Christopher Nicholls is the Master of Wellington College Bangkok, by far the most beautiful, peaceful and naturally wellbeing-focused school in the city. Who better to discuss this important topic: Wellington College created the UK’s first Wellbeing classes, back in 2006, and still leads the way across the world.
Waking up on Monday morning and actually wanting to do the things you have to do. Being excited by the prospect of what is ahead – in the moment and long-term. Having a sense of fulfilment generated by what you are doing or experiencing. These are some of the descriptors for personal wellbeing. It’s easy to write them down but it can be very difficult to achieve them in real life. Why is that? It’s partly because most of us (I admit – including me) tend to numb ourselves with foolish yet somehow comforting negative attitudes. ‘I can’t do anything before I’ve had my first cup of coffee of the day’; ‘I work to live, not the other way round’; ‘my rage keeps me sane’. That sort of nonsense. So try not drinking coffee; find something to love about your job; remember that anger is a negative emotion.
Those of us who are parents or teachers don’t just poison ourselves in this way, though: we also damage our children. Being a key adult in the life of a child might or might not make you a role model to them – but we are more than that anyway: we provide the norms, for thought and behaviour, that children will accept unconditionally. So it is the job of parents and teachers to work together to create the ideal conditions, the ideal frameworks, for children’s wellbeing. Let’s assume that home provides a great model. How can school help children to flourish in their lives?
People who understand themselves find it easier to be happy. So a good school trains students, from the age of 2, in the processes of developing self-awareness. We learn to understand how our own emotions work. We learn when and how to exercise self-control in our own lives. We learn how our behaviour affects others, in good ways and bad. We also learn to understand how being a good person can be a much happier, more rewarding and more successful choice than being unkind, selfish, thoughtless, aggressive, overbearing and so on. This learning is a long and gradual process. Giving a set of rules and demanding that they be followed, with punishment for those who transgress, is the wrong way. Modelling, discussing, reflecting, experiencing, sifting evidence, analysing: these are the methods we use on the pathway to wellbeing – and that’s what Wellbeing lessons at Wellington College are about.
It is tempting to say ‘we never had so-called Wellbeing lessons when I was at school – and I turned out fine!’ I’m naturally sympathetic to this view myself. But the fact is: I’m not sure I can honestly claim to have turned out as fine as possible(!) and I know for certain that some of my school friends didn’t. We should always do our best for everyone, not just for those who are probably going to do well anyway. ‘I’m happy and I don’t care about anyone else’ is not genuine wellbeing. You might also say ‘this is woolly, namby-pamby rubbish; the only way to get ahead is to be hard – on yourself and everyone else!’ OK, except that this simply isn’t true. In terms of academic results (which is the hard end of education), Wellington College is one of the most successful schools in the world (you don’t get an IB average of 40.2, from a cohort of around 100 students, without a serious focus on genuine achievement!) You can, and therefore you should, have your cake and eat it. Be successful. Be good. Be happy.