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Can We Teach Happiness to Students?

Can We Teach Happiness to Students?

Seriously, you actually can teach your students how to be happy people.

Opinions differ on whether you can teach happiness and, if so, who should teach it. There is no set curriculum for teaching what makes students happy—but there is no shortage of students feeling stressed or burned-out, so the need is undeniable.

Teaching happiness is a large undertaking, but many educators are developing classes, lessons, or practices to meet the challenge.

Teach Psychology and Good Habits

Last year, Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos introduced the class Psyc 157: Psychology and the Good Life, which examines what makes people happy and emphasizes putting strategies into practice. Her class involves weekly "rewirement" assignments such as performing acts of kindness and forming new social connections, and culminates with a personal self-improvement "Hack Yo'Self Project."

Santos's class addressed the need for teaching happiness, and students enrolled in record numbers. Psychology and the Good Life quickly became the most popular class ever at Yale, and is now available for free to anyone through Coursera.

Further reading: The Truth About the Effect of Teacher Optimism on Student Performance

Santos has another Coursera class, The Science of Well Being, that aims "to not only teach what psychological research says about what makes us happy, but also to put those strategies into practice."

Tzeitel Olarte, an English Language Arts teacher in Panama, took this course and was so inspired that she decided to work through the weekly activities with her students. She assigned activities, such as doing a preferred activity every day for a week and savoring it, writing about something you're grateful for, and taking time to appreciate beauty, as homework for her class.

Teach Positivity and Self-Reliance

Kathy Hamilton, a fourth-grade teacher in New Brunswick, Canada, uses a variety of methods to teach what makes students happy.

"There is so much we can do with teaching children to find the joy in life," Hamilton said. "The littlest things make a difference: greeting every child as they arrive or commenting when we see them making good choices."

Hamilton teaches her students mindfulness and has them write gratitude journals, which she calls "Put on Your Positive Pants."

"I have a sign up in my room, which I used a wipe-off marker to change to 'pawsitive' the day I wore my cat print leggings," Hamilton said. She also wrote "pawsome job" and "pawsitively great" on her students papers that day.

There are some great resources for teachers who are inspired by Hamilton's organic connection with her students and want to impart lessons on positivity and self-reliance. For instance, Tools for Peace is a great resource for teaching mindfulness and gratitude in the classroom. The site offers a free download on Teachers Pay Teachers called Stop, Breathe & Think, which contains breathing exercises, body scans, and sensory activities for students.

Additionally, there are directions for students to create their own "Settled or Stirred Meditating Snow Globe," daily check-in worksheets for students to get in touch with their current mood, and gratitude journal prompts.

Teach Social and Emotional Learning

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a method many districts use to teach what makes students happy. One program currently used by more than 8,000 educators in all 50 states is the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Enrichment Program. First-grader Jesse Lewis was one of the 26 students killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Jesse's mother, Scarlett Lewis, founded the free K-12 program in her son's honor. Aligned with Common Core standards and based on the principles of courage, gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion in action, the Choose Love Enrichment Program teaches educators and their students how to become more connected, resilient, and empowered individuals.

Lessons are broken down for elementary, junior high, and high school students, and are excellent activities to use in morning meetings or health classes. According to the website, 100 percent of survey respondents say they have seen improvement in student behavior and classroom climate, and 95 percent of users report that they would use the program again or recommend it to other educators.

Teach Problem-Solving

Kalli Willson, a tenth-grade biology teacher in Washington, doesn't believe you can teach happiness. She has, however, seen similar results since she started teaching her students problem-solving.

Willson offers her students the opportunity to design solutions for major world problems, such as the abundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and overpopulation, which she says helps them feel less powerless.

"Overall, my high school kids feel more positive about the future since they feel like they can do something about it," Willson said. "They get to think of what they can actually do to improve their world, and also feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves."

Several websites offer lesson plans and ideas to help engage and empower students through real-world problem solving. PBS Kids' Design Squad offers videos, activities, and lesson plans to inspire kids and help guide teachers. Teach Engineering also offers activities and maker challenges for students of all ages.

Further reading: 5 Tips Guaranteed to Make You a Happy Teacher

Teaching happiness to students can either feel overwhelming or just like one more thing teachers are asked to do. However, those who have incorporated it into their classroom often find positive results—and students who are eager to learn. After all, happy students make happy teachers, so consider implementing some of these methods into your classroom.