Before I go any further, I want to stress that this blog is NOT about the complexities of terrorism! It is about how constant news bulletins, extended coverage of world events and the reactions of adults to such events may be affecting our children.
I recently completed a 6-week ‘Positive Examination Preparation’ (PEP) course programme with 16 year-olds about to take their GCSE’s: students were reportedly feeling the pressure and I was asked if I could help. I design and deliver Upward Spirals courses that aim to offer a holistic approach to wellbeing, combining concepts and tools from Positive Psychology (PP) with mindfulness exercises and ‘taking care of my body’ through promoting good nutrition, exercise and sleep.
This course is specifically designed to focus on managing exam stress through interventions including mindfulness, adopting a growth mindset and increasing positive emotions. It also includes the 7 character strengths associated with success and wellbeing adopted by KIPP schools in America, supported by the ‘big guns’ of PP, Dr. Martin Seligman, the late Dr. Chris Peterson, Dr. Angela Duckworth.
The 7 strengths associated with success are: curiosity, gratitude, optimism, perseverance (grit), self-regulation, social intelligence and zest.
What transpired during the course however is that the scope of these teens angst is far from being limited to exams. Our children are not just scared of failing academically and fitting in with / being accepted by their peers as we might think.
Different types of happiness
One of the sessions that students enjoyed most was learning about different types of happiness and considering what made them feel happy. We discussed the difference between hedonic and eudamonic happiness: the former which focusses on the pleasurable things in life and the latter based on what gives us a sense of meaning and purpose, linked to the Buddhist concept of ‘right action’ by the father of Positive Psychology Martin Seligman (2004).
Students wrote down as many things as they could think of that made them happy on post-it notes and stuck them on a poster (pictured) and shared why these things made them feel happy. Answers were laced with humour, levity and mild sexual connotations (I expected no less!) but encouragingly encompassed both types of happiness. Responses ranged from money; buying new clothes / shoes; food – chicken tikka masala (specifically with mushroom rice and garlic cheese naan, which sparked off a discussion about whether Basmatti rice was better and eating chicken in general); chocolate and ice cream; annoying their friends, holidays, music and favourite bands to friends names, family, walking, sunny weather, snow, Christmas and kindness.
What would make Superman happy?
To expand the discussion on eudaimonic happiness, I asked what they would do if they had a superpower and could make a real difference in the world, perhaps expecting them to say ban exams or offer the sort of answers that might have surfaced in a Miss World contest of yesteryear like create world peace, give money to good causes or feed the poor. Responses included ‘build an Iron Man suit;’ and surprisingly, “Say ‘bye to Donald trump and put Michelle Obama in” with one teen saying “Kill all Isis members.”
It was at this point that I interjected to validate their feelings of shock following the recent terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge and to pose the question of whether killing another human being can ever be justified, yet move things back to a more positive place… But I do remember having a similar discussion in class when studying for an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology – if someone derives meaning and purpose from killing others, are they happy?
So should this be a question on a GCSE Exam?
Possibly – discussing how different individuals express meaning and purpose could help children and young people develop a better understanding of the complexities of 21st century life and develop strengths that would address such issues more positively. They are constantly exposed to news in the media, especially TV and online and hear the reactions and opinions of adults around them.
When I was a child, we listened to the news once a day, but with 24-hour news, extended coverage of big news stories and headlines every time you go online in the 21st century, there really is no escape. Whilst it’s good to stay informed and feel connected to the rest of the global community, this constant exposure to (predominantly negative) news can have a profound effect on our mental health, especially that of our children (Palmer, 2007).
Young people in the 21st century are afraid of political unrest, terrorism, violence; of life’s challenges, family problems and instability; the unknown, expressing their feelings and fears, trusting adults, bullying and I suspect much, much more. Palmer (2007) describes how repeated exposure to horrific images on the news damages emotional centres in the brain increasing anxiety in young people and recommends restricting exposure, reading rather than watching news and discussing issues calmly so that we don’t end up increasing their fears.
Work Hard, Be Nice
Whilst hard work is important for achieving goals in life, perhaps we should also be teaching children to develop strengths such as fairness, kindness and perspective. In focussing on teaching children that what really matters is passing exams, we are failing to educate them about not just how to cope with everyday life, but how to be happy, grow and develop as individuals and the potential creators of more flourishing societies.
Palmer, S. (2006). ‘Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging our Children and What we can do about it’. London. Orion.
Seligman, M. E. (2004). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfilment. York. NeSimon and Schuster.
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