NEW DELHI, India — At a time when polls show a steady decline of people’s satisfaction with their lives around the world, the city of New Delhi is carrying out an ambitious plan to reverse the trend: It is teaching mandatory “happiness classes” each day in public schools.
Every morning, an estimated 800,000 elementary children attending 1,000 public schools in this capital city start their day with a 40-minute “happiness class.” The classes, which go from kindergarten until eighth grade, aim to ensure that children not only acquire academic skills, but also become happy, honest and responsible individuals.
Curious about this massive experiment — perhaps the largest of its kind in the world — I contacted the New Delhi education authorities during a visit to the Indian capital last week.
They told me that the “happiness curriculum” was launched before the COVID-19 pandemic as a response to India’s poor showing in world happiness rankings and to a general decline of life satisfaction in the world.
According to an annual Gallup poll on happiness conducted in 140 countries, the number of people who feel more anger, sadness, pain and stress rose from 24% in 2006 to 33% nowadays.
A separate World Happiness Report released March 20 by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which ranks happiness in 137 countries, placed Finland, Denmark and Iceland as the world’s happiest countries, while India ranks in 126th place. The United States ranks 15th, Mexico 36th and Argentina 52nd.
New Delhi education minister Atishi Singh told me in an interview at her office that the “happiness curriculum” consists of daily mindfulness exercises, followed by stories and activities designed to develop children’s socio-emotional skills.
“We spend 90% of our schooling years giving students information that many of them will never use,” she told me. ”But the issues that really affect everyone, like the sense of self-confidence, how you deal with your relationships with others, how do you work in a team, how do you live with your family, are questions that are often never taught in schools.”
She added, “For the first time, issues that are really crucial to every human being’s existence are being brought inside the class. And I think this has a substantial impact on the children. They really get a forum where a lot of these issues can be discussed.”
New Delhi’s “happiness classes,” which are taught by an estimated 20,000 specially trained teachers, start with a three-minute guided mindfulness meditation session. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing one’s full attention in the present moment, which, among other things, helps enhance people’s attention span and reduces stress, studies show.
At the beginning of each “happiness class,” the teacher typically asks her students to sit down comfortably, with their hands resting on their knees, close their eyes, and silently concentrate on the sounds surrounding them. About 20 seconds or 30 seconds later, she asks them to focus on their breathing.
Thirty seconds after that, the teacher asks students to focus their attention on their hands, legs and other parts of their bodies. Finally, she asks them to slowly open their eyes and get ready for their school day.
In addition to the three-minute mindfulness session, students often start their math, science and other classes with similar guided breathing sessions.
“Children have more concentration after practicing mindfulness,” Priya Malham, sixth-grade math teacher, told me. “It helps them focus on every subject.”
Several days a week, the “happiness classes” feature gratitude exercises where children are asked to write thank-you notes to friends or strangers; class discussions on stories told by their teachers are designed to stimulate debate about human values, problem solving, team work and collaboration.
Asked whether the daily “happiness classes” don’t take away much-needed time away from math and other academic subjects, education minister Singh told me that standardized tests have actually improved since the curriculum began. She cautioned, however, that the improvement may also be because of other recently implemented education reforms.
The jury is still out on whether New Delhi’s happiness classes will create better human beings and, perhaps, even help children academically thanks to their mindfulness exercises. But the whole world should pay attention: If ongoing evaluations prove that the happiness curriculum works, it should be adopted everywhere.
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