Why teach happiness?


7 ways to guide students toward happiness

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

No one ever said life would be easy. Into each life a little rain must fall. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Clichés aside, there’s no arguing that life isn’t always — ahem — a bed of roses.

But what if we could make it so, at least some of the time? Better yet, what if we could show kids how to do this?

According to happiness research (yes, there is such a thing), we not only can, but we should. Happiness affords a number of benefits besides simply feeling good. People who are intentionally happy are healthier and less stressed; not surprisingly, they live longer, as well.

It may seem counterintuitive to pair faith with scientific research. Faith is, after all, a belief in what we cannot see, and as believers we have no problem waiting until the end of time for the fruits of our spiritual labor because we trust in God’s goodness.

Yet, as teachers, we’ve learned to be data-driven, and not surprisingly the data supports the positive effects of much of what we want our students to know, learn, and become. The challenge lies in nurturing future citizens who seek the kind of Spirit-led joy that God intended rather than self-centered individuals motivated by their own desires. With that in mind, what better end goal could we have than adults who embody the fruits of the Spirit?

To help our students lead lives that embody joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness, here are seven things we can do.

1. Teach them their faith.

Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

Positive psychology lingo: Spirituality and mindfulness

This is an easy one. We teach in Catholic schools because we believe in the benefits of a relationship with God and the world he created.

We want our students to know a loving God who listens to them when they pray. We teach them to go to church so they can nurture that relationship, connect with others who share their faith, and become part of a faith community.

By teaching children the foundations of their faith, we are strengthening them to become the best they can be in thought, word, and deed and to ask for God’s help when life makes this difficult. From a psychological perspective, we’re helping them to connect to something bigger than themselves, to develop purpose, and to foster social networks.

2. Teach them to be grateful.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. (Psalm 118:1)

Positive psychology lingo: Gratitude

As teachers, we’re called to nurture the God-given talents in our students and help them become the best versions of themselves. We want our students to appreciate all they’ve been given, whether we’re focusing on spiritual gifts or material goods. And when we help them to recognize and express their unique gifts, we facilitate the development of adults who contribute their time, talents, and treasures to the world around them.

Whether by writing in a journal or just taking a moment to count our blessings, expressions of gratitude contribute to overall well-being. In addition, gratitude can help to make kids less materialistic and happier with what they have.

3. Teach them to persist.

Though the just fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble from only one mishap. (Proverbs 24:16)

Positive psychology lingo: Grit and mindset

Intuitively we know the value of persisting and working toward our goals, as well as the wonderful feeling of accomplishment that accompanies reaching them. For some of our students, things come easily, while others struggle with the same concepts.

Curious about what enabled West Point cadets to stick it out through an incredibly difficult boot camp, researcher Angela Duckworth set out to find what she later called “grit” — the characteristics that enabled some to persist when others who appeared equally qualified gave up. Wondering what inspired some students to want to solve more challenging puzzles when their equally talented peers stuck with easier ones, Stanford professor Carol Dweck looked beyond intelligence to uncover personal beliefs about success and failure, introducing us to fixed and growth mind-sets.

Encouraging effort rather than outcome and helping kids get from where they are to where they want to be, baby-step-by-baby-step, enables them to learn the value of hard work and experience the satisfaction of a job well done.

4. Teach them to be kind.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31)

Positive psychology lingo: positive support systems and resilience

Most of us know that having a network of people who care about us is important. In fact, research shows that one of the best tools we have to get through life’s rough patches is “positive support systems,” otherwise known as friends and family.

Teaching children to be kind to one another isn’t only the right thing to do. It also helps our students to create valuable relationships that will sustain them in tough times and celebrate their successes. And it makes life a whole lot more pleasant, making it one commandment that’s relatively easy to follow.

5. Teach them that problems aren’t forever.

“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you … plans for your welfare … so as to give you a future of hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Positive psychology lingo: optimism

Closely related to an attitude of gratitude is a sense of optimism. From a faith perspective, this can be rooted in the belief that everything unfolds according to God’s plan and a greater good is at work in the world.

Not surprisingly, optimists are happier than pessimists, but they are generally healthier and live longer, as well. In addition, they’re more fun to be around, which means they have stronger support systems. They’re also good problem-solvers, more likely to focus on what they can change than to wallow in helplessness and adapt a fatalistic mind-set over one setback. As a result, they manage stress better. Optimists don’t ignore the negative; they’re just good at putting it in perspective.

6. Teach them to share.

Consider this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. (2 Corinthians 9:6)

Positive psychology connection: altruism and support systems

As teachers, we want our students not only to have friends, but to be friends, as well. One way to cultivate friendships is through a generosity of spirit. Sure, it’s nice when our students share their things, and it’s even better when they learn to give without expecting anything in return, but being generous with their time and talents is just as important.

The funny thing is that when we learn to do that, we often get something important in return: happiness. It feels good to do something nice, and one act of kindness often sparks a succession of kindnesses that echo far beyond the original act.

7. Teach them happiness habits.

A glad heart lights up the face, but an anguished heart breaks the spirit. (Proverbs 15:13)

Positive psychology connection: neuropsychology and brain development

While perfection may be overrated (and impossible), it’s usually true that the more you do something, the easier it becomes. And, in fact, there are brain-based reasons for this. When we do something repeatedly, we build pathways in our brains, and the more we do something, the more “paved” those pathways become. We’re constantly creating new connections and paving new pathways, training our brains to become experts in the things that matter to us. Practice, while not necessarily “making perfect,” creates physical evidence that we not only learn by doing, but we also replace old habits with new ones. While it’s true that some people are naturally more optimistic than others, practicing optimism can be habit-forming.

As educators, we want to nurture a generation of young people who think of others, bounce back from tough situations, problem-solve, and create beauty in the world. While these things may not be found in the textbooks we use or the curriculum to which we must adhere, they are woven into the fabric of faith-based education.

Teaching our students to leverage their strengths, look on the bright side while acknowledging life’s challenges, and treat others with kindness not only ingrains happiness habits, but also prepares them to face life’s challenges head-on. Whether we evaluate these skills from a faith perspective or a research perspective, the result is the same. Learning to do these things helps our students tap into their talents and use them to make the world a better place, generating happiness along the way.

Image credit: Shutterstock 88988800


Want to know more?

Google these people:

  • Shawn Achor
  • Angela Duckworth
  • Carol Dweck
  • Sonja Lyubomirsky
  • Karen Reivich
  • Martin Seligman

Listen to these TED Talks:

  • Shawn Achor: “The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance”
  • Carol Dweck: “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve”
  • Angela Duckworth: “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”
  • Alison Ledgerwood: “Getting Stuck in the Negatives (and How to Get Unstuck)”

Surf this website:

Authentic Happiness (AuthenticHappiness.sas.upenn.edu)

Check out this (free) class:

Be Happy — free online course by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. (Author of The How of Happiness)


Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.

Image credit: Shutterstock 88988800

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