The Secret to Happiness

Summer is a busy place in independent schools, and there is some truth to the saying that you get more done when the students aren’t here.  Many people have asked me – How can the school be so busy when there are no students or teachers around?  Well for us at Lakefield, we have been renovating (new washrooms!), building (new outdoor seating areas!), installing air-conditioning (Go Grove!), training staff on outdoor first aid, putting the final touches on our new Strategic Plan, and finalizing a few publications.  And if that is not enough, we have also planned a whole new way to welcome our students and developed a plan to embed Harkness learning into all of our English classes.

But with only a week to go until everyone is back, I am getting more and more excited about the return of our students.  Don’t get me wrong – Kevin and I have had an amazing summer.  But having just spent my first summer on campus, I find this place gets lonely without our 365 teenagers. They are a constant reminder, for me, of why I do what I do.  But they are more than that.

I was recently reading about the most popular course in the history of Yale University.  It is called “Psychology and the Good Life” and it was designed to address the mental well-being of students.  Turns out, approximately one quarter of Yale’s students now take the course.  What does that tell us about today’s youth?  Laurie Santos, the instructor, shares some stats:  currently 80% of US college students report that they feel overwhelmed; over 50% are feeling lonely; and a third are so depressed, they find it hard to function.  These are pretty dire numbers.

Now some would argue that all of this emphasis on well-being is actually leading to more anxiety, check out Why are Americans so anxious?  But I am inspired by positive psychology.  I like that in the Yale course, students learn about the science of behavior change and have homework assignments such as performing five random acts of kindness.  I hope we can teach a course like this, although some days I think we already authentically live this course here, so maybe there’s no need to turn it in to a course when it is a way of life.

But one of Santos’ points really struck me:  “We know from psychology that the top key to happiness has to do with intentional social interactions. Very happy people spend time with other people.”

And then it hit me.  Boarding life with all of the inherent connections, leads to the good life.  What I hear from students is that they are happy here. When prospective students tour, they report feeling something different about this place.  And when prospective parents tour, they tell us that they see happy teenagers here more than any other school.  In fact, just recently, a Dad told us that he chose Lakefield over Exeter for his daughter – he noted that both schools teach through Harkness, but Lakefield students also have fun.

So our students are happy; our staff are happy.  And soon, when everyone is back, I will be happiest too.

p.s. Our teachers are always learning.  Kirsten Johnston, our new Thrive Coordinator, told me that Libby Dalrymple and Carrie Gilfillan heard this professor speak about her super-popular happiness course at the IPEN accelerator in June.  Libby shared this:  The first time I heard about her course was when she was interviewed on CBC’s The Current last February. Here is a link to the podcast – well worth a listen!