.

I’m curious to know what you think: where does happiness fit in to what you teach? Should we be teaching students how to be happy? If so, where do we start?



5 thoughts on “Should we be teaching students how to be happy?”

  1. Kassi,

    Great piece. You ask some very important questions here. I do think we should be teaching children about happiness, and in so doing, we need to be careful with how we define happiness.

    In the United Nations World Happiness report from 2013, the UN grapples with defining happiness:
    The problem, of course, is that happiness is used
    in at least two ways — the first as an emotion
    (“Were you happy yesterday?”) and the second
    as an evaluation (“Are you happy with your life
    as a whole?”).

    If we see happiness as the emoticon, then it seems to be this sense of avoiding anything which might bring about temporary discomfort, but in the examination of happiness as an evaluation, experiencing discomfort on a temporary basis could helps to arrive at a deeper sense of well-being. As you say about your challenging professor, when you persisted and found the “grit” to carry-on, you learned something about yourself, and grew from the experience. You learned that you could overcome obstacles, and it seems that you discovered some of your own inner strengths.

    I do teach about happiness. My philosophy is not that I am giving children their happiness, but rather I am empowering them with the tools and mindset to overcome difficulties, and to live life in such a way that they may experience a sense of well-being. I have developed six habits, or pillars for happiness that, when unpacked, help us to be caring global citizens who take care of ourselves and others. In this way, happiness is not an insular, self aggrandizing thing. The habits are: Express Gratitude, Reflect on Happy Memories, Spread Kindness, Practice Mindfulness, Take Care of Our Bodies, and Build Into Relationships.

    Thank you for asking this important question. I look forward to reading more on this topic.

  2. I don’t know that we can teach students to be happy, but I do think it is worthwhile to teach about happiness. The biological basis and evolution of happiness, along with a good understanding of various types of happiness could fit nicely into a science or advisory curriculum. Carol Dweck showed us that teaching students about how the brain learns can lead to higher performance. Can teaching about happiness lead to greater happiness? How about a reduction in drug abuse? It’s worth a try.

    There’s a current edX MOOC exploring this topic at

    1. Thanks for your response, Peter. I agree, it is worth at try, so long as “happiness” is defined, I think. It’s a complex concept. Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out.

  3. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful piece on this topic. I see it both ways. I think we can and should teach happiness, although it might not be that overt, it might be more like teaching kids how to self-soothe when they are feeling stressed, anxious or depressed, so that they have healthy ways to navigate the natural ups and downs that come with life.

    But I don’t think it’s up to the teacher or the school to make the student happy. That’s what the individual has to find out for him or herself. A teacher or school can give a student the tools to help them discover what makes them happy or engaged or passionate about something, and that can certainly lead to happiness.

    But happiness should not be “given” as in a good grade, so the student feels happy. As your experience in college illustrates, you were ultimately more happy by the fact that you had a professor who pushed you beyond your already established limits, and in so doing, you learned not only about the subject matter, but what you were capable of.

    This meant more to you than receiving an empty A grade that was not derived from hard work and understanding. Instead the rigor of his classes, assignments and grading technique and sticking with it, when other students bailed, lead to a process whereby you eventually earned the A. Clearly you derived more happiness from earning it versus having been “given” the A. That lesson has stayed with you your whole life, so real learning and happiness was taught. It’s just not always apparent at the time!

    1. Thanks, Cindy. Yes, exactly, I derived a lot of happiness from that course and on reflecting on that time in my life, but the pursuit was never about happiness. You make a good point that happiness cannot be given. I do think there is value in learning about what leads to happiness in a person’s life, but you’re right, teachers can only offer strategies.

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