Resilient for Life

You can learn how to be happy. It is even a subject in some schools in Germany nowadays. You will not learn how to develop a successful career or how to find the love of your life. But you can learn to go through life with confidence and satisfaction. 

By Nicole Walter

Translated from the German by Viktorija Tapai and Ruthild Gärtner

Those who teach happiness as a subject need to have a thick skin. They are ridiculed as teachers who tickle out the talent of the students with a feather or they are eyed with suspicion or are seen as undercover representatives of Scientology. In about 60 schools in Germany, happiness already has an established spot in the timetable, between math, physics and history. Although the term ‘happiness’ excites the imagination, the subject is not about winning the lottery, a trip around the world or about true love. It deals with the capacity to shape one's personal well-being in everyday life. Katja Reuter teaches happiness to even the youngest of pupils. She gives lessons at the Oberforstbach Primary School in Aachen. The mother of two children is a dance and movement therapist and in her professional everyday life she works with many people who have faced personal difficulties.

"I've found out what our society's pressure to perform and mad rush do to our souls," she says. "At school, children don't learn how to handle that, although they should start learning such things early." And then fate gave her Ernst Fritz-Schubert, she tells us with a wink. Many happiness teachers talk about him with reverent admiration, almost giving the impression of a sect. But Fritz-Schubert, who is 65 years old today, has shaped the subject of happiness in Germany more than any other person and as a school principal, he also has a lot of practical experience. 

In Aachen, the first place that Katja Reuter went after she completed her advanced training in happiness was her son's primary school. She was able to convince principal Maria Schiefer very quickly.  "It's a great attempt", says Schiefer. "It has always been a part of our schooling programme to not only teach the kids content, but also to support social interaction and emotional aspects." Today, all kids at Oberforstbach Primary School are being taught happiness. Each of Katja Reuter's lessons starts with a big circle where the kids pass a ball and everyone tells what has already made them happy that day. 

The happiness teacher writes down all the good qualities every child discovers in him- or herself over the course of the class in a collective 'sun of powers'. When the children leave elementary school, they possess a great deal of knowledge and helpful tools. Reuter stresses the importance of team spirit. The children support each other, they learn how to use their creative resources and how to stay focused. It is clear to Reuter that if adults teach those values early enough they can keep children from making certain mistakes.  

Happiness in school …

According to the German Alliance against Depression, three to ten percent of all adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 are currently suffering from depression. A research project conducted by Unicef shows that children and adolescents in Germany are doing well when assessed on the basis of the objective criteria of material wealth, education and health. But they don’t consider themselves to be all that happy. 

In the 29 countries included in the survey, there has been no bigger gap between objective views and the subjective perception of one’s own happiness than in Germany, Unicef researchers state. This is where happiness lessons come in. They are especially important in lower class neighborhoods. Helmut Richter and his colleagues from the Willy-Brandt-Berufskolleg business college in Duisburg-Rheinhausen are on their way to happiness with their students. This includes cooking together or enjoying a really nice dinner at a restaurant. But most of all, happiness lessons are about finding one’s own strengths, learning how to enjoy good moments, to trust oneself and others. Four of five students have an immigrant background and many live in difficult family situations.

After reading Fritz Schubert’s book, principal Richter thought that was exactly what they needed in his school. Anke Roessling, a happiness teacher, explains that the students‘ motivation to succeed in other subjects grows through happiness lessons. They come to school more often, start organizing their days more actively and invest more time in preparing for exams. Ingrid Noack teaches happiness at the vocational school for economics for adolescents between the ages of 15 to 17 in Bietigheim-Bissingen and has had similar experiences. “We cannot prove that our students get better grades but we can see that they are socially more competent than others and the support among them is much stronger”, Noack explains. She also adds that her students begin to feel more comfortable at school. Experts state that this kind of positive feeling is the best way to prevent violence in schools. 

Students, teachers and principals must stay committed to keep school a happy place. They have to work happiness lessons into an already tight schedule, convince the school board of the concept and establish a financial plan that mostly consists of annually hard-won state resources and private sponsoring.

... resilient for life

Ingrid Noack also continued her studies in her free time. She tested most of the exercises from her happiness lessons during her vocational training. For example: Ziel-Skalenlauf (goal-scale rally). Each student thinks of one of her or his goals in life, like winning a 100-meter race or getting a good grade in the next exam for example. Eleven cards with the numbers from 0 to 10 lie on the floor and represent a scale. The student picks the number that expresses how far he or she has come in fulfilling this dream. The other students also participate: one group on the right tells the student in the middle his or her positive traits like a mantra (“You’re patient”, “You’re persistent”, “You’re cheerful”, e.g.). The group to the student’s left side tells him or her all the negative traits (“You’re lazy”, “You’re not motivated”, e.g.). The student in the middle simply listens. Ingrid Noack knows from her own experience that after a while, one only hears the positive things. Then the question of how far the student has come in achieving his or her dream is raised again and the results show that all students pick a higher number on the scale than they did before. They experience how it feels emotionally, physically and on a cognitive level to get closer to one’s goal and that they can overcome difficulties with their inner strengths, which is very motivating.  When the students choose an apprenticeship after graduation and start writing applications, they not only rely on the inner strength they have found during happiness lessons, but also use the acquired tools to stay focused and concentrated.

Finally, the happiness lessons take effect in practical terms when the graduates try to find a job. According to Roeßing, the students learn to properly assess their strengths and interests in this class, which spares them lots of frustration on the job market because they find an adequate apprenticeship more easily.

Nicole Walter works as a journalist in Berlin and writes about economic and social issues.

More articles to the topics of happiness, wishes and the good life you will find either online or in our magazine Wish-to-Happiness. Finly illustrated and lightly readable on tablet-computers and screens the PDF-magazine contains all articles and pictures as well as additional numbers and quotatians.

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