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Agenda: Can we learn our way to happiness?


Secret to successGemma Middleton reports on a recent conference on happiness run by the Campaign for Learning, and comes away with some insights into misery as well as some tips on how to embrace and spread a little sunshine.

When asked me to attend the Campaign for Learning conference called 'Can we learn our way to happiness', I was excited at the prospect as well as being a little perplexed as to what was in store. Images of loving the inner you with the help of dark rooms, incense sticks, bare feet and bells fleeted through my mind, closely followed by lengthy, 'out there' lectures - this couldn't have been further from the truth.

With my knowledge of the learning industry consisting of my own experience in the education system as well as working for a learning and development specialist, I realised my actual experience compared to other delegates at the conference was dwarfed, to put it mildly.

Photo of Gemma Middleton"Real happiness comes from relationships with friends and family, marriage, health, childhood experiences and parenting skills."

The conference kicked off introducing well-being, which is defined as 'a state of happiness, good health and/or prosperity' - clearly a state that most of us would aim to be in and is probably the reason why there are over 18,000 books on Amazon regarding well-being.

Money can't buy it

In this year's World Values Survey, conducted by the US National Service Foundation, it stated that the UK came 21st in the poll of 97 countries, which on the face of it isn't too bad - after all, we are in the top third. While many people in this country crave the latest gadget, gizmo or fashion because it is felt that these things increase levels of happiness, it is interesting to note that Puerto Rico and Columbia took second and third places respectively in the survey. This clearly shows that financial prosperity is not the only element that affects a nation's happiness.

If we're being honest, the results of where the UK featured in the survey come as little surprise. For a while now the media have shown the UK to be quite low in happiness surveys. For example, a survey conducted this year for the Children's Society found that one in four 14-16 year olds said they felt depressed. What happened to your school years being the best years of your life? It is findings like these that beg the question: can we really learn our way to happiness?

Discussions and presentations at the conference generated the general consensus that real happiness comes from relationships with friends and family, marriage, health, childhood experiences and parenting skills. No one could argue with these aspects, as quite frankly they are common sense, yet they do provide food for thought. They did just that for me, particularly the impact of childhood experiences.

Lost childhood

The title of a session that grabbed my attention was called Detoxing Childhood. My initial thoughts were that it was either going to be very interesting or a perfect opportunity for someone to get on their soap box. Thankfully it was the first.

Apparently, babies are born with two quests in life. The first is to understand materials (systemise). I knew there was a good reason for my garden dinner parties and den building days. The second is to understand people (emphasise). I relished telling my parents that night that my nosiness and the fact I was a 'why?' child were part of my normal development and not down to being annoying after all. Understanding these two quests gives me an understanding of my own childhood and explained the things I used to get up to.

The culture and lifestyle of a British family has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and the best way I have heard to describe the shift is from real world living into virtual world living. A fact that highlights this shift is that on average, today's children spend five hours and 21 minutes per day in front of a screen instead of being outside playing British bulldog and stuck-in-the-mud, begging to stay out for those all important extra five minutes.

It is these very activities that children need, said Sue Palmer, a writer and broadcaster who presented at the conference. While it is seen by most people as just playing, in reality it means that children are able to learn life experiences - taking risks and understanding the materials that surround them, social competence as well as developing resilience to stop calling on parents for every little problem. And of course, living in a virtual world also means that kids today are even more consumer conscious than before, as all this screen time is allowing them to be actively targeted by advertisers.

It is quite obvious that, for whatever reason, be it an addiction to video games and TV, over-protective parents or just that kids themselves believe playing outside and using imaginations is 'babyish', children are not going through the traditional play/development process. Research suggests that this is a large contributor to children having poor concentration levels, language delays and serious mental disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and depression.

Misery passed to future generations

A speaker at the conference told us that happiness is split into three areas: 50% of everyone's happiness is genetically determined; 10% is the circumstances that we find ourselves in; and the remaining 40% is from activities we do and our outlook on life. If you consider these breakdowns and then consider the happiness levels of our young people, the result is quite scary.

"Puerto Rico and Columbia took second and third places respectively in the World Values Survey. This clearly shows that financial prosperity is not the only element that affects a nation's happiness."

If our young people are getting less and less happy then when they become parents themselves, 50% of their own children's happiness levels will be affected by their own values and happiness. This obviously is not a great starting point for future generations.

To spell out the obvious, this situation would definitely have a strong impact on business, with a particularly strong emphasis on HR and training, since their business is people. Unhappiness can cause many problems, including lower motivation and loyalty levels. It can also hinder creativity and problem solving.

Happiness strategies

Just thinking about it made me feel deflated, so thankfully the afternoon was dedicated to ways of addressing unhappiness. There were many different types of workshops, such as Nurturing your Emotional Literacy, Live Long & Prosper and The Joyful School. The workshops generated a much needed uplifting buzz and gave all delegates the chance to express their thoughts, experiences and concerns around the subject of happiness, education and where we can go in the future.

The final session of the day centred solely around positive strategies for well-being with the closing speech entailing a number of tips:

  • The first tip was to write down three positive things at the end of each day for a week as this helps to approach life with an optimistic outlook. Once this has been repeated for a week it was recommended to do it weekly. I did actually try this and I went to sleep feeling happier, with a clearer mind and seemed to wake up feeling slightly fresher than normal
  • The second tip was to place a stronger emphasis on love and relationships
  • The third was to get married – I found this one a little extreme being at the tender age of 24!
  • Another tip was to take a strength and use it to do something completely different as this creates new challenges and experiences
  • The final and arguably most important tip was to give people gifts of time as these are something that money can't buy. Human beings are naturally social creatures needing interaction and love to survive
  • So to answer the question; can we learn our way to happiness? I personally think that we can learn from what is happening now and see the damaging affects that our consumer led society is having on us as a whole and our individual happiness levels.

    Life is short: fact. So ensuring that happiness is a regularly experienced feeling is surely a necessity, otherwise it begs me to ask the question: what is the point?

    Gemma Middleton is a communications specialist at Righttrack Consultancy

    The Campaign for Learning is running a National Learning Forum in London on 2 December on the theme of Lifelong Learning and Skills: Ideal and Reality. For more information, go to: click here

    Related articles:

    Lessons in Happiness


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