The International Writers Magazine: Learning Happiness
Not until after I opened my eyes, back stiff from lying on the hard, carpeted floor of a classroom, and faced sixteen children, thirty-two eyes transfixed on me, did I register the sheer abnormality of what had just occurred. It is not every day you meditate with nine and ten-year-olds.
During the four months I lived in Sydney, Australia, I worked as a teacher’s assistant/aid at the International Grammar School (IGS), where I both studied and observed education in an international setting. Though I was only able to spend time in the classroom at one school, the observations and interactions I had with students and teachers provided me with much insight into the country’s educational system and values, engendering my own discussion and interest in the concept of learning gratitude, that being a central focus of where I worked.
Palms sweating, I could feel the increase in my heartbeat as I paced the halls of the school, desperately searching for my Year 4 classroom. As anxious as I was, I couldn’t help notice the brilliant murals that exploded from all surfaces of the brick walls, the vibrant colors forming images and patterns. At last reaching my destination, I timidly entered the small classroom where I was welcomed with squeals of delight from the girls, shouts from the boys. Though deprived of sunlight from lack of windows, the classroom radiated energy and character, the walls full with original artwork, laden with paint, glitter, tissue, and creativity.
Instructed to give me a tour, a young girl Fifi, her energy nearly rupturing from her bones as her head of blonde curls bounced around, pulled me towards the back of the room. Proudly she pointed to a large, rectangular board covered in purple paper that had been decorated with short notes and illustrations.
“This is our gratitude wall,” Fifi informed me.
Sure enough, I leaned in closer to read the texts. All were expressions of thanks and gratitude from the students of 4 Green and other visitors who had wished to contribute. They ranged from simple, “I’m grateful for Max because he’s good at Lego’s,” to more serious, “I’m grateful for Maxine and how she brings sunshine to everyday.” This board was a space for positivity. At anytime, anyone could go to the board and express what they were thankful for, appreciative of, or admired in others.
Gratitude, the quality of being thankful and readiness to show appreciation and return kindness, is not a notion easily enacted. As the definition denotes, the state of expressing gratitude contains two steps. To be thankful is only halfway. It is the acknowledgment and understanding of why one is able to be thankful—where that privilege comes from—then expressing a form of appreciation and offering kindness in return, that fully encompasses the meaning.
In living and growing up in a first world country during the 21st century, gratitude gets trumped by money, material objects, and commercialism. While we may recognize ourselves as privileged with access to luxuries and technologies other nations seldom dream of, how much do we express appreciation for these benefits? I silently thank the inventor of the iPhone every day, yet the minute it malfunctions I want to scream in frustration, the blessing immediately turned a curse: “This damn piece of useless technology!
Intrigued and immediately struck by the gratitude wall, I learned over the weeks that followed from Jodie Williams, a Year 4 teacher and my mentor, the concept of positive psychology. The field of positive psychology, developed by a UPenn professor, Martin Seligman, is built upon the belief that for people to lead meaningful, and fulfilling lives, they must establish what is best within themselves which will enhance personal experiences such as love, work, and play. The three central concerns are positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions.
Though perhaps complex in nature, positive psychology was incorporated in the classroom via methods accessible and enjoyable to kids.
On my second morning, I found myself walking into a quiet room, the only sounds an occasional whisper, or the grinding from the hand-crank pencil sharpener as it replenished dulled points. Each child was bent over, writing or drawing intently in their “gratitude journals.” Happy to share hers, Chrissie, proudly showed off first her journal cover that had been decorated with sequins and faux feathers, and then continued to flip through the pages so I could read her entries from each day. Sometimes short, sometimes long, sometimes just pictures, some pictures and words, each entry traced positive aspects of her day, character strengths, and how to assess and cope with negative situations.
I read Chrissie’s journal, and soon after many others, with impressive admiration. Perhaps perpetuated by the innocence that accompanies children, her genuine expressions and words lead to me to believe she grasped the notion of gratitude far better than many adults I know. Inspired, I soon began a gratitude journal of my own that I wrote in each morning along with my new pre-adolescent peers. The more I immersed myself in exploring my own gratitude as well as the children’s in this Australian school, it ignited my thoughts on the American idea of gratitude.
Thinking back to my own educational history, I came to a startling realization. In America, we emphasize or teach gratitude one week of the year. Thanksgiving. While certainly appropriate to celebrate what we are thankful for on a day labeled precisely that, it seems it is only this time of year, with the exception of maybe Christmas, that sparks a discussion of gratitude. Even so, I remember cutting out a turkey and pasting a printed line beneath: “I’m thankful for my friends and family,” or other lofty, universal statements given no true appreciation. Perhaps then, rather than perpetuating thankfulness, Thanksgiving inhibits it. In reserving a specific time labeled for expressing thanks, it potentially erases the necessity for expressing gratitude during other times. Though only a single classroom, within a single school, within a single city, within a single country, I believe the 4 Green classroom I had the pleasure of spending time in, embodied a movement in education necessary for a greater future in knowledge and happiness in life.
It seems odd that my first meditation was with a group of Year 4 students. Cracking an eye open before fully allowing the soaring sounds of violins and flutes to diffuse through my brain, I looked around the room. The sixteen children sat as serenely as myself, some cross-legged, some lying down, some breathing deeply, inhale, exhale. The meditation exercises functioned as a contributing factor to gratitude, and overall well-being of the individual. Well-being, the central focus of positive psychology, is bred from gratitude, and from high levels of well-being, success and happiness.
I often reflect on my time at IGS, exploring what the introduction to positive psychology, particularly its effect on children, changed in me. I remember a student’s mother who worked for the Brain and Mind Research Institute came and spoke to the class about well-being. One of the things she addressed was “well-being” on a national level, and how Australia compared to other countries. In comparison to the United States, Australia was higher up on general well-being of citizens. Statistics aside, as how does one accurately measure well-being, I’m reminded of the “American Dream,” a notion deeply embedded in the ethos of the United States, a notion that grants success with hard work and prosperity.
Yet success is duplicitous. The idea of the American Dream is often equated, I believe, with financial success; it’s about making a name for yourself, about attaining a career that will bring you to high up places in the working world, but potentially comes at the cost of making choices you might not necessarily want. From where does this initial driving force for the road to success originate and how is it carried out through a child’s adolescence? Perhaps understanding gratitude and well-being from a young age alter how one comes to understand his or her place in the world.
© Alexia Schroeder May 2013
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