It goes without saying that the decline of mental health over the past few decades, which has been particularly prevalent among the younger generations, is of the highest concern. Thankfully, much of society’s alleviative response – solutions focused on relieving the immediate symptoms of the problem – has been great. Support is becoming increasingly accessible, and collectively we are seeing more understanding, awareness and encouragement for people to speak out. No doubt, these steps are vital, but it is only one half of the response we need.
There have simply not been enough preventative measures taken to ensure the happiness and well-being of children in the future. If we want a flower to flourish, it is no good watering the stem, we have to water the roots. We have to change something about a child’s environment before they become more vulnerable to stress and anxiety. Otherwise, how can we ever expect a different outcome?
The education system has a big responsibility in implementing the kind of preventative change that is necessary. Schools often talk of finding a “balance” between performance and well-being, but I think this notion is flawed. The well-being of the students and others should not be a mere consideration, it should be the only thing that is important. It may sound like an extreme principle, but in the long-term, what else other than happiness could possibly matter? If a school is “performing” well, but there is no profit in overall well-being from this, then why should the performance be applauded? There is simply nothing that can justify it.
This is not to say that subjects as we know them should not be taught. Being taught to read and write is overall beneficial to one’s well-being; specialising in a subject can lead someone to the job that gives them joy; the happiness of society is often benefited from lessons learnt from important historical events. So, grades can still matter, but only to the extent that overall happiness is the ultimate output of this. The fact is, however, that something in the system is not working. We so often see students take classes and degrees with no desire to learn, motivated only by the prospect of some certificate on a piece of paper. This is a real problem. We have drifted too far from an ethos that has the students’ happiness not as just a concern, but as the only concern.
If the principle is to be truly adhered to, there is one step that is an absolute necessity: we need to give children and teenagers concrete teachings for cultivating an inner peace and happiness. What if we were taught how to be mindful during our day-to-day activities? What if we gave lessons on how to treat ourselves with love, compassion and gratitude? What if everyone was taught the insights of how to transform suffering; how to resist craving; how to deal with boredom; how to breathe and relax; how to cultivate true peace? These are concrete teachings that can be taught, learnt and practised in a way that gives rise to happiness and loving-kindness. This is the wisdom we need.
I am fortunate to have recently stumbled across some of these teachings, and I personally have felt a profound impact from them. Still, I only wish I had come across them sooner. To incorporate this into a school’s culture is not a blurry ideal – it is a genuine possibility. Chatsworth Elementary School in New York have integrated mindfulness into the core of their curriculum, and the results for pupils and teachers alike have been amazing. The Mindfulness In Schools Project has also done amazing work in the UK in training teachers so that they can provide these essential mindfulness teachings. Its importance does not need justifying. If we really can give an education that has the potential to direct pupils to a life free from mental afflictions, then we have no excuse for not doing it. In this day and age, it is not just advisable, it is essential.
There is no blame to be pointed. There are no evil intentions that explain why these important emotional skills are not being taught. Ultimately, it comes down to a misunderstood notion of happiness. In theory, the “best” student will attain the “best” grades, which helps them land the “best” job, which earns them the “best” wage, which gives them the “best” buying power. Of course, the hidden implication is that more buying power and consumption leads to greater happiness, but this is an utter myth. As long as we have our basic needs, then more “stuff” will never be the thing that brings us happiness. Happiness is something to be realised within us at any moment, regardless of the external conditions beyond the necessities. If we want future generations to be as content as possible, then it is vital that the education system adapts in full appreciation of this fact.
The potential impact of this kind of reformed education cannot be overstated. It goes beyond even just the welfare of those directly involved. Real change starts from the bottom. We have a tendency to think that the biggest global problems can only be solved with a top-down approach, but for almost everyone, this isn’t feasible. To change the world we must change the countries within the world; we can change these countries by changing their governments; we can change these governments if we change the giant corporations dictating them; we can change these corporations by changing the consumer. And that is us. That is everyone. If we can educate people in a way that breeds peace, self-love and compassion, then we will have more generations acting with peace, love and compassion. That is where real change begins.
Nothing happens without reason. There are concrete facts about the modern world that directly induce increasing rates of stress, anxiety and depression. Yet, there is a curious lack of urgency to stifle these root causes. If social media, for example, is directly linked to depression, then why is its growth not being stopped? The current accessibility of help and support for suffering mental health is truly brilliant. But, until we alter something at the root, until the environment and education that children are growing up with is significantly changed, then we cannot expect different results. It’s a simple equation. The happiness of yourself and others is the most important thing in life, and we need to start acting like it.
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