How can we find meaning and purpose when our lives are so busy in school? Frances Robertson provides us with some insights.
When working in schools it is so easy to think about ensuring the staff are happy, the children are happy and that the parents are happy. It may even be that some leaders are also trying to ensure the Governing body is happy. Many parents will say ”providing they are happy” when talking to teachers at parent evenings and meetings. You may find yourself thinking, “ I just want to be happy”.
So, what I am going to say next may be surprising. I have for a long time been urging schools to move the language away from the word “Happy” or “Happiness”. It may seem a sensible word to use however when linked to well-being, as it often is, it can become a loaded word. By that I mean what happens when you are not happy?
If happiness is set up as the ideal emotional state, we potentially can leave our children, staff and so on in a crestfallen state when they are not happy. Realistically for how long can you remain in a state of happiness?
Before reading on, pause and consider when were you last really happy?
What caused it?
How did that feel?
How long did it last?
Are you still feeling that emotion right now?
If in your schools you are trying to improve the mental health and wellbeing of your school community by having the state of “happy” or “happiness” as your goal, ironically this is likely to become a stumbling block. This state is not and cannot be a permanent basis. You become habituated to what makes you happy and then would need more and more of it to remain in that state. Therefore trying to seek this out becomes burdensome. I am, though, not suggesting that positivity cannot be longer lasting. There is much research out there about the power of positivity.
This view is very much backed up and supported by the group of psychologists working in the field of positive psychology.
If we look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs we can see that we have two needs. The first set are the basic ones that enable us to simply survive. The other set of needs are ones of psychological and personal growth which allows for intellectual and creative growth. The need for growth includes the need to be connected, feelings of self worth, accomplishment and realisation of your own potential.
There is no mention of happiness or being happy.
Fredrickson in her research talks about positive emotions too and the impact these have on wellbeing and resilience. The top ten words used to describe positive emotions include:
The words happiness or happy are not in this.
All this research is suggesting that there is something happening here rather than being happy. My suggestion is that having a purpose and meaning in your life is much more likely to result in a positive frame and therefore a good sense of wellbeing and a stronger ability to be resilient. And a sense of purpose and meaning in life is likely to be more permanent.
What can schools do to support this?
In many ways it begins with the overall school culture. As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Having a school culture of positivity, growth mindset (Dweck) and a solid set of values underpinning everything is crucial. As a school are all the stakeholders involved in developing and maintaining this set of core values? Are the values adhered to by all? Does everyone know them?
The school values give purpose to what you are doing. They will give purpose to what the pupils are trying to achieve. They provide a driver. Having a set of clear values helps you understand what matters to you, what helps you achieve, what might hold you back and who can support you. Do you know what your values are? This is often the starting point for many coaching conversations.
Whilst I was a Headteacher in one school we developed a set of “Keys to Success”, so named by the pupils, which laid out our values ( which were developed with all the stakeholders including the pupils thoughts and views):
The driver here was to move the pupils away from the sense that everything had to be perfect and correct the first time. It was to embed the purpose that the act of learning was ongoing and the joy was in the learning not the finished product. Similarly this moved into the ongoing continuous development process for teachers too.
Teachers could be freed from thinking that every lesson had to be perfect. They could develop as professionals and that learning to be a better teacher tomorrow than today was the goal. It provided meaning and purpose in what was being carried out. The pedagogical approach rewarded the effort, not simply the end product. In other words a move towards a growth mindset rather than fixed enabled all to experience better wellbeing.
Appraisals can then be linked to professional development giving more purpose and meaning to what the teachers are doing. Effectively this develops a coaching approach to leadership. The behaviour code can also be linked to this both within and out of the classroom setting. It begins to underpin everything.
Extending the vocabulary used when discussing emotions is also a good way to move forward. From when a child comes into school this can start to happen. A move away from using the words happy and sad is a good step forward. It is worth digging deeper to find out what the emotion truly is. You can explicitly teach young children this and if I can be bold, ourselves too. The link below shows a four year old able to discuss his emotions quite clearly.
Can we all do this? Can the children in our schools do this? For example are you happy or are you content or thankful or excited, relieved, elated, confident or overjoyed or simply cheerful or glad?
Are you sad or actually disappointed or regretful, disillusioned, tearful or dismayed?
Going beyond the basic emotional state and finding out what lies beneath enables the child/ adult to understand their emotions better and have a better sense of what works for them and their own sense of wellbeing.
Along the journey of moving towards having purpose and meaning rather than seeking a goal of being happy parents need to be included. Holding workshops and sending out newsletters and social media updates of what you are doing is crucial. They too need to adopt the same language you are using. They too need to praise the effort rather than telling their child how clever they are.
In summary having meaning and purpose in your life will allow you to maintain a better sense of wellbeing and resilience than seeking out happiness. The joy comes from the journey, not the end goal. And the journey can be tough and challenging which is why having that meaning attached to what you are doing is so important. Aristotle tells us that “the true nature of a human being is not to be happy permanently, but to strive for it. It is the striving itself, that is usually the greatest happiness”. So the way forward is to know or seek your meaning and purpose, enjoying the journey along the way.