Recommendations to maximize happiness and minimize suffering in Singapore’s education system

That was my daughter’s philosophy assignment topic. I do agree with her ideas, and happy to know that she scored an A for this paper!

Here is a short excerpt:

A Holistic Approach to Happiness

Happiness is determined 50% by genetic set-point, 10% by external circumstances, and 40% by intentional activity (Salzgeber, 2018). Given the importance of intentionally changing one’s behavior to being happy, the education system should teach the practice of happiness as a core aspect of the curriculum, from Primary to Tertiary education, to maximize happiness. This can be done by implementing modules of empathy, philosophy, and mental wellness.

Teaching empathy

The value of teaching empathy has been affirmed by some of the happiest countries in the world. Danish schools, for example, credit their standing as the second happiest nation in the world to their weekly empathy lesson for students aged 6 to 16 years (Newsroom, 2019). To maximize happiness, Singapore should similarly incorporate empathy classes as a fundamental subject and hone the skills of real learning and understanding in students.

Benefits

Cultivating virtue ethics. Numerous philosophies can be reconciled in their recognition of virtuous activity as happiness. Aristotle declared happiness to be the final aim of virtuous activity, inter alia. (McMahon, 2013). Similarly,  Stoicism proclaimed that the cultivation of virtue was essential to a happy life, through the embracing of four cardinal virtues: wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage (Saunders, 2019). Empathy lessons cultivate these values by teaching students of all ages to recognize and respect others and their emotions, thus teaching happiness.

Kate doing her chinese homework

Developing interpersonal relationships. Seligman (2004) propounds that developing relationships is essential to feel satisfied in life. In my experience, all good days share one thing in common: a connection to others. Such days are a reminder that, as social creatures, we are not meant to exist in isolation. Further, developing meaningful relationships is key to reaching Attunement;  a connection to others enforce stability and balance and can help us feel ‘settled’ amidst the fact-paced rat-race to the end. The effect of interpersonal relationships on happiness can alternatively be explained by Desire Theory. Following the Desire Theory, if happiness results from getting what we strongly want, and building connections to others is an intrinsic desire, then having strong interpersonal relationships is pivotal to attaining happiness.

Moreover, having empathy promotes prosocial behaviour (Newsroom, 2019). Being prosocial is important to happiness as helping others genuinely makes us feel good. Personally, I enjoy doing works of charity and putting effort in friends and family as making others happy results in a sense of fulfilment. The benefits of being prosocial finds parallels in doctrines positing that happiness is contagious; in spending on others, we spread happiness, and correspondingly experience happiness in giving it.

Feasibility

The effectiveness of empathy lessons may be limited in Singapore. Nordic countries attribute their happiness to upbringing: “happy parents raise happy children who grow up to be happy adults who raise happy children” (Newsroom, 2019). Given that Singapore still places considerable importance on academic performance at the expense of character development, Singapore may experience difficulty in changing the mindset of parents to value and promote empathy in their children.

On the other hand, taking one step in the right direction is better than taking no steps at all. Further, that parents may not prioritize empathy is an even greater reason that schools should. My own exposure to the importance of empathy in a ‘Virtue Ethics’ class in Junior College was valuable. There, I observed first-hand the importance of being more understanding of my peers, which made school a happier place to be in. The existence of such classes demonstrates that teaching empathy in schools is both feasible, and has practical benefits.

Philosophy as a core module

I propose that philosophy be implemented as a core module from Primary to Tertiary education.

Benefits

My experience approaching philosophy for the first time in my university’s ‘Big Questions’ module was eye-opening. Prior to the class, happiness seemed fleeting and elusive. Studying philosophy introduced productive ways of evaluating my mindset and implementing practical changes to my lifestyle that truly helped me feel more at home and happy.

Cultivating philosophical reflection and intellectual virtue. Studying philosophy has been correlated with happiness. As mentioned, both Stoicism and Aristotelian philosophy declared happiness to be the final aim of philosophical reflection and virtue. Thus, studying philosophy is instrumental in teaching one to maximize happiness for oneself, and can help one reach Attunement.

Finding meaning in life. As observed by Victor Frankl, humans are motivated to find meaning in life (Frankl, 1992). A person who has meaning is likely to be more passionate in living, and thus find happiness in the state of Engagement. Studying philosophy exposes students to fundamental questions about existence, reason, and mind; it thus contributes to happiness in guiding students to finding meaning and satisfaction in life.

Feasibility

Implementing philosophy as a core module is likely to be feasible in conjunction with the other proposed measures, as the decentralization of academic performance as the primary focus of education enables more leeway for non-academic modules. Although younger students may not fully grasp the more complex philosophies, concepts can be simplified for their benefit. As Aristotle eloquently put, “Let no one when young delay to study philosophy … for no one can come too early or too late to secure the health of his soul” (Epicurus, 1954, para. 1).

Mental wellness modules

Teaching the practice of mindfulness, meditation, and positive psychology supplements the effectiveness of the above propositions in maximizing happiness. Killingsworth propounds that true well-being depends on the state of our minds and the quality of our consciousness (Bradt, 2010). Thus, mindfulness, meditation, and positive psychology have similarly effective outcomes in contributing to well-being, including a greater sense of coherence, empathy, and more satisfying relationships.

Conclusion

Institutional measures alone cannot guarantee happiness. However, happiness and education are intimately connected and quality education can and should aim to maximize happiness and minimize suffering where feasible. Thus, Singapore should implement the proposed changes to assessment methods and curriculum to overturn the excessively competitive mindsets of students and parents today, and strike a holistic balance that is the formula to maximizing happiness.

About MummyWee

Michelle Choy is an Occupational Therapist by day and mum of 6 by night. Besides the already very demanding job of managing 5 teenagers and one 7-turning-17 tween, she is also Founder of The Little Executive, a nurturing centre to develop children in areas like resilience and executive function, to survive today’s volatile world. She also makes time to volunteer with children and the elderly in her community.

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