Insight: Can you teach happiness?
Now Reading
Insight: Can you teach happiness?

Insight: Can you teach happiness?

It is important to understand that happiness is not synonymous with joyfulness, says the provost and vice principal of Heriot-Watt University Dubai

Heather McGregor, vice principal of Heriot-Watt University Dubai

John Lennon once said: “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

Happiness is increasingly being recognised as the basis for sustainable success, productivity and effectiveness at individual, organisational and national levels. This is because happiness has three main components: positive emotions, resilience and meaning. All of these are highly desirable commodities in the workplace and are much valued at a time when mental health and depression are becoming a global concern.

According to the World Health Organisation, mental and substance use disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide. Every year, more than 800,000 people die due to suicide, making it one of the leading causes of death in 15-29-year-olds.

Those of us who are involved in education are committed to preparing our students for the workplace. Here in the UAE, our students are already at an advantage, thanks to the government’s investment in mental health. It has appointed a Minister of State for Happiness as well as launched the National Programme for Happiness and Wellbeing.

The National Programme sets government policies, programmes and services necessary to promote virtues of a positive lifestyle in the community and a plan for the development of a happiness index to measure people’s satisfaction. When federal lawmakers are fully supportive in this manner, the community as a whole will prosper.

So how can universities build on this excellent foundation provided by the State?

Educational institutions that consider developing happiness in their students are often faced with three key questions:

  1. How to define happiness as an educational objective?
  2. Can an academic programme help cultivate happiness within students?
  3. If happiness can be cultivated, how to measure it as an educational outcome?

To answer these questions, it is important to understand that happiness is not synonymous with joyfulness. Continuous joyfulness in the workplace is not only unrealistic, but it might even be annoying. As I said earlier, it is better to focus on the three main components of happiness: positive emotions, resilience and meaning. Thus, educational objectives can be set to promote positive emotions, develop resilience and deliver a sense of meaning.

Here, at Heriot-Watt University, we actively look for ways to deliver these objectives and weave them into our curriculum. We tie it into the course of a career, harnessing the promotion of positive emotions (e.g gratitude), resilience (the ability to bounce back after setbacks) and the identification of purpose, to the development of CVs, interview techniques and general preparation for the workplace.  After all, no one is born resilient – it is a skill learned through experience, as well as through the intentional development of thoughts, behaviours, and actions.

Our students – and our staff – develop an ‘impact statement’ – effectively an ‘elevator pitch’ for themselves, describing their interests, skills and aspirations for their life journey. How will they impact the world in the future? Being able to articulate their purpose both on paper and in dialogue is a key educational outcome. Research shows that purpose-led people (and organisations) are much more resilient, a key quality in our volatile and uncertain world.

On this World Mental Health Day, I would like to encourage every educator everywhere to build on the strong foundations that the UAE has provided, and to consider how they can build happiness – or rather, its component parts – into their curriculum.

To paraphrase John Lennon, the students will then understand both the assignment and – hopefully – life. In this way, we can ensure that we all deliver on the commitment by the World Health Organisation, and make Mental Health and Well-Being for All, the Global Priority that it surely deserves to be.

Professor Heather McGregor CBE is the provost and vice principal of Heriot-Watt University Dubai

You might also like


Scroll To Top