Kindness cascade

How many people will you engage with today or tomorrow? 5, 10, 100, more? How many of them are close friends or family members, and how many of them are merely acquaintances?

One study conducted at the University of British Columbia in Canada, found that adults over 25 years of age directly interacted with an average of 6.7 close ties and 11.4 acquaintances daily.

Interestingly, not only did the number of interactions with close ties predict wellbeing and belongingness, but even the number of interactions with weaker ties predicted a person’s sense of belonging

The simple act of engaging meaningfully with another human helps us feel connected to our larger community.

So, imagine this.

What would happen if you and each person in your community was just a little bit kinder tomorrow? What would happen if everyone just conducted one additional, simple act of kindness with each of the 18.1 people they interact with tomorrow? What if you just complimented them on the cool shoes they’re wearing or picked up a dropped pen or asked about their recent vacation?

This is what would happen…

In a school or organisation with 100 colleagues, there would be nearly 2,000 additional acts of kindness tomorrow. And if that was maintained over the week – just one simple act of kindness per interaction – we’d have 10,000 additional acts of kindness. And in a school year, we’d have close to half a million extra acts of kindness. Imagine what that could do for the wellbeing of a community…at zero cost.

And here’s the thing. Kindness is highly contagious. When you smile at a friend, colleague or acquaintance tomorrow, when you choose kindness, you might just make their day. Or you might trigger an unstoppable cascade of kindness. Who knows?!

Licking the spoon

One of the best things about being a kid is having the right to lick the spoon that has been used to stir the cake mixture. OMG. Do you remember how amazing that was? Licking the spoon was, somehow, way more exciting than actually eating a slice of cake.

And the best part is that you don’t have to do any work.

Someone else has learned how to bake, chosen (or written) the recipe, carefully measured the quantities, sifted the flour, cracked the eggs, and stirred it all together. All you have to do is enjoy the resulting deliciousness with a smile!

As a result though, and as good as it tastes, it’s a pretty passive experience. You don’t learn much. Sure, you might come to discern which types of mixture you prefer, and you may even develop the ability to critique the different textural and flavour elements – that’s ‘a little too sweet’ or ‘a little bit lumpy’.

But the thing is, you can’t learn to bake by licking the spoon.

Learning to bake is hard. There will definitely be burnt cake along the way. But bit by bit you get to trade consumption for creation – opening up a new world of exploration and possibility. Best of all, you can still lick the spoon if you want to, but you can also gift the spoon and its joy to others – whenever you like.

The children we mean to raise

How important is it to you that your children and / or students develop into ethical, caring adults? In one study from the University of Virginia, 96% of parents said that the development of a caring orientation and moral character in their children was pivotal; more important even than high achievement.

Yet, in a 2014 Harvard study involving 10,000 middle and high school students, 80% of the youths reported that their parents and teachers “are more concerned about achievement or happiness (feeling good) than caring for others.”

The researchers suggested this data might reflect a “rhetoric/reality gap”. Perhaps what we, as influential adults, say we value isn’t reflected in our behaviour.

Closing that rhetoric/reality gap isn’t easy, especially for high schools who are, for the most part, subject to a system that rewards test scores more than character or caring. But it’s not impossible. You only have to walk into a school that is genuinely committed to wellbeing and character to see that their reality and rhetoric are more closely aligned. These schools celebrate and highlight behaviour and images and displays and artwork and physical spaces that reflect a prioritisation of character and caring.

Some other schools, however, choose to highlight their trophy cabinet. That reflects a different priority.

Happily ever after

“…and they all lived happily ever after.”

No. No they did not.

I’m confused about how honest I should try to be with my three-year-old son. I’m conflicted about the Santa Clause ‘lie’. I’m struggling a little bit with the whole Easter Bunny thing. And I don’t know whether to let him know that, despite what his storybooks tell him, no one lives ‘happily ever after’.

From such an early age, we begin to build this socially-constructed myth that happiness is the normal, natural, default state for humans. And most of the time we don’t even know that we’re complicit in this myth. How many times as an adult have you seen a sad child and instinctively asked “What’s wrong?”. Sad = wrong. Happy = right. Instead of validating negative emotions, we tend to demonise them.

And children’s books are full of this narrative. Of course, they tell stories of challenge and struggle and fear, but in the final chapter, the sadness goes away, the ice melts, the little fish gets reunited with his family and everyone is okay and happy again. Back to the way it should be. Happy!

Clearly, there is a lot to be said for protecting the innocence of childhood. But there’s also a risk that, if the illusion is too great, if we build an impenetrable happiness myth, then we set our children up for unrealistic comparisons that can cause real problems later in life.

So, just as the best teachers demonstrate balance in their pedagogy, there is a middle-ground we should aim for with children. Let them get lost in the joy and wonder of Santa. And when they feel upset or afraid or disappointed, instead of asking “What’s wrong?”, be there, hold them, and say something like “I can see that you’re sad, I’m here with you. Tell me about what you’re feeling.”

The Santa and the Easter Bunny myths are relatively harmless; the happiness myth is not.

Emotion vs Emotion

You know when you’re angry and someone or something makes you laugh – and you no longer feel angry anymore? This is the psychological phenomenon known as reciprocal inhibition.

In essence, it is impossible for a human to feel two opposing emotions at the same time. For example, we can’t feel admiration and disgust at the same time; or compassion and hostility; or interest and boredom. In each of these cases, one emotion dominates and, in doing so, represses the other.

This is, in part, why Dr Kerry Howells‘ work on gratitude in education is so important. When we cultivate a deep sense of gratitude, it forces us out of our own heads. When we feel gratitude, we experience a world that is not ‘about me’ but rather, about the gifts we receive from others. And so – instead of being affected by our own fear or guilt or grudges or worries – gratitude opens our hearts and minds – it allows us to transcend ourselves.

Gratitude isn’t just a nice emotion we feel on a ‘good’ day – it’s a strategy that causes us to educate differently. And because we all have so much to be thankful for, gratitude is a choice…even on a ‘bad’ day.

…especially on a ‘bad’ day.

Six keys to student happiness

The 2019 World Happiness Report has just been released. This is the 7th annual edition of the report – based on data from the Gallup World Poll.

This year, the top 10 happiest countries are, in order: Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria. Australia ranks 11th, the UK 15th, USA 19th, the UAE 21st, and China 93rd.

Interestingly, the six key variables used in the report to explain differences in average life evaluations are:

  1. GDP per capita;
  2. social support;
  3. healthy life expectancy;
  4. freedom;
  5. generosity;
  6. absence of corruption.

These variables have been found in the overall research literature to be important in contributing to general differences in evaluations of happiness. All of this makes sense at a population level, but I wonder what the equivalent six key variables would be for student happiness in schools?

Here’s my list:

  1. safety (Do I feel safe at school?)
  2. belongingness (Do I feel like I belong?)
  3. hope (Do I see a bright future and have the ‘will’ and know the ‘way’ to get there?)
  4. autonomy (Do I feel a sense of volition and control over my schooling?)
  5. purposefulness (Do I feel that my learning make sense and that it matters?)
  6. trust (Do I feel that I can trust my peers and teachers, and do I feel trusted?)

There is no World Student Happiness Report. (The PISA Students’ Wellbeing Report is the closest research we have.) But if there was, the above six factors would contribute significantly. These factors are the foundation of a child’s school experience. Nothing matters more.

Happy genes

How much is our happiness affected by our genes? Are some people just born happier than others?

One of the largest ever studies aiming to help answer this question was published in 2015. It analysed genetic data from over 300,000 people and identified three specific genes associated with subjective levels of happiness. Two genes were also identified that seem to be directly linked to depressive symptoms.

Why does this matter? Well, it does confirm other empirical findings suggesting that there is not a level playing field with regards to happiness. Our genetics undoubtedly play a role in both mental wellness and mental illness. And it is a good reminder that our wellbeing is not entirely within our control.

But whilst we may not be able to choose our genes, researchers like University of California Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky point out that at least 40% of our happiness is due to the choices we make: “happiness, more than anything, is a state of mind, a way of perceiving and approaching ourselves and the world in which we reside.”

There are some factors affecting our happiness that we cannot control. And there are certainly many that we can.