New Delhi: “Students, tell me, what is common to us all?” a teacher asked some hundred students on Zoom who had entered “happiness” as the meeting password and a few hundred more who had joined the class through YouTube.
“All our teeth are the same,” one student wrote in his response.
Then some more answers popped up: “We all get wet in the rain; we all have hearts; we all have kindness; we all comb our hair; and clouds are for everybody.”
These were some of the responses that, for some inexplicable reason, caught my attention. Some wrote in broken English, some in perfect Hindi.
Another student wrote, “We all feel happy, sad and angry sometimes.”
I was pleasantly surprised. This was a class that I never had the opportunity to attend back when I was in school. A fresh break from learning about wars, mitochondria and trigonometry. This was a happiness class.
Introduced in 2018 on the basis of an idea developed by Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia, the happiness curriculum introduced by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi is aimed at improving the mental well-being of students between classes 1 to 8 in Delhi government schools.
The curriculum was designed using inputs from a team of 40 professionals that included teachers, psychologists, education consultants, volunteers, senior officials from the Directorate of Education of the Government of Delhi; NGO workers; and the State Council of Educational Research and Training.
Philosopher Agrahar Nagraj Sarman’s concept of ‘coexistential thought’ is a big part of the curriculum, along with philosophies by Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. The classes are activity-based and there is no need for textual reading or prior learning. The classes are not mandatory to attend and there is no grading system.
When I saw so many students actively taking part in this class, I inevitably thought of Sobia, my 11-year-old sister in class 6 who is struggling to attend her fixed set of classes every day at a private school in Delhi: English, Hindi, Math, Science, Social Studies, Urdu and Computers.
She struggles for lack of the silence that she needs to attend classes peacefully, and also over the long hours of virtual classes on Zoom. But most of all, she struggles with the motivation to wake up for her classes.
After the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, school children across the country have been faced with a new dilemma, having to be socially isolated, their recreational activities have stopped. Some may also have witnessed deaths in their family or financial crises. In March 2021, the UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund) said that the lockdowns have made children more vulnerable to mental health issues worldwide.
In the United States, 32% of adults experienced depression or anxiety disorders in 2020, as compared to just 11% in the previous year. More than 56% of those who reported mental health disorders were young adults aged between 18-24.
Closer home, Gujarat reported receiving emergency calls over about 800 cases of self-harm and 90 cases of suicides in one month as compared to the usual 100.
Tackling the adverse effects of the pandemic
Psychologists said that usual activities like sitting in a classroom with peers, talking to friends, playing sports in a school grounds and interacting with teachers is important for the growth of young children. The disruption in these daily routines has caused confusion and resulted in poor mental health conditions among children.
Himanshi Khanna, a clinical psychologist with specialisation in developmental psychology, while speaking to The Wire, said that the minds of children up to the age of 18 are constantly evolving.
“It is very important to stimulate cognitive, emotional and social development at this time and age. There are different subdomains like self awareness, mindfulness, critical thinking and effective communication which make a huge difference in their development.”
However, she said that the initiative of happiness classes can be a success only if they are implemented well.
“The person providing these classes should be appropriately qualified and thorough with the subject matter. Proper training is to be considered as an important criterion for providing these classes,” she added.
Neeru Puri, a Happiness Curriculum coordinator, said that the teachers conducting the sessions are mainly those who were a part of the core team to design the curriculum. “Or those who have been taking happiness classes, or those who are studying philosophy on which our curriculum is based and have a clear understanding of it,” she told The Wire.
During the second wave of COVID-19, people were dying because of a lack of access to medical resources. The rising death toll and SOS calls were hard to escape. I thought of my sister again. Did she, too, worry at night about her family dying of coronavirus? Or worse, getting infected and then not be able to get a hospital bed, medicine or oxygen supply?
It has been almost two years since classrooms have been locked and students have been expected to start attending classes online. The disparity surrounding us all became apparent when students struggled to join classes online due to unstable internet access and lack of gadgets.
Some did not have enough money for an internet pack. Some joined with background noises of kitchens buzzing. Some were forced by financial constraints to give up school entirely.
“Aap saans le rahe hain, chodh rahe hain [Breathe in, breathe out],” Neeru Puri instructed students in a warm tone.
The Zoom class on happiness was a full house. The number of students joining the happiness class has shot up drastically since the pandemic began, Puri told The Wire.
There has not been a change in the curriculum structure, but special focus has been given to mindfulness for dealing with stress and depression among students. However, the second wave of COVID-19 necessitated a session for teachers, too, which was started under the happiness curriculum on May 5.
The day I attended the class was a Thursday, which is the “activity day” in the happiness curriculum for students between classes 3 and 8.
“Show me a thumbs up if you had been waiting for an activity day,” the teacher asked, and ‘thumbs up’ emojis started popping up on the screen.
One Sunanda ma’am asked students, “If you feel good after helping somebody, write ‘yes’ and if not, write ‘no’ in the chatbox.” Little comment boxes filled up with “Yes.”
Sometime later, she asked another question, “It is established that we have all minds as we can think and answer questions. Now, does our brain expand after we use it, or does it shrink?” She instructed the students to raise their thumbs for the former and point it downwards for the latter. Several thumbs-up signs popped up on the screen immediately. One student raised his thumbs up five times.
Then what seems to be the main question of the day comes up.
“How did you feel to know that we are all similar in so many ways?” the teacher asked. Chanchal, a student, raised her hand and said, “It feels good.” Anil, another student, reiterated, “It feels very good.”
The two teachers coordinating the class gladly accepted both the answers, asking if anybody else had anything to add. “Kaisa achcha lag raha hai? Ladoo jaisa? [How good does it feel? Does it feel like a ladoo?],” one teacher asked.
The teacher then asked if it was common to want to be happy, to which a student named Nikku responded, “Everybody wants to be happy. And if somebody doesn’t feel happy, I will try to make them happy.”
Another invigorating question came up next. This time, by a student. “But ma’am, what’s wrong with being different?”
The 45-minute class was about to get over. The two teachers touched upon equality to answer the student’s question and left the students with something to discuss with friends and family for the next lesson: “How does it feel to know that you have hurt somebody by your actions?”
“And before leaving the class, clap for yourselves once,” one of the teachers said before ending the Zoom meeting.
I don’t know if each class of the happiness course is conducted with the same warmth, I have only attended one. But I do know that it attempted to inculcate values that we need most.