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Zubin Sharma Headshot

The Power of Mindfulness

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I walked into the classroom and there was pin drop silence. All of the first graders in the Koseli School that serves children from the slums in Kathmandu, Nepal were deep in meditation. Students at Koseli, which educates some of the most disadvantaged children in Kathmandu, have been learning and practicing meditation as part of their curriculum on mindfulness since February.

Koseli is part of a larger project underway by the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology PhD candidate Alejandro Adler. During travels to Bhutan during his undergraduate years, Adler became deeply interested in the concept of Gross National Happiness as an alternative development paradigm to Gross Domestic Product. This journey led him to explore the larger question of how we can help individuals and societies flourish. To answer this question, Alejandro enrolled in the Positive Psychology PhD program at Penn, where Professor Martin Seligman started the movement.

Positive Psychology is defined as the scientific study of optimal human functioning and is concerned with empowering individuals, organizations, and communities to maximize their strengths and virtues and to thrive. The movement has demonstrated that character and social-emotional intelligence can be taught. For example, the Penn Resiliency Program, which teaches the skills for resilience, is being taught to individuals in organizations ranging from schools, to businesses, to the U.S. Army. However, the majority of this research has been conducted in advanced industrialized countries, such as the U.S. and Australia, so Alejandro asked whether or not the teachings of Positive Psychology could be applied to less developed countries.

Bhutan was a useful case-study in this pursuit, as the measurement and maximization of citizens' happiness and well-being has been the guiding compass for institutional architecture and public policy in the country for the past 40 years. Alejandro has worked with the Bhutanese government to create a curriculum in which life skills such as resilience, critical thinking and empathy are taught and measured. This intervention is currently being implemented in all 108 government schools in Bhutan. Thus far, the program has increased students' psychological well-being, physical health, academic achievement, leadership and overall enjoyment of the education experience.

A second question, however, was whether or not well-being education could be implemented in nations where the ethos of happiness and fulfillment is not an explicit public policy development objective. To empirically answer this question, Adler, along with University of Pennsylvania Masters in Applied Positive Psychology student Emily Larson, partnered with the Nepali umbrella educational NGO Supathya. Adler and Larson set off to Nepal last February to train teachers and principals at 5 schools in the Supathya network and returned in September to do a follow-up training.

I attended a meeting with the teachers and principals from the schools, and they all described a complete shift in the learning environment in their schools since they began implementing the well-being curriculum. Renu Bagaria, principal at Koseli, noted the dramatic change that has occurred at her school in terms of student mindfulness, behavior and concentration.

I fortuitously met Alejandro last May while presenting what SEEKHO, the organization I founded, is doing in rural Bihar, India. I discussed some of the issues that SEEKHO was facing, such as students whose sense of discouragement and helplessness was preventing them from learning. Alejandro and I decided that a well-being teacher training could help create a culture of learning in the schools that would allow students to be resilient, optimistic, and, most importantly, to dream and pursue their aspirations. Starting in January, we will be piloting this model in four government schools in Bihar. Pending positive results, we will scale the model to empower a generation of children in India.

For the past 100 years, the majority of education systems across the globe have failed to equip students with the life skills needed to flourish. This educational paradigm solely focused on academic achievement is a reflection of the global development paradigm whose progress is gauged by economic growth (GDP), regardless of negative externalities on the natural environment, on social fabrics and culture and on happiness and well-being. If we are to strive for a new development paradigm beyond mere economic growth, a new generation empowered with the tools to flourish at an individual and communal level will be necessary. Education for well-being is an educational paradigm which can plant seeds that might yield these fruits in the decades to come. The first graders at Koseli are a living example this paradigm shift in education is not only desirable, but also that it is possible.