Focus on happiness, love and respect

Positive education opts to build the mental attitudes and resilience of young people to enable them to deal with life’s challenges

BEING young is exciting. As you grow up and emerge into adulthood you encounter new learning experiences almost every day. But that same multiplicity of experience can also lead to stress, as young people struggle with change, choices, the challenges of identity and a sense of purpose.

According to the World Health Organisation, half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14, and most cases remain undetected and untreated. Worldwide, depression affects more than 300 million people and suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds. The Malaysia Mental Health Association (MMHA) recently reported an alarming spike in the number of teenagers and children in Malaysia who are contemplating suicide, with the youngest being a nine-year-old.

These statistics are a source of concern to parents, educators and policymakers. How best to respond? In my opinion, positive education — defined in a report by the World Government Summit as “the approach to education that blends academic learning with character and wellbeing” — is the answer. The report explains that positive education prepares students with life skills including grit, optimism, resilience, growth mindset, engagement and mindfulness.

“It is based on the science of wellbeing and happiness.”

Instead of waiting for mental health issues to arise and then addressing them with therapy and medication, positive education opts to build the mental attitudes and resilience of young people to enable them to productively engage with life’s challenges. This in turn will reduce the incidence of mental health issues. The life skills that positive education develops not only ensure better mental health, they also represent the basis of success in life at large, including securing a job and sustaining long term relationships.

Heriot-Watt University Malaysia, a pioneer in positive education, views the university not only as a place where students develop their intellectual capabilities, but also where they cultivate a broad set of skills such as self-awareness, self-management, empathy, relationship management, mental resilience as well as the sense of purpose.

One of the signature initiatives to pursue positive education is the HappierU initiative (the ‘U’ indicating both self, ‘you’, and the University) that is aimed at developing a happy and resilient community. It does this through fostering the 10 keys for happier living identified by the psychologist Vanessa King. These are: Giving, Relating, Exercising, Awareness, Trying-Out, Direction, Resilience, Emotions, Acceptance and Meaning (GREAT DREAM).

The Youth Transformation Programme, which runs at Heriot-Watt University Malaysia twice a year, is a two-week programme aimed at developing the emotional resilience of SPM/IGCSE school leavers to enable them to transition into university life with confidence and optimism. The programme features highly engaging modules on self-awareness, gratitude, goal setting, communication and teamworking skills. It emphasises the neuroscience basis of success and happiness, and introduces the basic functions of the human brain. This last is critical, as research has shown that knowing how the brain works helps us to learn and build positive attitudes.

Our undergraduate students are required to take the EmPOWER Programme, which we believe gives them the very best grounding for their life journey ahead and helps them to leverage their academic study. This is a structured four-level programme that takes the students on a developmental journey of knowing and leading self, leading teams, leading communities and leading enterprise. It has six developmental strands and focuses on building a strong sense of purpose. Every student develops an Impact Statement describing how they will impact the world positively through working on something that is close to their hearts and related to their strengths, and area of study while addressing one of more of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.

Positive education is not restricted to university life. It’s philosophy needs to extend to our homes, our schools and the business world. Below are few things that we can all do to stay positive, resilient and happy:

1. Stay connected with the people you love and show them that you care. Express gratitude by writing thank you cards to those who have made a difference in your life. This will leave both of you feeling great and improve the quality of your relationship;

2. Serve others and volunteer for a good cause that you believe in. Doing good will make you feel good;

3. Learn how the brain works. Understanding the basic neurology and chemistry of the brain will help you motivate yourself and learn better;

4. Write you own Impact Statement. Having a clear sense of impact on the world will help keep you motivated when times are tough. It also keeps you connected to those you serve and those with similar aspirations to yours; and

5. Stay active and healthy. A healthy body will support a healthy mind, not to mention that playing a team sport will keep you staying connected with others who have similar interests and build your team spirit.

We are entering the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is up to us to decide — do we want technology to push us out of our jobs, or free us to achieve our highest purpose? To choose the latter, we need to nurture what really makes us humans, our emotional intelligence and our creativity. I truly believe that Positive Education is our best bet for equipping the young — and all of us — for the next stage of our journey.