Most of us understand negative feelings. We spend countless hours explaining to ourselves, and others, why today, yesterday, or even tomorrow for that matter, might be a terrible day and a great time to feel sad and miserable. I don’t make light at all of the very important issues of depression, mental illness and other psychological issues. But this discussion has two sides and ultimately each side connects to the other. Neuroscientists understand the sources of anger, depression, and fear. Industries profit from this knowledge and expertise producing medication for all forms of pathological mood disturbance. But let’s focus on happiness. What is the art and science of happiness in schools?

All feelings and behaviours serve a purpose. Hardwired into our brains are elementary rules that guide our physiological responses and consequently influence how we feel. Happiness is fostered and it also serves a purpose, just as negative emotions do. Dopamine, our ‘feel good hormone,’ is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. It contributes to the enhancement of movement and emotional responses so if we can influence dopamine, we can also influence our mood and happiness in positive ways.

“UNESCO’s new global report puts happiness at the centre of education policy”

“On International Day of Happiness – 27 March – UNESCO launched a new publication, ‘Why the world needs happy schools: Global report on happiness in and for learning’. The report advocates for holistic approaches to promote school happiness in education policy and practice.” (Source)

UNESCO Global Report 12 April 2024

As educators we know how important happiness is. While academic goals are of course important, happiness should be the foundation of every vision, mission, curriculum plan and report card. Developing happy children needs to be our priority so let’s create a plan, strategies and goals to achieve it. School’s need to understand and apply the art and science of happiness.

Spend Time Outdoors to Create Happiness in Schools

Spending time outdoors, especially in green spaces, is one of the fastest ways to improve health and happiness. It lowers stress, blood pressure and heart rate. Outdoors is our preferred place for physical activity and we know it improves both mood and mental health. Some research has also proven that green space is associated with a lower risk of developing psychiatric disorders. Doctors are increasingly taking these studies seriously and recommending these strategies for patients, beyond using medication alone.

Some physicians, like Dr. Robert Zarr, a paediatrician in Washington, D.C., are even writing prescriptions for outdoor time. What if our schools prescribed similar mandates across their curriculum, schedule, vision and mission to ensure we create happiness in schools.

Our schools need to understand the importance of outdoor time. This can include recreation and time for physical activity but also a more open mindset about what defines indoor and outdoor spaces and what truly defines a classroom.

Art and Science of Happiness
Indoor- Outdoor Classroom Spaces

Exercise to Create Happiness in Schools

Exercise plays a critical role in improving levels of happiness. Research shows that physically active people have a much lower risk of mental disorders, anxiety and depression. When we exercise frequently we release proteins and endorphins more frequently, making us feel better and happier. Exercise increases endorphins, dopamine, adrenaline and endocannabinoid — which are all brain chemicals associated with feeling happy, feeling confident, without stress or anxiety. Some studies show that in the process of contracting muscle we actually induce myokine, a chemical that helps us relieve stress and boost happiness. They claim these myokines even change the function and structure of our brain in ways that make us more resilient to stress and can help people recover from depression and even anxiety disorders.

In a study of adolescents it was found that there can be a direct correlation between the number of steps taken each day and a child’s mood. We can in fact predict mood based on levels of activity and vice versa. So if we know this we should ensure that all children have a minimum level of physical activity in their day.

Happiness in Schools includes Exercise
Exercise Makes Children Happy

Exercise builds our confidence and as many of these activities can be done with others it has a positive social function that builds happy healthy relationships. When we move with other people it creates a strong sense of togetherness and connection. We become optimistic and empowered. Also, as adults we know that exercise on our own can create a similar mood to meditation which is why we are often attracted to it when we need some time to relax, detach or work through challenges.

Happiness in schools can improve dramatically with the inclusion of regular outdoor exercise programs.

Diet and Nutrition in Schools Can Improve Happiness

We know that diet and nutrition has significant impact on our mood. A well balanced diet of fresh, unprocessed fruit, vegetables and proteins are our best choice while highly processed foods and sugars can be quite damaging to our bodies and consequently our state of mind. Many studies have found a strong link between diets high in sugar and depression or general mental health. A high consumption of sugar leads to an imbalance in certain brain chemicals. This can lead to depression and may even increase the long-term risks of developing mental health disorders.

Short term, sugars can make us feel good. That quick pick me up can make us feel energised and satisfied but that is short lived and we have all heard of the sugar crash when we come down from a short term sugar high. On the other hand a balanced diet fuels us nutritionally. Eating foods like poultry, fish, milk, and bananas secrete dopamine, a chemical that induces positive mood and happiness.

Basically diet and mood are directly linked. Children need a balanced diet and most children need much less sugar. Sugar is likely to be one of the key factors affecting happiness in schools.

Eat Less Unhappy Foods

  • Regular soda drinks
  • Diet drinks (artificial sweeteners are linked to anxiety and depression)
  • Fruit Juices
  • Energy drinks
  • Processed white flour products eg. bread
  • Salad dressings, ketchup and sauces
  • Processed Foods

Eat More Happy Foods

  • Seeds and Nuts
  • Salmon and other fish high in omega-3 fatty acids
  • Eggs
  • Dark Green Leafy Vegetables
  • Berries
  • Turkey and other low fat proteins. Even Tofu!
  • Drink mostly water
Happiness in Schools includes Nutrition
Diet and Nutrition Can Influence our Ability to be Happy

Adopting a healthier diet can make children happier. As schools we need to ensure everything is working together to help us achieve our goals. There is no doubt that good diet and nutrition will increase aptitude for success academically but will also help to create greater happiness in our schools.

Sleep and Rest Can Influence Happiness in Schools

Another factor that helps us with happiness is ensuring that we get enough rest and a good night sleep. Children need a lot of sleep to be happy. Unfortunately, studies show that children are getting significantly less sleep per night than they did in previous generations. Getting at least 8 hours sleep every night is invaluable for calming the mind and making sure that we feel calm and composed the next day. How much we sleep is inextricably linked to our overall levels of happiness, as well as our ability to deal with challenges that risk effecting our mood. An unstable mood effect our ability to sleep soundly and vice versa poor sleep effects our mood each day.

Happiness in Schools
Sleep, Rest and Happiness work together

We know first hand that poor behaviour often comes from the fact that sleepiness makes it hard for children to control their impulses. Children need a lot of sleep to be happy.

Learning to be Happy in Schools

As schools we are primary focussed on a learning journey. In all aspects of a child’s profile we want them to develop and progress, improve and increase their ability to perform well. This must include happiness and increases in happiness do not automatically happen by accident. Families are of course the primary source but there are essential things we can do.

Learned helplessness is a phenomenon observed in both humans and animals when they have been conditioned to expect that pain, suffering, discomfort and unhappiness happens without any way to escape it . This behaviour is not natural, it is learnt. Based on environments and influences, we become socially conditioned and accepting that nothing we can do will change this state. This frequently happens with depression and mood disorders, especially over extended periods.

Well, what if we could create the opposite? What if we could create an all pervasive atmosphere of happiness and optimism? An environment where we resisted any idea that we can be anything but happy. We can learn to be happy and optimistic, enthusiastic and determined as a default position because the environment we spend most of our time in allows only that. A comprehensive focus on positive elements and behaviours that make children happy will naturally cultivate happier and healthier children. An infectious culture within our schools of happiness will create learned happiness.

A Concrete Plan for Happiness in Schools

Teachers must be enthusiastic, motivated and optimistic. They must have a growth mindset and an insatiable commitment to spreading happiness. How they greet children and parents, how they deal with student behaviours, their response to a challenge, their attitude on their worst day. Their focus during interactions must always be positive and set with a purpose to achieve greater optimism and positivity.

Leadership must be open minded and focussed on the creation of a positive school climate. Teachers will not be happy if they do not feel appreciated and valued. “It comes from the top” never meant so much as it will when a school is aiming to focus on mindfulness, wellness, positivity and of course happiness in all that it does. Leadership sets the tone and the school climate will be infectious, negative or positive, based on the character, values and behaviours of the leadership team.

Report cards, newsletters, parent meetings, school events, everything must embrace an uplifting focus on positive mindset. We ‘reap what we sew’ and a school’s tone needs to live and breath this mission and vision. We refer to these behaviours as signature experiences. It is the behaviours that reflect mission and vision with integrity.

Celebrating success and achievement not only supports and encourages individuals but it creates a culture of confidence and happiness. Each and very day, children need to feel in themselves and see in others the positive possibilities that happen when we work hard and surround ourselves with other happy healthy people with growth mindsets.

I challenge schools to embrace happiness as a key priority for their children. There are many things we can do to have significant positive impact and to make smiling faces not just an image on a brochure but the outcome of a great school and a program that got its priorities right!

Have you read our article: The Leadership Paradox: Unraveling the Power of Internal Happiness

If you want to learn more about the steps required to set up an outstanding school or an international school franchise check out some of our other articles:

Steps to Setting Up a New School

10 Steps and Articles on How to Set Up a New School

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CEO and Education Expert Greg Parry

Greg Parry

Internationally renowned for his expertise in education leadership, Greg Parry’s vast experience includes leadership of projects for edu-cation institutions throughout Australia, the Middle East, the United States, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and China. Recognised for his numerous contributions in the education arena, Greg has received the Ministers Award for Excellence in School Leadership based on improvements in school performance and a range of successful principal training and leadership development programs, as well as the School of Excellence Award for Industry/School Partnerships and the School of Excellence Award for Technology Innovation. His company GSE (Global Services in Education) has been recognised as having the Best Global Brand in International Education in 2015 and 2016.

Considered one of the premier experts in his profession, Greg has trained teachers and principals throughout the world in areas such as critical thinking, language development and leadership. His expertise in school start up projects, leadership and curriculum development, has made him a sought after authority in these disciplines.

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