Imagine a world where every child studies a subject in school called "happiness." We would begin in elementary school, learning the basics of positive psychology and self-understanding alongside Math, Science, and Social Studies. Each year, our grasp on what makes us happy and how to live a quality life would deepen, our vision for our future seen through rose-colored shades.
That vision is what inspired Clara den Boer to create the Happiness Suitcase project, and we had the pleasure of meeting up with her in beautiful Laren, Holland to talk with her about it. We sat on the porch of a café that looked out at the naturous hiking path where Clara was when the idea for the Happiness Suitcase came to her a few years ago. As she spoke, her eyes lit up.
So how exactly do you teach happiness? Clara breaks it down into seven fundamental lessons. Lesson one - what is happiness? 50 percent is inherited biologically, 40 percent is conscious behavior, and 10 percent is circumstance (material comfort, social status, etc). Most adults today focus mostly on that latter 10 percent but in our busy lives we often never learn to effectively control the middle 40 percent. This is what the Happiness Suitcase focuses on.
Lesson 2 and 3 are a crash course in Positive Psychology, training the brain to see with eyes of gratitude and abundance. This method has been shown to rewire brain activity in the long term, stabilizing neurochemicals and yielding more positive life experiences. It is not what happens to us, but rather how we perceive what happens to us that makes all the difference.
The next three lessons are about self-confidence, talents and future dreams. And the final lesson is a project to be done out in the world - do something to increase happiness in your community. The children have been coming up with creative ideas. It can be giving out roses on the street (accompanied by their parents, of course) with positive messages attached to the stem, singing in hospitals or playing bingo with elderly folks in a retirement home.
The program delivers these lessons in ways that are fun and accessible for the children. Each child receives a blank, white suitcase on the first day of class and is instructed to paint the suitcase creatively as an expression of his or her self. Inside the suitcase is a workbook that teaches the seven lessons in ways that are fun and engaging. For example, to teach the positive psychology lessons the suitcase includes a pair of rose-colored sunglasses to wear inside and outside of class.
Clara shared a story with me about the positive results of these lessons. At a parent-teacher conference, one parent told her about an evening when he came home in a bad mood from a hard day at work, and his daughter sensed his tension. Clinging to his leg with her pink shades in her hand, she brought him back to himself. "Put on your pink glasses, Daddy!"
Since bringing the idea to her first school in 2006 the Happiness Suitcase has reached over 18,000 young students. The results have been overwhelmingly positive. The hope is that if we teach this to children at an early age, it will be second nature in adulthood. By 2020, Clara's goal is to have public elementary schools in every region of the Netherlands teaching happiness. If this idea can spread internationally, it may have a profound effect on the future of education.
We want to send a big digital hug and our deepest thanks to Olav Berten and the family for hosting us while we were in the Netherlands. Your generosity is inspiring. Our love to Olav, Shella, Rubyie and four amazing kids.
Clara - the effervescent mastermind
In the classroom
Clara's sweaty associate, Dallas