Expert View

How about happiness courses in schools?

How about happiness courses in schools?

Isn’t it happiness that all humans strive for so why not a course on happiness? Prof. M M Pant analyses about the why’s and how’s of one of the oldest pursuits of humans to seek happiness…

Courses on happiness are the flavor of our times. Universities like Harvard and Yale are finding these to be very popular. MOOCs such as Coursera and edX are also offering courses on happiness.

And most recently the Delhi Government announced that it would be introducing courses on happiness for its school students. From philosophical and religious origins to the American Declaration of Independence emphasising life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights, the quest for happiness or the conquest of happiness (the title of a 1930 book by Bertrand Russell on the subject) has been a perennial mystery. ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’ said Socrates. And Nietzsche propounded that “One who has a ‘why’ of life can manage almost any ‘how’?”

The main goal of all human activities and endeavors seems to be to seek happiness. Yet too many people are unhappy. Many such people turn to ‘spirituality’, sometimes to fake ‘Babas’. But in this age of reason and Science, it should be possible to pursue and achieve happiness by following the insights from Science including biochemistry, neuroscience and Psychology. But until the work of Martin Seligman on ‘Positive Psychology’ mainstream psychology focused heavily on the negative aspects of life, such as depression and anxiety. Positive Psychology is “ The scientific study of optimal human functioning that aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive.”

Another approach to happiness is to look at its biochemical basis. Happiness may be largely a chemical experience, arising out of four main biochemicals. Endorphins are neuropeptides produced by the central nervous system to help us deal with physical pain. Endorphins are released after both aerobic and anaerobic exercise.

Serotonin is naturally triggered by exposure to bright light and happy thoughts. Some foods may also release serotonin. When you score a goal, hit a target, or accomplish a task, you receive a pleasurable hit of dopamine in your brain that tells you you’ve done a good job. But you can also get a natural dose of dopamine when you perform acts of kindness toward others. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter referred to as the ‘chemical of reward’.

The fourth chemical is the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is closely associated with loving touch and close relationships. It turns out that human happiness is incomplete without all four of these. Each by itself gives us temporary happiness. But for more lasting happiness, all four are needed. That is why we get to see some people who are rich and accomplished, but still not happy. Happiness is also a consequence of the choices we make. Harvard University followed the lives of two groups of men for over 75 years, to understand how childhood experience reaches across decades to affect health and wellbeing in middle age.

The most important message from the Study was that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. The data also clearly found that those who feel lonely are more likely to see their physical health decline earlier and die younger. Loneliness is becoming another modern malady of endemic proportions. “It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, it’s the quality of your close relationships that matter.”

While some might seek a high philosophical meaning to life, Ikigai is more akin to a task you can joyfully perform for the rest of your life. For those on board with ikigai, the secret to happiness lies not in dramatic adjustments or momentous achievements, but in acknowledging the small pleasures of daily life, and better appreciating our surroundings. Gratitude is about feeling and expressing appreciation: for all we’ve received, all that we have (however little it may be), and for all that has not befallen us. It functions as an antidote for attachment to what we want but doesn’t have an aversion to what we have but don’t want. Gratitude is the opposite of being discontented. Over the past decade, numerous scientific studies have documented a wide range of benefits that come with gratitude. Research-based reasons for practicing gratitude include contentment, better physical health, enhanced sleep and better relationships. In other words, it gets the right juices flowing.

The second half of life is marked for some by depression and an absence of meaning. Carl Jung believed that middle and old age, like youth, have specific developmental tasks. While the developmental tasks for youth involve turning outward and engaging life, the goal of the mature individual is to consolidate an integrated personality by integrating the conscious and the unconscious parts of self. Aging gracefully is also an important aspect of being happy. The ability to learn from failure and disappointment is key to a happy and rewarding life. “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” said Shakespeare.

Setbacks are normal, especially when you are continually being challenged — at home, at work, or in your community — and trying to improve. “Any quest, even one that is ultimately successful, is going to involve failure,” brothers Chip and Dan Heath write in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. If you can learn from setbacks, you’ll be able to move forward. In support of our mission of lifelong learning with mobile phones and Whatsapp, a course has been created with the title ‘Happiness Unlocked’.

The program is structured as a series of 10 learning weekends that will explore themes such as:

  • The quest for happiness
  • What does it mean to be happy? Why it’s so hard to be happy?
  • The Science of lasting happiness
  • The many faces of happiness
  • How to measure your life
  • The therapeutic value of creative expressions such as bricolage and writing
  • The biochemical basis of happiness: endorphin, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin
  • The Japanese concept of Ikigai
  • An attitude of gratitude
  • Looking at the bright side of life: Optimism, Inspiration and humour
  • Ageing Gracefully: enjoying the second half of life
  • Overcoming failures, disappointments, despair, and achieving happiness and Lifestyle matters: diet, exercise, sleep, time and stress management.

Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. It is not a destination you arrive at, but a way of life, where every minute you spread happiness, and some of it comes back to you. Robert Louis Stevenson in his essay ‘Eldorado’ wrote the concluding words “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and true success is to labour”.

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