Ridgewood High School Encourages Students to Find Their Happiness

Brian and Emily from Project Happiness lead an assembly of 900 students at Norridge High School

Ridgewood High School wants to see students happy.

Not a day without homework happy. Not ‘we’ve got a sub today’ happy. Not free pizza in the cafeteria happy. But really happy, exuding real and lasting happiness regardless of exterior factors.

Ridgewood officials are so committed to the effort that they spent several hours Oct. 25 working with students to identify true happiness. The effort included students viewing the award-winning film “Project Happiness,” which follows a senior high class from California on a journey to discover the true nature of human happiness.

Ridgewood also brought leaders of the national Project Happiness group to the school for the Oct. 25 program, hoping to reach students and get a Project Happiness Club started.

“It’s so simple and it can be so powerful,” Emily Crubaugh, Project Happiness educational director, said of youth using positive psychology, conflict resolution and mindfulness. “In just 28 days, four weeks, you can be up to 25 percent happier.”

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Common Ground Magazine Sings Praises of Project Happiness

When Randy Taran’s eldest daughter was a teenager, she approached her mother with a very serious concern: she was stressed out, and while she wanted to be happy, she didn’t know how. Taran, heartbroken and unsure of how to respond to or guide her daughter, first sought the guidance of experts and soon ended up as a visionary leader in the happiness movement.

Her pain as a bewildered parent ultimately led her to found the Palo-Alto-based nonprofit Project Happiness which, through educational programming, guides students and adults alike on the path toward happiness.

Taran has since dedicated her life to this Herculean task – the pursuit of world happiness – and her journey led her to find a way to communicate how to thrive and be happy not only with her daughter but also with young people throughout the world. Extensive research led to the creation of Project Happiness, one of a growing number of educational programs focused on giving young people the tools they need to first find happiness in their lives ad then to share that happiness with the world around them. Project Happiness programs are now in place in thousands of schools in 48 states and 52 countries.

At the heart of Project Happiness is a simple message:

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A Challenge Worthy of One’s Gifts

mister_rogers

While I still have to remind myself to take a deep breath and calm down, I think I do pretty well when faced with challenges these days. The other day I managed a work phone call while assisting my 3-year-old on the potty and making sure my 1-year-old didn’t unroll the entire toilet paper roll (half, maybe…). So I think I’m doing pretty well.

But as an adolescent I did not respond well to challenge – I saw it as a test and, thus, as something I could fail. My parents were sensitive to this anxiety and realized early on that indirect requests worked much better than direct challenges. But then school started and, well, you can’t avoid challenge there.

My first catastrophic response to a challenge came in elementary school when we were challenged to use our bodies. My body was not then, nor is it now, up to any kind of challenge involving coordination. I once crashed my bike into our neighbors’ yard because I couldn’t figure out how to pedal backwards (luckily, the neighbor was a doctor, and I got some free medical help). The big game they loved to have us play in elementary school was kickball. I was always among the last 2 or 3 children picked for a team, which didn’t do much for my self-confidence going in.

One day, after I caused our team a few outs, the teachers couldn’t find me when it was time to go back in to class. My response to the challenge had been simply to walk home. I remember my thinking: “Hey, my mom is just a few blocks from here. This game stinks. Why don’t I just go home?” My mother had been putting my sister down for her nap and she heard the front door shut. When she came downstairs she found me relaxing on the couch watching Mr. Rogers. Of course Mom brought me right back to school. And the next week a fence appeared around our playground – no more escape from kickball!

Although I was a pretty smart kid, I didn’t respond well when challenged to use my mind either. Once, after what I perceived to be an embarrassing performance in math class, I tried again to leave the school. Unfortunately, this was after the advent of fences around school yards and I was inside the school and this was my middle school, located about 10 miles from home – all factors working against me getting home for a nice, relaxing afternoon with Mr. Rogers, his comfy sweater and his friend, Henrietta Pussycat. But I did try to escape, resulting in the principal having to physically restrain me and an (I still claim inadvertent) kick in the principal’s shin (a few days’ suspension for that one).

Thanks to my parents, my teachers and patient administrators (like the one with the bruised shin), I made it through secondary school and into college. I learned how to manage my emotions and deal with academic and (minor) physical challenges. But it wasn’t until college that my school institution challenged me to use my gifts for personal connection. The Tucker Foundation (the college’s volunteer organization) challenged me to direct and further develop the Adopt-A-Grandparent program, pairing college students with elderly men and women who needed help and community. Phi Tau, my co-ed fraternity, challenged me to work with my peers to create a fair and comfortable community. And my supervisor at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston challenged me not only to interpret for the hospital’s Russian patients, but to make them feel part of our community.

What I responded to as a young person, and continue to respond to now, is a challenge to create community. And this is what we are challenging you and your classes to do: to use your individual gifts and talents to create community, however you define it: you classroom, your school, your neighborhood, your city, your country, or your world. We have created a 7-step project (to go with the 7 chapters of the Handbook) that culminates in the germination of a plan, a plan for your students to bring more happiness to their community using their gifts. This challenge to community can be found in chapter 8 of the Facilitators’ Guide (let me know if you still haven’t received one – I’ll send you one via e-mail ASAP), but I’ve reprinted (sadly devoid of the lovely orange background — too technologically complex for me!) below:

A CHALLENGE

I. Ask students to interview a community member using the “Exploring in My Community” activity on p. 14. Share your results as a class and try to find commonalities. What have you learned about your community that you didn’t know before?

II. After reflecting on “My Defining Moments…” on p. 35, find people in your community who have suffered and struggled and ask them to share their defining moments with the class.

III. Have students reflect on “Ideas about My Gift” on p. 67. Then have everyone share their greatest gifts with the class (it can be anonymous) and compile a list. Ask students to show the list to 3 community members and interview them about how they feel these gifts might relieve suffering in the community.

IV. After learning about active listening (pp. 102-3), explore resources for those suffering in the community (counseling, state resources, etc.). Do those resources provide true listening? How do they work to relieve suffering? Is there anything missing?

V. After writing or talking about “Reflecting on Compassion” on p. 113 and summarizing what you have found out about the community, begin to brainstorm about how compassion in action could be applied in your community.

VI. After reading about “Interdependence…With Others!” on p. 145, guide your students in tracking the ways people suffering in your community are interdependent, looking at family, business, government, schools, media, crime, etc.

VII. After reading about the young social entrepreneurs on pp. 167-168, use all the information you have gathered to create your own social entrepreneurship, either as a class or individually.

And there will be an incentive (beyond the rewards of community building). The class that comes up with the most amazing social entrepreneurship (as judged by our expert staff at Project Happiness headquarters) will receive a prize to be announced in next week’s blog. So, stay tuned

And I still think Mr. Rogers’ words are some of the best advice to someone panicked by challenge: “I like you just the way you are.” We all have gifts and struggles and we are all truly good, just the way we are.

An Invitation to Teachers: The Project Happiness connection

Catching up on some very important reading!

The new Director of Education catching up on some very important reading!

September 13, 2009

Hello to Current, Past, Prospective and Eternal Project Happiness Teachers:

I’m writing to introduce myself: my name is Abby Konopasky and I am Project Happiness’ new Director of Education. For those of you who have worked with Maria Lineger, she’s still on board, but we couldn’t keep her away from the hands-on, experiential work that is so critical to our program. I am fortunate to have her foundational work to build on and her guidance to do it.

Let me start by telling you a bit about my path to happiness, and Project Happiness in particular. I come from an academic family and I carried on the tradition by getting a Ph.D. in an obscure field: Slavic Linguistics. I taught Russian, then writing, then English, linguistics, pedagogy and ESL in my final academic position at the University of New Orleans. Then Hurricane Katrina not only wiped out my home, but my job and community as well. I was 8 months pregnant with my first child at the time and saw the obstacles to my happiness as insurmountable. My husband used the opportunity to change careers, starting law school at Stanford University the next academic year. I went with him as my daughter’s primary caretaker, unsure of precisely where I belonged: Mother? Educator? Researcher?

Without knowing it, I was completing a Project Happiness curriculum of a sort. I worked on self-awareness, identifying the things about my job and my parenting that brought me lasting happiness and developing self-confidence. I learned self-management and how to combat my Monkey Mind, particularly my feelings of depression. Through trial and error I developed a cadre of positive thoughts about myself and my future. I worked on social awareness and social management, finding joy in showing empathy and compassion to other mothers of young children at Stanford. We developed a loving and interdependent community, working together and negotiating our differences.

Nearly 4 years after the heartbreak of Katrina, I decided that I wanted to use my gifts to improve the lives of adolescents. That brought me to Project Happiness as a volunteer and, as they say, the rest is history!

It is not, then, the SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) research studies or the pilot program testimony that make me such a strong advocate for The Project Happiness Handbook. It is, rather, my own personal journey: the gifts of self-discovery are too precious and the risks of self-ignorance too great for us not to share these tools with our children.

And you will find that I am a strong advocate for the curriculum (perhaps too strong for some of you!). Adolescents need help finding the eye of the storm*, particularly in the face of obstacles like:

•Bullying:
http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/09/03/high.school.put.downs.study/index.html,

•Depression:
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/saffo/detail??blogid=79&entry_id=46284,

• And even national anxiety over things like the swine flu: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/08/health/08well.html?hpw.

While Project Happiness is not a cure-all, it is a way to start the conversation, a way to give adolescents, parents, teachers and even the community a common vocabulary to open the lines of communication.

This year The Project Happiness Handbook is being used in many locations (across the U.S. and Canada and in Rome, India, Nigeria, Guatemala, Australia and Nepal) and in many contexts (performing arts, leadership, yoga and meditation, living skills, adult enrichment and teacher preparation, to name a few). But we would love to spread it even farther and broader. And we want to help existing programs explore the curriculum’s rich resources and build new ones.

To that end, I’m putting out a call for connection. How can our team help? I can help you navigate our large curriculum, make lesson plans, facilitate project-based learning, make your classroom a more mindful and nurturing place, and create opportunities for your students to reach out digitally and in person. E-mail or call me any time.

Also part of this call for connection is an invitation to reach out to other like-minded facilitators. What are you doing with The Project Happiness Handbook? What is working for you? What are you struggling with? Would you like to connect or collaborate with another class? I invite you to either respond to this blog post (go to migration, click on Blog, and then on What do you think?) or join our Google group for facilitators by e-mailing me at project-happiness-facilitators@googlegroups.com.

I look forward to meeting, speaking with, or e-mailing with all of you over the course of this exciting and challenging school year. I wish you luck guiding your students on their journeys and continuing your own journey. I am still in shock that I get to work with such extraordinary teachers on such a remarkable project. So bear with me as I get used to ‘directing’ the program – I will be looking to you and your students for the true direction.

Abby Konopasky
(650) 391-7012
abby@projecthappiness.com

*See page 26 in The Project Happiness Handbook. “The Eye of the Storm” is an activity that teaches students to find the calm center in the midst of struggle.