Teaching happiness at Wellington College

| Helen Sharp

Wellington College is an independent school in Crowthorne. In September 2006, they became one of the first schools to launch a course in happiness and wellbeing. This decision sparked great and unexpected interest nationally and internationally, which several years on, has yet to die away.

There was a chorus of doubt and scepticism when we announced that children could be taught the skills of living happier lives, including the fundamental idea that acquiring ‘stuff’ does not make you happy, but helping others does.

The course had to develop a very different teaching approach. Traditional PHSE lessons focused on disaster prevention, whereby the worst case scenario is presented to the students along with the different ways of avoiding it. Conversely, the teaching of wellbeing should have experience as its primary aim. Students can be taught how to be well and how to do wellbeing, but they need the experience so that they can then put it into practice in their own lives. Ian Morris, the Head of Wellbeing at the College has written a book of guidance for other teachers and schools, Learning to Ride Elephants. It outlines the key concepts behind the programme and how best these should be used in teaching.

At face value, deciding to teach happiness and wellbeing seems bold. But in many senses it is an obvious, and some might argue, fundamental requirement in a school’s educational provision. And Dr Anthony Seldon, Wellington’s former Headmaster, remains convinced that wellbeing lessons are responsible for improving pupils’ grades.

Several years ago, Wellington College took their wellbeing courses one step further. They introduced similar courses for their parents, because they realised that most parents would know what maths or history lessons are about, but no parent has any childhood experience of a timetabled lesson in wellbeing. Since this move, many schools have now followed in their footsteps and introduced similar lessons. The subject is becoming established as a vital addition to the academic side of school life.

Photo by Derek Thomson

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