The secret(s) of happiness

On Friday I took my class to the beautiful Chelsea Physic Garden to learn about queer ecologies as part of my Politics of Nature class. (One student said: ‘I can’t believe that we’ve been reading about queer ecologies this week and then the tour we did here was all about queer ecologies too! What an amazing coincidence!’ Thus was the line ‘anything that happens in this class that causes you to learn probably did not happen by accident’ in next year’s syllabus born.)

After the outdoor class itself, I told students I would park myself on a bench and they were welcome to come and have a chat about anything at all and ask any questions about the class, the readings, the rest of the module or whatever they wanted. One pair of students sidled up to me and said, ‘You always seem so happy! Can we interview you and find out your secret?’ So they did. Their hypothesis – that I spend a lot of time outdoors – was a good one. It’s certainly true that I was grinning from ear-to-ear all afternoon in the Chelsea Physic Garden (and so were most of the students most of the time), whereas in a timetabling meeting earlier in the day, I was a bit less joyful. The conversation about happiness developed in lots of directions, though, ending up in a long discussion about whether there is such a thing as ‘human nature’ and how far practices of ‘self-cultivation‘ are important for politics.

This got me to thinking about how far happiness is a skill and, if it is, is it a skill we can deploy in our teaching? And is it a skill we can teach to others?

Happy students in the Chelsea Physic Garden

The students were correct – I am a pretty happy person, at least at this point in my life. I wonder what exactly it was that they noticed and were responding to, though. I think they can probably tell that I enjoy teaching them, chatting to them, being outdoors (or indoors) with them, hearing their ideas and trying out my own in their company. They were probably picking up the fact that I smile a lot, that I interact with them informally, that I am friendly, warm and open. That I have a sense of humour – I laugh at their jokes (when I understand them) and enjoy things that are silly or ridiculous. I am guessing that they find me enthusiastic about both the subject material we are working with and about them as people, their own interests and enthusiasms and jokes.

Mostly all this comes pretty ‘naturally’ (or automatically) to me, but that’s not to say that some days it isn’t a bit of an act. We all have an act that we do when we’re teaching, right? And mine is often joyful enthusiasm. It tends to work, probably because it goes with the grain of who I am and what I believe. It’s important to me that students trust me, and each other, and enjoy the work, so they’re not scared to make mistakes. I believe that we learn best when we feel relaxed, safe, even joyful. That learning takes place in communities and emerges out of strong relationships. And, as a question of values, I want to try to disrupt hierarchical relationships where I can. I also – with a nod to Jennifer’s post last week –  really want students to do the reading because they want to, because I have conveyed to them emotionally and viscerally how much I love this work in order to intrigue them and get them interested in finding out more. Therefore I can draw on the skill of happiness – if that is what it is – to get the class to go the way I want it to and bring the joy of learning to us all.

I know some people really worry about inhabiting an informal persona in the classroom, and there is certainly no one way of teaching. It’s always going to be a case of whatever works for you. But if you are formal or reserved – perhaps insisting on Dr Surname rather than your first name or trying to avoid any emotional connection with students – because you are afraid that warmth and friendliness will breed disrespect, I would suggest that you could experiment with finding other (better?) ways of drawing your boundaries, if you want. Although I am in many ways a ferociously serious person, as a woman of short stature, casual attire, with my LGBTQ+ lanyard always on display, curly hair that generally will not be ruled, the ghost of a Northern English accent, a friendly and smiley demeanour, and a sense of humour, I am relatively vulnerable to being underestimated and even mansplained at on first meeting. Though usually not by students and it doesn’t usually happen twice. As my brilliant colleague, Emily McTernan, explains people are generally pretty good at negotiating these sorts of microaggressions and passing acts of disrespect – and it seems to me that if we are acting, speaking and living with a sense of ease and joy, we are all the better at those negotiations. Power is always there, of course. Students are humans and therefore some won’t behave very well, or even indulge in abuse, and the people on the end of all that are, of course, the same people who are always on the end of abuse and micro-aggressions. Still, do we want that behaviour to be the thing that sets the tone for everyone else? Or can we push back firmly and confidently on nonsense precisely because we cultivate strong relationships and connection? There’s only one way to find out and that’s to try out a range of repertoires until you find the one that suits you.

Happiness is looking closely at a toad

But how do we develop and expand the range of emotional repertoires we can draw on?

Another disclaimer first. Whilst I am not the most privileged person in the world, it’s certainly true that the main reason I am happy a lot of the time is because of strokes of good fortune far too numerous to count. To put it very bluntly, a lot of life’s problems that really make people miserable can be solved by money and autonomy, and, whilst far from wealthy, like a lot of academics who have won the lottery of a secure, full-time job in the UK, I live a nice life. I’ve also been lucky so far in terms of my own health and, by and large, that of the people I love. Such a lot of good luck sometimes feels unbearably fragile. It is also almost embarrassing to admit to, in a world so broken. But as the inspirational Roxani Krystalli reminds us, people who are in pain do not ‘want others to live lives devoid of joy or to tell stories exclusively about suffering’. ‘Joy,’ she tells us, ‘is not a threat to peace’ but rather ‘animates resistance’ to war.

But lots of people are lucky – even luckier than me! – yet don’t seem that happy. So, what do I put it down to and can it be learned and taught? Well, at different points in my life (some in childhood and some embarrassingly recently!) I know I was taught some things that I suspect contribute to the fact that I’m usually in a good mood. I was taught to love music, nature, gardens, stories, art and comedy. I was taught to notice the little things, to look carefully, to feel grateful for small blessings and mercies, to plan for the worst but hope for the best. I was taught that to look forward to something, and then to remember it, is almost as good as experiencing it. I was taught a sense of wonder, curiosity and awe. I learned that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, no, not even singing loudly to dad rock.* I was taught that it’s important to work hard, to challenge yourself, to take risks, to keep practising, and I also learned to draw boundaries, to rest. I learned to try to see the best in people, to be more forgiving than judgemental, not to label, to value relationships, friendship, love. I learned that if you feel a negative emotion, you can notice it and allow it to play out, without thinking it will last forever. I learned that if you have talents, and you put them in service of other people, then you will have more yourself. (Pretty sure there’s a parable in there somewhere…) I learned that if someone gives you feedback, they are probably trying to help, and that you don’t have to agree with them, but they also might be right. I learned to try and live my values but also to go easy on myself when I fell short. I learned to say sorry when I was wrong (or even might have been wrong), to listen to other opinions but not to hatred, to accept a compliment or an apology gracefully, to raise an eyebrow rather firmly at a micro-offence or an attempt to take advantage. And, you will no doubt know, everyone** from the North of England is taught to make others laugh and to take pleasure in the absurdities of the world.

These are all things that I myself have had to learn. And by ‘learn’, I don’t mean that I can recite them as a set of rather pious*** rules for living. I mean I learned the only way we ever learn – the hard way – through embodied practice, through doing them, through making mistakes, through discussion, through feedback, through trial and error, through good teachers. And I muck lots of them up several times a day, just like everyone. But implicit in all of this is a conviction that people and their dispositions and behaviours are not static or fixed, that the future isn’t written yet, that we can always do better.

By and large, these practices are also all things that I teach. By this I mean that, alongside modelling them as part of my ‘teacher act’, I also take any opportunity to notice and promote discussion and meta-cognition in class when I see them playing out. As I explained in previous posts, I demonstrate to students that I want to have good relationships with them by learning their names and I facilitate and make space for conversations about what to do when we get things wrong, how we might go about learning, what sorts of practices and norms help and hinder our work together. I encourage them to value collaboration and relationships above competition in the way that I structure the assessment and opportunities for feedback (more on this in a future post). I create opportunities for them to make friends, if they want to. I push them to notice the details and to observe the world around them in lots of ways, from using social annotation to asking them to put pictures of the natural world on Padlet boards to getting them to write, or even podcast, about what they are noticing in nature. I give them readings that I myself enjoy and I ask them to relate their reading to their own lives and values, as well as asking them to write about how they live, and how they would like to. I push them to develop the skills they might need to put their talents in service to the world. I get them to read stories, to listen to music, to look at artworks and to produce their own if they want to learn how, or to get better. I trust them. I shower them with micro-affirmations whenever justifiable. I try to encourage them to trust themselves and each other. I do my best to say sorry when I get it wrong and to accept apologies and compliments quickly and with ease. I try to be kind but assertive when invisible lines of respect and courtesy are crossed. And if I can, if it isn’t unbearably weird, I narrate those apologies, those acceptances, those negotiations and boundaries, so they can see what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Also, I don’t know if I’ve told you, but I’m pretty funny with the jokes.

I don’t think anyone learns to be happy from a ten week module, even if they were pretty lucky to begin with (and lots of our students aren’t, of course). Still, we might plant a seed, or water a seedling that’s already growing, or nourish a plant that’s going to bloom early and well. It all matters. And perhaps those same skills also teach us to deal with adversity, those times when we cannot be happy.

Happiness is only one emotion and there are lots of others in your classroom and in mine. I’d love to know what emotions you are dealing with in your teaching and whether there are any you have learned or try to teach.

*Today it was Eagles, since you are good enough to ask

**Approximate figures

***I sometimes accuse myself of piety, but my friends’ daughter, aged 6, was puzzled by this (once the concept had been clarified), saying, ‘But she can’t be pious! She’s cheeky!’ I’m glad I had the chance to explain this – I don’t want you getting the wrong impression.