11. Don’t Worry, Be Happy

The “happiness industry” is ubiquitous, but there is a serious undertaking at the core of it. How is it possible to maintain a positive outlook in an age of political instability, increasing intolerance, and impending ecological destruction – let alone the coronavirus pandemic? We’ve all met people who seem (at least) to have the ability to remain relatively upbeat in the midst of all this and, while there are personality factors that are definitely at play here, I think there are also habits and dispositions that can be cultivated to improve one’s state of mind. This task is based on these “transferable” tips.

Pre-task:

  1. You could play part of Happy by Pharrell Williams here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbZSe6N_BXs or choose another upbeat song that you like. I have found students respond well to Somewhere Over The Rainbow by Israel (Iz) Kamakawiwoʻole, though this is actually quite a wistful lyric: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_DKWlrA24k . Here are other suggestions; adapt to the musical taste (and generation) of your students. https://www.timeout.com/newyork/music/best-happy-songs)
  2. Ask: What’s the mood of the song? Can music influence your mood? Can students suggest examples of feel-good music? Are there times when they might want to listen to music like this?
  3. This leads to the central question: Is there anything we can do to influence our moods? Get students in breakout rooms to brainstorm some common ideas e.g. meditation, “positive thinking”, sport, creativity, helping others, escapism. Alternatively, they could read and distil the ideas from one of the many online articles about happiness. Here, for example, are some conclusions from Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis: https://experiencelife.com/article/the-happiness-hypothesis-2/
  4. Share ideas in the main room and ask students to write them down.
  5. Students now listen to one or all of the short interviews with Derek, Yvette and Steve, in which they talk about habits and states of mind they have found useful in this regard. Students listen for which (if any) ideas occur more than once. Yvette mentions puff-puff and jollof rice, which are both Ghanaian dishes. If you think it is helpful, you could pre-teach these by googling and showing visuals.
Derek’s ideas
Yvette’s ideas
Steve’s ideas

6. Discuss these ideas briefly in open class. Do any of the ideas recur? Are there any “takeaways” – i.e. ideas that could be used by other people in different contexts?  This prepares students for the main task.

Main Task (See worksheet): 

  1. Give students some time – at least 2 minutes – to note down three things they do personally to improve their mood. Some students will be less practised at this, so make clear that anything will do: going for a walk, watching a movie, having a drink, phoning a friend. If students have no happiness strategies at all, get them to think about things that they don’t do e.g. watching the News too often.
  2. The students’ task is to interview others in pairs. They should (a) write down recurring or similar ideas (b) write down ideas that they think they’d like to try (c) ask questions, where appropriate, to find out more about these e.g. why it is a source of pleasure. The ideas need to be ‘transferable” because they are going to bring the best ideas back to a larger forum.
  3. The best organisation for this is for students to share in pairs first – allocate breakout rooms like this – then change pairs if numbers allow, doing so several times if possible. Students may be more likely to share this kind of personal information in a smaller group.
  4. Once they have talked to several partners, bring students into the main room to instruct the next stage: in larger groups, they should now appoint a chairperson and pool the best / most convincing / most common ideas they have found. The chairperson is to collect the best transferable ideas to report back to the class – these are intended as ideas that the students can actually try out.  
  5. Now put students into larger breakout rooms of 4 or more learners. 
  6. In the open class forum, the chairpeople report back in mini-presentations. The others can listen and react to what arises. NB: some ideas may be spiritual or philosophical in nature (e.g. from Stoicism) and it’s obviously important that the group is more receptive than judgmental at this stage, even if the ideas are from a different tradition from their own.

Follow-up

The ideas discussed could easily be included in a piece of writing, such as a report to the government or an employer (see variations) or a script for a popular psychology podcast, which could then be recorded. 

Language Focus: grammar

Modals: should for advice

Gerunds in subject position to describe activities: going on long walks in the hills makes me happy

Functional language (including patterning verbs) for advice: It’s a good idea / another good idea is to do exercise; You’d be better off – ing; It’s probably quite good to have a hobby.

Reporting verbs: X said / told me that she runs a lot / suggested taking more time for yourself

Language for habits, including the present simple and time adverbials: He goes running once a week, He tends/likes/tries to …

Lexis

Sentence stems connected with reporting ideas and frequency: One idea that came up a lot…; Something we talked a lot about is…; I was surprised that no one said much about…

Evaluating ideas: I thought Joe’s idea was convincing, useful, original, something I’d like to try out; it’s important to take exercise; impractical, unworkable, I couldn’t do that, I never have time.

Specific words and expressions to describe typical activities and states of mind e.g.: being resilient; not to let things get you down; time out, time off, down time; give yourself a break; give up/cut down on smoking; see the value in X, appreciate what you have, be grateful for….; something purposeful, meaningful; lose touch with / keep up with friends.

Variations

  • Sometimes the happiness industry is accused of causing people greater unhappiness by attempting to impose some kind of Brave New World-like conformity – happiness is not actually an appropriate response to current events! If your students are likely to think this, reframe the whole lesson in terms of reducing anxiety. Few people with genuine anxiety see this as an optimal state of mind.
  • If the idea of collecting real tips seems too personal for students to be comfortable, you could turn this into a role-play where the students are a focus group for the government seeking to increase Gross National Happiness, or for an employer looking to increase staff motivation. 
  • A different focus for a role-play in stage 2 of the Main Task above could be that students are psychotherapists giving advice to their clients.

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