In an admission of my true nerdiness, I jotted my initial notes for this post while sitting on a bench in Stonebriar Mall this past Saturday evening. No, this isn’t some sociological study. And I really do have a life. My fifth-grade son was attending a birthday party at the skating rink there, and I’m not much of a shopper. So after picking up some Christmas gifts for my wife, I found a spot to sit. Around me swirled an incredible flurry of people, some of them looking like overburdened pack mules. I was heartened by the scene for a few reasons. I hope this means people are feeling greater consumer confidence than they did a year ago. People also seemed genuinely happy as they bought gifts for others. We’ve always known that doing for others makes us feel good. Now it’s been scientifically proven: a study by the National Institutes of Health found that when people are prompted to think of giving money to charity, the pleasure centers in the brain are activated.
Yet too often we can find ourselves searching for happiness in the wrong places. Money, possessions, attention—yes, these matter and are necessary; but once people have enough, studies have shown the direct link to happiness weakens. The obvious correlation in schools is grades. Yes, they matter. But students—and teachers and parents—can emphasize them in ways that erode the joy of learning.
So what brings about eudemonia, or fundamental happiness? Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, recently published Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. I highly recommend reading both books, as they have fueled a great deal of important discussion regarding education. In the meantime, you can watch Pink’s presentation on the ideas in Drive at the July 2009 TED conference or this cool animated summary. I won’t ruin it for you by citing any of the wonderful evidence he uses. For the sake of this post, I will share the basic premise. The traditional carrot-and-stick approach to motivation doesn’t work, at least not beyond the immediate. Instead, people are motivated by three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Think about the times you have had a flow experience. Once of those times when you get into such a groove that you lose sense of time. When you feel that you truly are in your element. (Another book recommendation: Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element.) I suspect you enjoyed the three feelings stressed in Pink’s work.
Perhaps not all of school can become such an experience for all children. But I believe that more of it can. Whatever pedagogical approach teachers take, they should assess what they ask students to do per three criteria. Is it engaging? Is it meaningful? Is it productive? Not every lesson or activity will meet these lofty standards. But as we reassesses and redesign program, we must aspire for the overall experience to reach them on a regular basis. It’s going to require reconsideration of some fundamental principles, from the language that we use when talking about education to how we have structured our schools.
We owe this to our kids. Not only will it better prepare them for their futures. It also will help them in the quest for eudemonia. Think of it as learned happiness.