As we enter 2022, all of us want to put the anguish of the past 20 months behind us. Yet, it seems as if we are almost tethered to trauma. It keeps following us—week after week, month after month. And, at times, even as we believe we have broken the thread, it is almost as if Rumpelstiltskin has twined together a not-so-golden connection to that which we wish to leave behind.
So, what can we do, even as we seek to shake off the trauma that clings to us? Emma Seppälä (2016) describes six keys to happiness:
- Live in the moment.
- Tap into your resilience, training your nervous system to help you bounce back from setbacks.
- Manage your energy, learning to remain calm instead of spending time and energy on anxieties and exhausting thoughts and emotions.
- Do nothing. Set aside a need to produce and instead engage in fun, idleness, and interesting pursuits.
- Be compassionate—with yourself.
- Show compassion to others.
Let’s consider how these keys could be applied in classrooms and how teachers and other staff could use them. Here are some ideas:
- Teach mindfulness, being present, in the moment, without judgment (Kabat-Zinn, 1994).
Our world can be full of pain, but we can find relief, joy, and a sense of well-being by focusing on the moment.
Being in the moment and not overwhelmed by stress can be hard. We know that yoga can help prepare the body and mind for letting go and being mindful. Sometimes our pain is too deep, our anxiety too high, to simply sit mindfully. Moving, perhaps with some yoga stretches and deep breaths, can prepare us for the mindfulness.
- Tap into resilience—at the level of breath, body, and emotions.
There are many ways to build resilience. One way that seems to build resilience at an almost unconscious level is through teaching the body to bend and move in harmony with the breath.
We tend to think of “breath” as one thing. Yet, there are many breaths: shallow breaths, deep breathing, rapid breaths, elongated breaths, and many more. There is technology that has been developed by ancient yogis around breath that can be applied at home, in schools, on walks, “wherever we are.” As we practice breathing mindfully, and as we move intentionally, our brains, our glands, our lungs, and our nervous systems are stimulated in ways that heighten our capacity to endure stress and celebrate being alive and well.
- Manage your energy—remain calm.
We can do so much to reduce anxiety. However, when we are most stressed out, we may find it impossible to sit and try to “be calm.” The science indicates that it may be better to acknowledge the stress, to be consciously aware of how we are hurting and how we are longing for positive change. From that place of conscious awareness, we can tune into being compassionate with ourselves and others.
In classrooms, teachers can help students practice getting in touch with their feelings, perhaps even “breathing into the pain” and taking a few deep breaths before visualizing healing energy. Teachers can help youth meditate on feelings of being calm, letting go, and being healed. However, as we do this, it is important not to have expectations that can create more stress. Letting go is a process and can take a while. Sometimes the best thing we can do is simply feel our pain without moving too quickly to problem-solve or wish it away.
- Do nothing.
Teachers can encourage students to simply learn to sit and be, intentionally setting time aside when students are able to focus on letting go of all thoughts. The practice of “being still” is a foreign concept to most, when considering the overstimulating and highly technologically responsive lives we currently live. A simple strategy is to sit and focus on our breath, and when a thought comes to mind, observing the thought and then letting it go, returning to our breath. With busy schedules, we may feel that we don’t have time for this, but one paradox is that by taking time to “do nothing,” we may be priming our brains for more efficient learning.
- Be compassionate with self.
These breaths, movements, and meditations can be woven throughout the day with time set aside for practice. As we practice breathing, yoga, and meditation exercises, we are strengthening the parts of the brain that regulate learning and cognition. This, in turn, impacts our feelings and emotions. From a place of balance and calmness, it is often easier to be compassionate with self (and others).
Certainly, teachers can help students reframe events to understand and forgive themselves and others. We do this by asking teachers to consider alternative scenarios—the alternative views of what has happened and of how others may have acted and why, learning to practice self-compassion and forgiveness like one would do with a friend.
We can conduct visualizations, practice affirmations, read stories about how others have learned about compassion and forgiveness, and we can talk and write about these things. However, we can also set the stage for all of this through building on what we know about neuroscience and neuroplasticity. We begin with breath, movement, and meditation to weaken existing connections that may be pulling us forcefully back into our stress and trauma, simultaneously opening new neuropathways for healing.
- Show compassion to others.
One of the best ways to help students learn about the power of compassion is to build compassionate school communities where there is a focus on restorative justice rather than punishment. In these communities, student and staff support each other, have empathy for what others are experiencing, and demonstrate compassion in so many ways. Teachers may work with students on compassion projects—perhaps students will help at a local homeless shelter, or students may take on a cause, using social media to promote increasing awareness of the needs of others. We can build compassionate classrooms through special projects and by our daily practices: acknowledging stress, showing empathy, and helping each other.
Happiness and Stress
We encourage you to practice the six keys to happiness that Seppälä has recommended. Interestingly, as you do this, your stress is likely to be reduced. As Krishna Kaur says, “High levels of stress are a critical problem in our children from preschool through college. Something is seriously missing in the lives of our children that I believe can be more easily managed with the practice of yoga and mindful meditation.” (Mason et all, 2021, p. 107).
In Cultivating Happiness, Resilience, and Well-Being we write about how our bodies are becoming “so accustomed to daily anxiety and stress that eventually an imprint, or “body memory,” is created that is extremely difficult and arduous to reprogram” (Mason et al., 2021, p. 139). We recognize that this will take intentional efforts—these body memories will not be improved overnight.
We believe in not only turning to our breath, yoga, and meditation but also to the “wisdom of maintaining a practice” (Mason et al., 2021, p. 110). This will take discipline, effort, and commitment. As we do this, we can build our inner capacity, increasing our resilience, and giving us tools to address the trauma and stress that may even pull us off-center as they sometimes appear when least expected. In contrast, with mindfulness practices, we can feel safer, more supported, and connected, setting the stage for happiness while building confidence, courage, and resilience. When we do this in school and classroom communities, we also build strong threads of connection, elements that are critical to our sense of well-being.
It is almost as if, when we breathe deeply, we breathe a collective sigh of relief. We open our hearts—and minds—to beautiful moments of joy and peace, uplifting our communities, helping each other, and supporting ongoing practices so our happiness is maintained even as slender tendrils of stress emerge, as they will inevitably do.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. Hyperion.
Mason, C., Donald, J., Kaur, K., Rivers Murphy, M., & Brown, V. (2021). Cultivating happiness, resilience, and well-being through meditation, mindfulness, and movement: A guide for educators. Corwin
Seppälä, E. (2016). The happiness track: How to apply the science of happiness to accelerate your success. Hachette UK.