By María Alejandra Correa Barrera
The first chair for happiness starts formally in 2006 in the United States and England. This chair was led by Tal Ben-Shahar, a scientist and professor of positive psychology, at Harvard University. It was so successful in the student body that it was replicated in the most prestigious universities around the country, such as Stanford and Yale, where, according to an article in The New York Times, it managed to be the class with the highest demand in its 300-year history. In parallel, the Headmaster of Wellington College in Berkshire, Sir Anthony Seldon, introduced for the first time into the curriculum of an educational institution in the United Kingdom a chair for welfare and happiness. More than a decade later, both courses have managed to inspire some 200 similar chairs in the world, thus challenging the traditional model of education.
In Colombia, according to neurologist Leonardo Palacios, there are approximately 10 universities that are offering alternative courses related to positive education and the development of happiness. Palacios is one of the professors of the “Education for Happiness” chair, taught since 2015 at the Universidad del Rosario, which covers topics ranging from therapeutic humor to the economy of happiness. For this pedagogue, the objective of the set of courses that make up the chair, as its name clearly states, is simple: “The main lesson I want to convey to my students is that it is possible to be happy”, explains Palacios.
The chair, being led by various professors, allows approaching the field of study from different approaches. The students who study Palacios’ subject learn from a theoretical component, where the concept of happiness is analyzed from a scientific perspective, it is deepened in its historical etymology and its relationship with art, music, and literature. The subject also contains a practical component, which includes group activities, meditation, and film-forums. This element is fundamental for the class’ purpose, since, for Palacios, the key to be happy is in the interaction with others. “You have to have some vital minimums, but above all you have to have love, we have to communicate, share with the people we love, not isolate ourselves too much and not abuse technology too much,” he says.
For Andrés Ramírez, another of the professors of the chair, happiness depends on five basic elements: coherence, gratitude, service, compassion, and resilience. According to him, creating habits from these principles, becoming aware of the need to articulate emotions and actions, contributes to a better life. “We give students the tools to take responsibility for their lives and relate better to themselves, to others and to their surroundings,” he says. In addition to this, those who take the course can learn about psychology, philosophy, and the history of happiness, as well as study models of organizational well-being.
For Sebastián Gallo, a student of last semester of Medicine, the chair helped him to deeply understand his emotions and to approach them from a rational and scientific approach. “Professor Palacios has a very holistic approach to human emotions. There are classes very directed to the microbiology of love and to what is the understanding of the psychopathology of emotions,” he says.
Camila Rodríguez, an Occupational Therapy student who took the course, admits that it is important for university students to have the opportunity to learn about positive education and the benefits of happiness. “This class seems to be necessary since it touches topics related to well-being and emotional health from happiness, which should be considered by the educational community as part of the promotion of health,” he says.
Why should we be taught to be happy?
According to the World Health Organization, neuropsychiatric disorders, such as depression, are the most common cause of disability in young people globally. For Palacios, the emotional states associated with sadness are counterproductive for humans. He considers that there is sufficient scientific evidence to ensure that those who manifest what in psychology is called a type A personality, that is, one that refers to competitive and ambitious individuals, have greater possibilities of developing health problems throughout their lives. In this type of person, says the neurologist, “the risk of myocardial infarction increases up to 40%.”
For most of Dr. Palacios’ career, who is currently engaged in lecturing on the subject, lies in the idea that being happy brings multiple benefits for the health and well-being of people. “It has been shown that laughter and smiles improve the immune system and the cardiovascular system. Laughing out loud for five minutes is equivalent to an energetic trot for 15“, says the expert. Likewise, an investigation led by the University College of London establishes that happy young people have higher income levels in their adult lives than those who did not grow satisfied with their lives.
In addition to the individual benefits of being happy, there are academics who argue that happiness is good for society. A group of economists from the University of Warwick conducted a study that shows that happy people are generally more productive. Similarly, the economist Lord Richard Layard, in his book Thrive: The Power of Psychological Therapy, states that promoting mental and emotional health would reduce costs to the State.
In addition to the elective for the student body, Palacios, together with his team of collaborators, created a course for teachers, called Emotional intelligence, education, and happiness, which lasts 16 hours and has been taught to 80 pedagogues. In addition to this initiative, there are other educational institutions in the country that are also recognizing the need to promote happiness in their teachers.
In Gimnasio Moderno, a recognized school in the capital of the country, the academic curricula of all grades are designed to provide spaces for the development of happiness and mindfulness. However, its vice-chancellor, Juan Sebastián Hoyos, considers that for the institution it is essential that its teachers are trained in the subject and acquire skills that allow them to manifest emotional well-being. “The first thing is to train teachers so that their example radiates. For this we have a very powerful program of teacher training in positive psychology, which includes socio-emotional skills and other components of well-being, happiness and flourishing,” concludes the educator.
For Coschooleducators are a fundamental part of the life and future of young people, therefore, we develop programs based on our Edumoción methodology, aimed at teachers and teaching directors, which influence the construction of positive learning environments in the classroom and in the development of the socio-emotional skills of the educational community.