Choosing happiness

I am living out a childhood dream. Growing up in an apartment block in a big city, my contact with animals was minimal. I longed for anything that I could look after and smother with 7-year-old love. My parents attempted to indulge my desire by distracting me with terrapins and a goldfish. Both met their untimely demise when they attempted a break for freedom; the ones with legs managed to scoot off the edge of the balcony and the slippery one jumped out of my hands and into the toilet bowl, promptly swimming away into the freedom of the sewer. I was devastated; I suspect my parents were relieved.

Now I have a cat. And a dog. And a guinea pig. I wave hello to Hercules, Romeo and Trumpet, our Rossall pygmy goats, on my way to the office. My life, and my children’s lives are full of living things. The pets have each other too. In fact, it is difficult imagining one existing without the other.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean they get on. Charlie, our cat expends a huge amount of energy and time antagonising poor Phoebe. Phoebe, being a 6-month-old lab can’t help but take the bait and is often the one who gets into trouble when Charlie ends up being pinned down, or when his head appears precariously encased inside Phoebe’s jaws. And yet, Charlie relentlessly persists in getting in her space, winding her up. I only know from the few times when they have curled up to sleep together that, despite fighting like cats and dogs (ha!), they must in fact love each other, and the needling and scrapping is a part of that. I have concluded that they must be happy.

It’s been a week for exploring the existence and place for happiness in our busy lives. An obvious question presents itself – how do you know if you are happy or not? Is happiness the steady-state of our everyday or is it something that happens much more rarely? Is it the elation of individual, special moments or the absence of anything negative ever happening to us? Do we only realise that we were happy at the exact moment that we admit to ourselves that we are not? Is happiness the result of cumulative happy events the way that “unhappiness” often creeps up on us? Can we alter the way that we feel, happy or unhappy, by simply choosing to be one or the other?

This idea of choice when it comes to happiness, is one that, in my opinion, underpins much of educational philosophy. The fashionable word for it in more recent times has been “resilience” – the capacity to recover from difficulties. Many schools stake a claim on this character trait as a cornerstone of their provision, a fundamental outcome of a well-rounded education. But what EXACTLY does it look like? And furthermore, how can we teach children to choose happiness? And should we?

It’s really important here that we distinguish between concepts we commonly wrongly associate with happiness. Happiness, is not the superficial lifting of spirits through seeing or doing something funny, it is not the feeling of satisfaction when your win is a reflection of somebody else’s weakness rather than your strength, it is not the completion of a task that was well below what you could have done, it is not gaining acceptance within a group that forced you to compromise who you are.

Happiness should come from a sense of personal fulfillment. The knowledge that what you do and who you are, matters. The sense of empowerment that comes from knowing that you are the agent of change in your life and in the world. Happiness is not about feeling “happy” all the time, it’s forged in the knowledge that when times are hard you will find a way through. It’s about surrounding yourself with people who will love and value you for the person that you are not only at your best, but also at your worst. It’s about giving, more than it is about receiving. It’s about seeing the good in situations, in people, in yourself. It’s about choices, sometimes difficult ones.

As educators, we have a responsibility in engendering these values. It’s not as simple as putting together a “happiness” or “resilience” curriculum, or a discrete timetabled lesson where these ideas can be taught. Instead, it’s about ethos; the thread that runs through interactions at all levels, that absorbs itself into our curriculum, that is present in the language that we use, that is reflected in how and when we give grades and reports. It’s lived through the care of our tutors, Heads of Year, houseparents, school nurses, and each and every single teacher. Our behaviour system is more about choices than it is about punishment, mistakes in homework prompt reflection and time for improvement, our activities programme is vast and the focus is on encouraging pupils to try new things. Our farm is a place where we can care for creatures more vulnerable than ourselves, our pupil societies are at their best and their message most powerful when driven by the pupil body. We promote the idea of lifelong learning as a staff, our extensive CPD programme is underpinned by the idea that nobody is ever a “finished product”; if you are done, if there is no further room for growth, you have no choices to make and therefore can’t possibly hope for fulfilment and happiness. Similarly, our Human Universe programme and our opportunities for research within the curriculum are designed to offer avenues for finding, exploring and sustaining an interest and a passion for learning something of our own choosing. Our PSHE and assembly programme provide pupils with information, opportunities for discussion and ultimately a sense of control through an understanding of themselves that will help direct future choices and improve their sense of well-being.

We strive for an appreciation that happiness within a community is everyone’s responsibility. For yourself, it’s the way that you choose to view the world and your place in it, for others it’s the consideration, courtesy and open-mindedness with which we treat every single individual.