Expert Behind Happiness Curriculum Shares How Things Are Changing In Delhi Govt. Schools

The Delhi Government launched the ‘Happiness Curriculum’ in July this year. This initiative aims at increasing mental health awareness among school children from classes nursery to eighth in all government schools. Dalai Lama who inaugurated the event said, “Only India can combine modern education with ancient knowledge, which is necessary for the fulfilment of human emotions.” The curriculum which focuses on mindful behaviour will be covered in classes every day.

The content and success of this curriculum led to private schools showing a keen interest in adopting the module. Singapore Straits Times lauded this initiative in a report. France’s largest publication- Le Monde- extensively covered this Happiness Curriculum launch recently; and, the World Economic Forum took notice of the same, too!
We recently spoke with Mugdha Gupta, who was part of the team of 55 people who worked on developing the happiness curriculum for the government schools across Delhi. Mugdha is a Gandhi Fellow and works as a Life Skills Education consultant.

His Holiness Dalai Lama (C) , Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal (R) and Deputy Chief Minister & Education Minister Manish Sisodia (L) during the launch of a booklet on Happiness Curriculum of the Delhi government.

Here are snippets from the conversation:

Ishita Sharma (IS): How do you feel about the success of ‘happiness curriculum’?

Mughda Gupta (MG): I feel grateful. I’ve been planning to do something like this for the past 3-4 years. It feels amazing that we are finally able to launch it. Seeing it being implemented on the ground is a humbling experience. Knowing that it’s a collective effort, it feels even better.

IS: Why do you think that ‘Happiness curriculum’ is important for school children?

MG: Currently, the kind of education delivered in schools focuses on rote learning. The students are taught to understand different subjects but not to understand themselves. The current focus, unfortunately, is not on skill-building. Understanding oneself becomes an external experience. Students from nursery to 12th standard are not equipped to deal with life or emotions; they don’t know who they are. These gaps need to bridge, and this was the idea which motivated the team to design the curriculum, equipping students to handle difficult situations and conflicts. The curriculum also aims at providing the students with a view of the world more positively and holistically.

IS: Tell us about the inception of the idea and what went into making it?

MG: So, this is a long answer!

Manish Sisodia looks at education as a tool of mass human transformation. In his opinion, education increases the potential of humans. The idea was to provide students with a tool to help them understand the world around them.

I was a Gandhi Fellow and working closely with the educational systems led to the realisation that the students were not gaining anything substantive from the education. Students were not interested in going to schools. Whatever learning happened, it was by chance; some students would be able to pick up some language or math concept, and that was it. According to me, the real purpose of education is to make good human beings, which was not being realised. Goodness that lies inside and outside a human is what needs to be understood.

During a meeting with Siddesh Wadkar, an Education advisor at the Maharashtra SCERT, I asked, “What is the actual purpose of improving learning outcomes?” He instinctively replied, “It is to make human beings good.”

I asked him if we were really doing that; he was unable to answer. My search for this answer led me to question whether happiness could be quantified or instilled in the education system. Everyone around me said that the concept was extremely vague and they questioned the possibility of it. There was an advertisement in the newspaper in March, stating that the Delhi government is looking to launch a happiness curriculum and is calling for entries.
I was in a small distant village with limited electricity. Thus, I was unable to see the advertisement. A lot of people who knew about my interest in the same forwarded it to me.

I sent in a proposal, and I was one of the 21 people who was shortlisted for paper presentations. The core committee was set up under Dr Rajesh Kumar, Chairperson of the Happiness Committee, which ultimately shortlisted five presenters. Around 14-15th May, I met the already organised team along with the other four NGOs. I was the only individual among the selected presenters. We decided to work on eight values that comprise happiness: gratitude, harmony, justice, love, and respect were among the values we wanted to start. Mr Sisodia was clear about the agenda: a dedicated section on mindfulness, which coincided with my initial idea. He also asked for stories and activities to be incorporated in the curriculum.

Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia addresses Delhi government school teachers during an orientation program on Happiness curriculum.

After ten days, when we had our first meeting after working in groups, we realised that we were restricting ourselves to values which we felt were time-consuming and realised that it was not the right approach. Instead, we decided to create stories and activities based on real experiences that have the potential to change you as a person. We based the stories on a common thread, i.e. the value of cooperation or putting the other before yourself, right vs wrong, etc. We decided to create realistic stories, rather than fairy tales. We felt that the students should be able to connect with the stories. We were also extremely conscious of the various diverse backgrounds students come from.

IS: What are the methods/exercises/facets that happiness curriculum comprises of? How does a usual “happiness class” look like?

MG: For classes from 1 to 8th, the curriculum has four components: mindfulness, stories, activities and expression day. The week is divided among these components: Mondays are for mindfulness, Tuesdays and Wednesdays for stories, Thursday and Friday for activities and Saturdays for expressions.

Stories and activity days also begin and end with a 5-minute mindfulness exercise. On expression day, we take one value, and every child expresses how they felt about that value in the entire week. However, for nursery grade, the focus is only on mindfulness since at that age stories and activities will not work out. Classes are conducted only on Mondays and Thursday for them. It’s a journey-based curriculum which will also help the teachers to understand the progress the child has made.

IS: What do you think is the correlation between mental health and school performance? Do you think a 45-minute class every day would be sufficient to address important issues of mental health?

MG: For starters, the focus is to ensure that the child understands their feelings. How do they differentiate between important emotions? For someone who doesn’t meditate or practice yoga, the focus on breathing itself is a big jump.
The focus is to build a base that thoughts arise from somewhere and the choice to act on them is within your control. This process will go a long way in the child’s performance in school and daily life. This will also contribute to a higher emotional quotient among the children.

On my visits to schools where it has been implemented, children often say that they feel lighter or tension-free post the mindfulness class.

IS: The reports say that there will be a two-day training period for the teachers. Do you feel that the training period of two days will be sufficient to equip the teachers? What will they be trained in?

MG: We have already conducted a 3-day orientation to build a base among the teachers, to familiarise them with the concept and the idea behind the curriculum, and to make them understand the magnitude of the project and explain the important role they will play in it.

Now, we have a happiness committee of 40 people who go to schools every-day, covering the 1024 schools in which the curriculum is being implemented. Their role is to attend the happiness classes conducted by the school teachers; they also conduct orientations school-wise to make the interactions more personal as well as provide teachers with adequate support. It is a continuous process with the essential support at the ground-levels.

The biggest roadblock is the definition of happiness. Happiness has different meanings for different people. Our first aim to create a shared understanding; the happiness in question is sustainable happiness also referred to as “sukh/anand” in hindi. This stage is when you don’t experience drastic changes in emotions. Some schools have faced the problem of misunderstanding this. We saw that, in some cases, the period was used for quizzes and singing. That is not happiness; that is a joy.

Our second aim is to change this certain conditioning of the teachers. Often teachers are used to hitting students or judging them for their answers or even to expect certain answers. These are the red-flags that we are trying to overcome. Every story or activity has a reflection which is the main aspect of the story. The content of the story is not as important as how the stories, in general, make a child feel. Questions that have been designed are with keeping this in mind, not based on the story as we find in textbooks. The teachers have been trained to focus on the content, however, the questions are personal, and there are no right or wrong answers. The focus should be on helping the child and understanding who they are.

Another problem we face is that some teachers are assuming mindfulness as meditation. That is again not the purpose of the project. The focus is on attention -building rather than building concentration.

IS: How do you think you would have personally benefited from such a curriculum if it existed during your schooling?

MG: If I had gone through this process as a child, my life would have been a lot easier, and my journey wouldn’t have been as tough as it is now. My journey towards sustainable happiness started when I was in college, and it has been a long road for me. I have understood that it doesn’t happen to everyone. I am extremely lucky that I had the opportunity to understand it.

My search for happiness would not have occurred because, as a school child, I would know how to deal with emotions and conflicts with other people. I would have been a more stable person from the very beginning. I have had to consciously work on it from the past 3-4 years. Had I been exposed to this before, I would have been a completely different person altogether.

IS: A lot of critics are of the opinion that instead of spending 45-minutes on mental health every day, there should, instead, be improvement classes to ensure a higher level of competence among students. What is your opinion on this?

MG: The Delhi government is already doing that. Special programs are focused on giving special attention to students who are lagging behind in class. The main point is that mental health is not an option for us anymore; the perception of the world is through our brain. Building this understanding and purifying the mind is the first step that needs to be addressed even before the academic performance. What good is academic performance in a child when they end up committing suicide later in the future? They are unable to handle the pressure. I don’t understand why that criticism even exists.

The views expressed are those of the individual and does not represent the team’s experience.
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Image source: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty
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