Higher learning

Education systems can help young people lead happier, more fulfilling lives by teaching them to be aware of their thoughts, emotions and behaviours, says Sir Anthony Seldon 

We are all on a life journey. The 19th-century American writer Henry David Thoreau said that most men and women live lives of quiet desperation, and go to their graves with their song still inside them. Our job as humans is to discover our own unique song. Nobody can do that but ourselves. The role of education is to help discover that. 

Sadly, many education systems focus too heavily on academic learning and attainment and not enough on education for life. Education the world over is becoming a factory process where children join at the age of three or four and travel along the conveyor belt until they leave at 16, 18 or 21. There’s this idea that by then you’ve completed your education. This is completely wrong. Education is lifelong. Politicians, administrators and educationalists who are shaping schools around the world are profoundly wrong in believing that exam success is the only metric that has any value. 

Nine years ago I introduced happiness classes at Wellington College, where I was headmaster. It is my belief that happiness is achieved through fulfilment, hard work and leading a virtuous life. What matters in schools is mindfulness, where young people are encouraged to stop, pause, take a breath and reflect. Every school meeting should ideally begin with a few moments of silence and stillness.

When we focus on the present, we connect with the five senses and we get back in touch with reality, love, joy, truth, the meaning of life, and we understand things more deeply. We all spend too much time inside our brains. When we drift off and become distracted by the activity in our heads we give much less of ourselves and we can’t be the best version of ourselves. 

One of our greatest priorities should be to help young people learn life skills and attitudes that are conducive to living a flourishing life and making a positive contribution to society, to help them discover that bringing happiness to others leads to a much deeper sense of fulfilment. This is about helping children become themselves through a process of self-discovery. Children need an owners’ manual, so they can manage their minds, bodies, emotions and relationships. So they can be smarter, more effective, with higher levels of mental health. Wellington College’s academic standards went up very significantly year on year after the introduction of happiness classes. They boosted performance.

Mindfulness helps students to see that their thinking patterns have a profound impact upon their feelings and their behaviour. They can tune in to their perceptions and learn to distinguish these from fact. They become more aware of unhelpful thinking patterns and learn to challenge them and develop other habits of mind so that they can gain a more accurate and flexible perspective. They become less prone to anxiety, depression, anger, stress and dysfunctional behaviour.

Happiness is increasingly being talked about and taken seriously at national and international levels. The UK Government, for example, has introduced happiness and wellbeing as a target for national policy. I was also recently at a conference in Dubai organised by the KHDA (Knowledge and Human Development Authority), the emirate’s private schools regulator, which has a strategy of introducing a culture of wellbeing in schools. Its head, Dr Abdulla Al Karam, spoke of happiness as being a prerequisite for success, not the other way round.

Critics may dismiss such initiatives as misguided, but our education systems need to help children to develop traits that act as a foundation for a meaningful, happy life, including resilience and empathy. 

These life skills should be ingrained as early as possible to foster more moral, grounded, physically and psychologically healthy young people. Through mindfulness, young people can learn key ‘soft skills’ and inner qualities such as leadership and teamwork. This is not a choice between wellbeing and academic rigour. We need both. Wellbeing makes for happier schools and better performance. This couldn’t be more important, both for our young people and for our societies as a whole.


Sir Anthony Seldon is a former headmaster of Wellington College and a commentator on education