Susan Riley | June 2014

What’s Wrong With Being Happy?

I’m in love with that song by Pharrell called “Happy”, along with most of the rest of the world.  It’s a catchy little number and whenever I hear it, I can’t help but get happy myself.  It is one of those songs that is infectious and makes you smile, whether you were already in a good mood or not.

As I was turning it up in the car the other day, I began thinking about happiness and whether our students spend the majority of their day frustrated, excited, angry, scared or in some other state of being besides “happy”.  After all, who could be happy when the stakes are so high that the minute you cross the school threshold, the feelings of carefree and excited are replaced by tension and unease?

I have known educators this year who were so stressed by new evaluation systems, standards and lack of time that they actually told their students that how they performed on their tests would determine the future of their teachers.  Goodbye, happiness.  Hello, fear and worry.

Maybe that’s a bit extreme.  After all, not every school environment is doom and gloom.  There are schools that have a tremendously positive culture and encourage their students to have fun.  There are students who enjoy going to school and look forward to it as part of their learning experience.  And even now, there’s nothing like walking into a buzzing kindergarten classroom to brighten your day.

But do we actually value happiness?  If we valued it, we would see a more collective swing towards teaching practices which encouraged happiness in our students.  Instead, we dismiss happiness as a feeling and move our students towards activities which have a more substantial effect on their future.

Yet, what could have a more substantial effect on a student’s future than whether or not they are happy?  We think the student who takes a little longer to enjoy the moment, or who seems a bit too carefree, is not putting in enough effort and doesn’t value academia.  What’s Wrong with being happy?

Arts Integration Sparks Happiness

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with being happy, but somehow we missed that message in education.  We say that happiness is something we value, yet we do not create experiences that provide our students with the chance to be happy.  Our words do not match our actions.  We have long known that students who engage in the arts have higher self-esteem, are more confident, and learn to seek out problems to which they can find creative solutions.

These products lead to individuals who find joy in the act of creation and reflection.  In a word, students are happier.  Therefore, it makes sense that when we teach content areas such as language arts, math, social studies and science in and through the arts, students are more engaged and excited to be in class.  Many teachers comment that when they use Arts Integration, their students come alive and shine in ways that they may not see otherwise.

Many times, though, when I present about the benefits of Arts Integration this part becomes the “nod and move on” piece.  Too many times, I see participants in my sessions nodding their heads in agreement when it comes to the social benefits of Arts Integration while simultaneously checking their phones or creating their grocery list.  It’s as if this is what they have come to expect of the arts – the “touchy-feely” stuff.  It’s not until I share the academic boost in test score when using Arts Integration that I really capture their attention.  We claim that the social-emotional aspects of education are important, and yet the actions again show otherwise.

It’s time to think about the whole picture of what the arts can bring to the whole child.  It isn’t just about boosting test scores, nor is it just about providing a feel-good experience.  Instead, the focus should be on how to weave the two together: academic and social-emotional benefits to create a tightly woven tapestry of learning for ALL children.  For that, I would be extremely happy.

About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, STEAM, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan