How Well-being Education can avoid the ‘Tyranny of Happiness’

As I come to the end of my twenty-eighth year of primary teaching, I realise once again that the nurturing of children’s mental health and well-being should not be left to chance. I think it needs to underpin our curriculum, as more and more research shows that investing in children’s mental health can bring benefits to academic, social and emotional development.

I’ve just completed my first year of studies towards a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) with the University of East London, and I have really enjoyed bringing many of the concepts into my classroom, and the rest of the school, in a child-centred and age appropriate way. Initial feedback is very encouraging; with 97% of the children reporting that the lessons have helped them in various ways. I look forward to researching this impact in more detail as my studies progress.

One common misunderstanding, which I have come across a lot during the year, is that many people seem to equate Positive Psychology with the idea that we should be happy all the time. This idea is sometimes termed the ‘Tyranny of Happiness’. This ‘burden of positivity’ means that people can feel guilty or inadequate if they struggle to experience positive emotions all the time. I suppose that’s understandable given the title, but Positive Psychology is the scientific study of well-being, not just pleasure or superficial happiness. Many theories of well-being include a much broader view of optimal human functioning, which involve developing a sense of meaning and contribution to the greater good, for example, Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory. Although boosting  positive emotions is a vital part of well-being, that’s not to say that experiencing negative emotions is something to be avoided or supressed. Challenges, upsets and disappointments are part of life, as are the feelings that go with them.

I feel that this core concept can be introduced to children in a variety of ways. We can make sure children understand that all emotions are completely normal, and they can be encouraged to see emotions as information or feedback. The labels negative and positive in terms of emotion can be explained as referring to how they make us feel in the moment, rather than in simplistic black and white terms of good / bad. Of course, children the need to be taught helpful ways of dealing with negative emotions, so that they can work through them effectively. I have found that helping children to ‘name and accept’ their strong emotion can often be the starting point in processing them.  Different children may need longer or shorter amounts of time to do this, depending on individual temperament. Giving them the tools to help themselves to feel better is important, but it is their choice to decide how and when to use them. In my experience, giving them this choice can help with self- regulation and also build self-efficacy. This type of well-being education can help children become active participants in creating and maintaining their own mental health, whilst avoiding the ‘Tyranny of Happiness.’

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