Teaching Kids How to Cultivate Happiness

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“I have chosen to be happy, because it is good for my health.” –Voltaire

As health teachers, we spend a great deal of our time on prevention—against injury, illness, addiction, unhealthy relationships—and much of it comes from a reactionary place… How can we stop the kids from doing things that we think could lead them to harm?

With physical health, we have specific actions to teach them. Exercise, eat real food, get lots of sleep, wash your hands, look both ways before you cross the street.

But with mental and emotional health, much of the focus—both in the health class and in the field of psychology—has been on the other end. Rather than teaching and practicing active skills to keep ourselves healthy, we scramble to find interventions to respond when we’re not.

What if there were actionable skills that we could teach the kids to strengthen their mental health, just like we do with their physical health?

Well, according to those in the field of positive psychology, there are. Positive psychology focuses on the things that we can all be doing to make ourselves happier.

I first learned about positive psychology a few years ago, when our school psychologist and counselors began a campaign to change the culture of our school. They offered a showing of the documentary, Happy, which combines real-life stories with interviews from scientists in the field of happiness research.

Trailer: The Happy Movie

 "We should really be thinking of happiness as a skill, which is no different than learning to play the violin, or learning to play golf."

— Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin, Madison

After watching this film for the first time, my subject partner and I decided that it was a perfect fit for health class because the main practices of positive psychology–gratitude and resilience, acts of kindness, healthy relationships, finding flow, the power of play—align directly with the concepts and skills we’re trying to teach.

We use it with our 8th graders as it ties in nicely with our character and values unit, but the film could be used for any class, grades 6-12, and comes with a free online guide for educators. Of course, as with anything, you should view it first and make the call based on your individual students.

The guide has background information, discussion questions and activities, and is connected to the National Health Education Standards as well as the ELA Common Core. If you don’t have time to show the whole film in class, they’ve broken it down by chapter to facilitate shorter sessions, or you could partner up with a language arts teacher for a great cross-curricular fit.

Happy: Middle/High School Instructors Guide

The Happy Movie can be purchased on DVD for a fraction of the price of what we usually pay for health ed videos, or it can be streamed on Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu as well.

Even if the rest of your school year is planned, and you have absolutely no time left in the semester, I’d highly recommend giving this a watch, on your own or with your family. Every time I watch it with my students, I’m given a powerful reminder about what truly matters, and how blessed I am to get to teach that everyday.

Up next week: Part Two: Positive Psychology in the Health Class — I’ll share resources and activities designed to teach students about mental and emotional health in a positive, skills-based way. Caution: Some of these activities are guaranteed to cause high levels of happiness. :)

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Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 9.51.34 AMAbout the author: Amy teaches Middle School Health at the Shanghai American School and has a passion for curriculum that is current, relevant, adaptable, and shared. She has presented at conferences in Asia as well as the AAHPERD and SHAPE America National Conventions. You can access her blog and resources at thehealthteacher.com and find her on twitter at @teaching_health.