Happiness is when you feel really good about somebody.
—Al Green, Love and Happiness
Ah, happiness—that slippery but sublime thing that we all seem to be chasing throughout our lives! Where do we find it? How do we hang on to it, and what can we learn from those who seem to have never lost it? I’m talking about those people who just radiate the joys and pleasures of the process of living.
I think jazz pianist Horace Silver’s musical homage “Song for my Father” brings up this simple point: some folks just know how to be happy. Silver’s dad was “a human being so true, he could live like a king ’cause he knew the real pleasures of life.” The real pleasure was to be devoted to and always stand by loved ones. As simple as this may sound, it begs the question, did he learn this sweetest of all skills or did he come by it naturally?
I was recently reminded of the happiness question when I read an article about George Vaillant’s work with the Harvard Grant Study men. These are people who were followed and studied throughout their adult lives. Consistently, they were asked to assess their level of “successful living.” Now, as most of them approach the end of the line, their responses have become clearer and more definitive. Their comments suggest a review of happiness in terms of love itself and, especially, the power of relationships.
Intellectual abilities, social class and incomes could not predict the levels of contentment measured in this study. Over and over, the men attributed their happiness to “warm connections” and being able to adjust to life’s slings and arrows with the support of others. When asked what he had learned from the men in the study, Vaillant himself summed it up: relationships rule. They are, in fact, the very foundation of happiness.
Anyone who has seen Michael Apted’s 7 Up films, which tracked a group of British school children every seven years of their lives (it’s up to forty-nine now!), would recognize some of the same themes. Happiness does not depend on money or other conventional concepts of success. It hinges instead on things like attitude, friends and family. Certainly family life can have an influence on happiness so, as an educator, I have to ask: why can’t schools also help their students become happy campers for life?
Obviously, of all the various and sundry things we have asked of our schools lately, this is certainly not one of them. Actually, these days a “Joe Friday” approach to our schools and student outcomes is in vogue. Just give us the facts, ma’am, the facts and nothing else. And by the way, happiness is not on the test.
In today’s climate, happiness disappears further into the background as parents wring their hands over their kids getting into Harvard. Students are feeling the heat. High stakes tests and standardized curricula have created a pressure cooker of academic expectations and one-track minds. High school seniors are put in a high state of anxiety while often losing sight of the big picture: becoming happy and fulfilled with one’s self and one’s life.
Curricular choices are “narrowed” so that not just the basics, but also the exact subjects that are on The One Big Test, are the only ones left standing. This one-size-fits-all approach to learning translates to life. The message is: if you don’t fit in, you can’t succeed, and if you don’t make the grade, how can you possibly be happy?
It’s interesting–and disturbing–that shortly after the Columbine High School murders in Colorado, the school district administrators and leaders briefly searched for something they had given short shrift to: a personalized approach to education.
Sure, the Columbine killers had access to counseling services, social workers and psychologists, but these were people who had little contact with the students. It was the classroom teachers and administrators who should have known them best. Unfortunately, many kids got lost in the shuffle of a large, impersonal system where instruction and testing came first while cliques, bullies and alienated students frequently went unheeded.
What might have happened in a system that valued relationship building and personal growth is anyone’s guess but, in the aftermath of Columbine, the idea of an advisory system where all teachers would become more like coaches, guides and counselors and a little less like instructors and information dispensers was kicked around.
In fact, the concept was already being successfully implemented by a long lasting public alternative school located a scant five miles away, the Jefferson County Open School. Ironically, it was the Open School (as it is usually called) that took it upon itself to march those five miles to memorialize those students and teachers lost in the tragedy. Other district schools did not feel that they had the time to take away from the curriculum.
What curriculum? At the Open School, this march was the curriculum. In a school where every student (K-12) has a personal advisor or positive adult connection and the educational program is child-centered and experiential, it is hard to ignore the realities of kids’ lives. In effect, some students and teachers might consider it educational malpractice to do so.
It’s interesting as well to consider some of the comments of Open School students and staff regarding their return to school the day after Columbine, when many district teachers and students were scared stiff to go into their school buildings. “I felt like I was walking into my own living room,” said one Open School student. The general feeling was: this is one of the places where I actually feel safe and supported. The warmth of the school was palpable.
Schools should be this way. They should be places, as the late Studs Terkel said, where students and staff can “help each other become their fullest selves.” You have to get to know each other really well to in order to do this kind of thing. I know, because I’ve interviewed almost 500 former Open School students from the years 1976 through 2002.
Almost universally they have told me that they learned to be happier, more creative adults from their Open School experience. And they say that the crux of the matter was the focus on developing and maintaining meaningful, trusting relationships, starting with their advisors and extending, sometimes incrementally, to larger groups within the school and, eventually, to the world at large.
So schools can provide fertile ground for the growth of happiness if they take the time to address their students’ personal and social needs. They should, in fact, be places where young people get a chance to practice what Al Green, Horace Silver and the Harvard Grant Study men all agree is the key to happiness: feeling really good about someone.
Posted by Rick Posner, PhD, author of Lives of Passion, School of Hope