“You see, the ultimate purpose of education is twofold: one, making me understand how to live a happy life; second, how to help others live a happy life. The ultimate purpose of education is happiness.”
– Manish Sisodia, Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minster of Delhi (Source: “The Happiness Curriculum,” directed by Christopher Scott Carpenter)
The first thing I noticed about Jasleen was her pair of curious eyes, which were seemingly made larger and more inquisitive by her glasses. As a student at the Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya No. 2 School in Punjabi Bagh, New Delhi, Jasleen acts as a Health Monitor, an important position with responsibilities toward her classmates that include CPR training and administration, wellness checks, and mental health triage. The position came to her quickly; Jasleen is new at this school, a government school, having transferred from her previous school due to financial constraints.
I met with Jasleen because she had agreed to share her story with me as I produced and directed a documentary on the Government of Delhi’s Happiness Curriculum. The Happiness Curriculum, it is prudent to explain, is a systemic introduction and integration of a values-based emotional and life skills education paradigm into the existing structures of government school classrooms, in which one Jasleen is enrolled as a student. Through mindfulness, self-expression, introspective sharing, and values-oriented activities, the Curriculum aims to create a happier, more self-sustaining generation of students inheriting the India of tomorrow. The Curriculum came as a means to counteract rising trends in a variety of problems in Indian society, one of the most pressing of which being a rise in student suicides (State Council of Educational Research and Training, New Delhi, & Directorate of Education, 2019).
Jasleen’s extraordinary story, however, does not start in a Happiness class; rather, it starts in the place where the lessons and values explored and taught within the Curriculum are meant to have their greatest impact: the home.
Jasleen had always been aware of the tension inside her home. “My parents used to argue and quarrel over small things,” Jasleen told us during her interview for the film. “They would argue, and then not talk to each other for two or three days. Neither would admit any fault.”
The effects of domestic and parental conflict on children is well-documented. While disagreements are natural to any relationship, there needs to be a healthy way to achieve resolution, not only to strengthen the relationship, but to teach those peripheral to the argument – such as children – effective skills in conflict management for use throughout life. Routine and prolonged arguments, however, have been shown to elicit feelings of fear, sadness, or anger in young people; indeed, young people between the ages of 6 and 17 who were exposed to “ongoing, acrimonious” behavior between parents showed increased levels of distress (Harold, Pryor & Reynolds, 2001), including increased feelings of anxiety and depression, anti-social behavior, and deficits in scholastic achievement (Harold, Aitken & Shelton, 2007). Further research has shown that the effects of emotional and social withdrawal as an argument tactic – the “silent treatment,” or purposefully not communicating for several days – can be as damaging to children as disagreements that are intense and overtly hostile (Amato, 2001; Cummings & Davies, 1994).
Lacking a strong support network at school due to her newness and facing adversity at home, Jasleen was put in a vulnerable position.
“Earlier, when they would argue, even I would feel sad,” she told us. “I couldn’t concentrate on my studies.”
India is sitting on a happiness crisis. In the 2019 edition of the World Happiness Index Report, India fell seven places from its 2018 ranking to land at 140th out of the 156 countries examined. Those polled for the report outlined their impressions of and feelings toward a variety of socio-cultural, economic, and political factors as they affected and were manifested in the responders’ home countries, including freedom of choice, life expectancy, social support systems, income and financial opportunity, and the generosity of fellow citizens (Helliwell, Layard & Sachs, 2019).
For education practitioners in India, the urgency of this decline is compounded by an upswing of student suicides related to or directly stemming from academic performance. The number of student suicides rose from 8,068 in 2014 to 9,474 in 2016 (World Health Organization, 2018), an alarming increase of nearly 20% in just two years. Earlier this year, 20 students in the Indian state of Telangana took their own lives following the release of their failing test score results, including one young woman who set herself on fire in her home after learning she did not pass her biology exam (Aaro, 2019).
This shocking abundance of tragedy is part of the larger conversation concerning the resiliency and wellbeing of young people in India. Around the world, education is perceived as the gateway to success, or at least as the means to achieve a better life; in developing countries like India where social mobility is low and populations and rates of poverty are high, the pressure on individual students to excel in their academics can be debilitating. Psychologists estimate that in any given classroom one student out of every five will suffer from anxiety or depression related to academics-oriented peer or parental pressure (Iyer, 2018). When Jasleen mentioned the negative impact her parents’ disagreements were having on her ability to focus on her schoolwork, she revealed how precariously close she was to a potentially disastrous downward spiral.
Failure, however, is inevitable in life. The student suicides resulting from unsatisfactory academic results are a symptom of a problem more deeply-rooted and widespread than what a cursory examination of India’s education sector would reveal. They’re a symptom of a systemic inability to instill within young people the mechanisms required to navigate the challenges presented by life, which includes both the pressure to perform well and the feeling of failure.
The unavoidability of conflict, too, is a universal challenge in life, be it between friends, strangers, colleagues, or spouses. The capacity to navigate and resolve that conflict is a crucial life skill that forms just one of the many sinews binding the Happiness Curriculum together.
It was this skill that was introduced in earnest to Jasleen and her classmates during the “activity” portion of that week’s Happiness Curriculum classes. The activity is based on exploring and practicing gratitude, with the understanding that gratitude and appreciation are antithetical to disagreement and conflict. The former highlights the qualities one likes about someone else; the latter highlights the qualities one does not like. The teacher distributed slips of paper to the students, who were already sitting partnered in twos.
“You will be given a slip, and you have to think carefully about your partner’s good qualities,” the teacher explained. “Whatever you appreciate, write it down – write everything down.”
Hands took to their pens, and the girls scribbled out lists of the positive qualities of the persons sitting next to them. The ideas came in a rush, then slowed to a trickle. As the seconds ticked away and the students were forced to really consider the relationships they had with others, what started as notes of superficial appreciation slowly gave way to notes of deeper gratitude. The activity is formalized and structured, but its main purpose is to serve as nothing more than a reminder.
Each student was then asked to stand with her partner and share the qualities written on the sheet, for all to hear. This builds an atmosphere of positivity and support, which is crucial when the demands and pressures of education in Indian society can have such tragic outcomes. The teacher relays, “Sometimes we fixate on negative qualities. When asked to write, everyone wrote so many good things that we usually take for granted. We get upset over such small things.”
Jasleen shared, “[The activity] makes me feel really good. It makes me feel like I am special to someone, and that there are good qualities inside me. This makes me happy.”
What makes this story extraordinary is the way in which its protagonist, Jasleen, came to embody resilience after reflecting upon her experiences with the Happiness Curriculum. Jasleen took it upon herself to learn the activity, to understand its construction and implementation. She grasped the activity’s rhythm and pace, and grew confident that she could facilitate the same social support that became so evident in the classroom. She understood that the activity is meant to be more than just a classroom exercise, and she applied it to her context, to the adversity she faced. She took control of her situation and utilized a mechanism that could help her navigate one of life’s challenges.
She reflected, “My parents are so stressed in their work. They don’t have the Happiness classes that we do. I wanted to share it with them.”
In the heat of an argument one night in the kitchen of her family home, Jasleen took what she had learned and started to change her life – and the lives of her family – for the better.
Her father remembered, “I had just returned from work around 11 or 11:30 at night. The food wasn’t ready, so I started arguing with [Jasleen’s] mother.” He continues, “Jasleen shared the activity with us that day.”
Indeed, Jasleen facilitated within her parents an awakening of gratitude. She conducted the impromptu session just as she had experienced it, starting with a session of mindful breathing and listening. Jasleen instructed her parents to close their eyes and focus only on their environment in that moment – not the past, not the future. Her parents remarked they could hear the chatter in the neighboring apartment, and that somewhere a washing machine was running. The emotions of anger and fear subsided, and calmness reigned. They were grounded in the moment.
In moments of heightened and tense disagreement, flaws are often augmented, even weaponized. Positive qualities, those things we appreciate about someone, often go unnoticed or are taken for granted. “Living with each other for so long, we tend to forget the good things about each other, even though we know they exist…we forget in the heat of the argument,” Jasleen’s mother expressed, a notion echoed across cultures. Articulated simply, heartfelt appreciation is “a muscle we’ve not spent much time building, or felt encouraged to build” (Schwartz, 2012).
However, when prompted, Jasleen’s parents presented a picture of marital and social harmony, if taking their activity lists as being any indications. Jasleen’s father was praised for his “work ethic, loyalty, polite nature, and sharp mind.” Jasleen’s mother was praised highly for her “abilities as a mother” like empathy and patience, and for the “incredible care she provides to her children” that comes from a place of nurturing love. All are laudable and valuable qualities to possess and share in a marriage; it’s amazing what positive thoughts will come to the forefront of the relationship when given a simple reminder to do so.
Upon reflecting on how Jasleen’s utilization of the activity has changed him, Jasleen’s father remarked, “Jasleen made me ask myself why we were arguing so much.” He turned to look warmly at his daughter. “From that moment we started smiling because we have a child who thinks about us.”
To be clear, the Curriculum is under no pretense of being a panacea. Every interpersonal relationship is complex, nuanced, and multifaceted; every argument is contextual and multileveled. The Curriculum simply presents opportunities to explore and practice a variety of life skills through activities, stories, mindfulness exercises, and opportunities for self-expression from which the tools and mechanisms necessary to navigate the obstacles of life, overcome adversity, and manage conflict can emerge and be refined. It’s a Curriculum for Happiness – like with any educative effort, its efficacy is measured by the extent to which its students apply the lessons to realms outside the classroom.
“What I liked most about this was that there is a child who can teach us these things,” Jasleen’s father continued. “We keep fighting among ourselves – elders are supposed to teach children, but today’s children are teaching us.”
And at its most effective, education begets education – such stuff are what paradigm shifts are made of.
That being said, in this case study examining the impact that one activity had on developing resilience and fostering wellbeing in one family living in New Delhi, the activity – and the Curriculum behind it – has certainly produced positive change.
“If an activity like this can help my parents,” Jasleen said with a wry smile, “it’s possible it can help anyone.”
- Aaro, David. “20 Indian Students Commit Suicide after Exam Results.” Fox News, 28 Apr. 2019, www.foxnews.com/world/20-indian-students-commit-suicide-after-exam-results.
- Amato, P. R. (2001). Children of divorce in the 1990’s: An update of the Amato and Keith (1991) Meta-Analysis. Journal of Family Psychology, 15, 355–370.
- Carpenter, Christopher Scott, director. The Happiness Curriculum. Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, Dream a Dream, 2019.
- Davies, P. T., & Cummings, E. M. (1994). Marital conflict and child adjustment: An emotional security hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 387–411.
- Harold, G. T., Aitken, J. J. and Shelton, K. H. (2007), Inter-parental conflict and children’s academic attainment: a longitudinal analysis. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48
- Harold, G. T., Pryor, J., & Reynolds, J. (2001). Not in front of the children? How conflict between parents affects children. One-Plus-One Marriage and Partnership Research: London.
- Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2019). World Happiness Report 2019, New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
- Iyer, Swathyr. “Student Suicides: The Silent Epidemic Claims 150 in 2017-18.” The Times of India, 12 Mar. 2018, timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/hyderabad/student-suicides-the-silent-epidemic-claims-150-in-17-18/articleshow/63261857.cms.
- Schwartz, Ben. “Why Appreciation Matters So Much.” Harvard Business Review, 23 Jan. 2012, hbr.org/2012/01/why-appreciation-matters-so-mu.
- State Council of Educational Research and Training, New Delhi (SCERT), and Directorate of Education (DoE). Happiness Curriculum. State Council of Educational Research and Training, New Delhi, 2019.
- “Suicide Data.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 1 Nov. 2018, www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/countrydata/en/.