Can Goldie Hawn make Irish children happier?

The actress’s positive approach to emotional issues may help many of us to find the right frame of mind, reports Áilín Quinlan

CAN you learn to be happy and — perhaps more importantly — can you teach your children to be happy? Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn says yes.

And she goes further — in a just-published book she shows how.

It all started in 2003 when Hawn set up the non-profit Hawn Foundation which initiated a social and emotional learning programme, MindUP, in more than 300 schools throughout the US and Canada.

The programme not only teaches kids about the biology of the brain, it shows them how to reduce stress and manage their emotions by instilling ‘mindfulness’ in the form of calmness, quietness, better concentration and more consideration for others.

Through a series of simple routines and meditation-style exercises children learn to get in touch with their feelings by exploring sight, taste, smell, hearing and motion and, says Hawn, with the aid of techniques such as a daily Gratitude Journal, come to understand how to “savour” happiness.

A typical senses-session could involve children gathering around a pile of jellybeans. They close their eyes, pinch their noses and taste a sweet, guessing the flavour. Then they unplug their noses and taste the same flavour of jelly bean again — is it easier to tell the flavour when they can smell it?

The Foundation funded research to measure the effectiveness of the programme, and the results, reports Hawn, were “thrilling.”

Children reported better reading scores, less absenteeism, a 25% reduction in playground aggression, improved attention and better concentration, improved ability to manage stress and a 63% rise in optimism.

But is it possible that this kind of touchy-feely programme with its saccharine jargon about nurturing resilience and building a more productive future through feelings of gratitude could help kids?

Last January in a survey on Global Net Happiness, Ireland scored lowest in Western Europe. Only Romania, Serbia, Lithuania and Georgia scored below us.

Could we actually learn the mechanics of happiness and teach our children the secret?

Absolutely, says Dr Deirdre McIntyre, clinical psychologist and director of the Institute of Child Education and Psychology Europe in Maynooth.

“What Goldie Hawn is doing is drawing on the science of positive psychology and new discoveries in neuroscience and on the powerful tool that mindfulness is.

“We’re now learning what Positive Psychology says are the ingredients of emotional and psychological well-being, what it is we need to do to sustain psychological and emotional well-being and how we can teach these skills to our children.”

Healthy psychological habits can be cultivated and passed on to our children, says McIntyre, who runs two programmes in this area.

About 800 people have completed the ICEPE’s Teaching Happiness programme, which is specifically targeted at teachers, parents and people working with young people (www.icepe.eu)

The second course, Teaching Hope and Optimism; Pathways to Resilience, is aimed at a similar group. “Basically what we do is we teach them skills to practise in their own lives and we give them the skills to embed this kind of teaching in their everyday work with children.”

But can children begin to conceptualise a concept as complex as the route to happiness?

“Children don’t always need to understand why they’re doing something — you just start doing it with them,” explains McIntyre, adding that teaching happiness to kids is about getting them used to practising techniques like the ritual of gratitude and mindfulness.

“All of the techniques that Goldie Hawn uses are proven methodologies and techniques,” she says. “They come to us from the most effective cognitive behavioural techniques, they are practices, ways of thinking and ways of managing your emotions.

“She shows that teaching children relaxation technique like mindfulness reduces cortisol levels in the brain and allows them to learn more effectively.”

There is a direct link between reducing stress and improving well-being and learning, says McIntyre who quotes a primary teacher, who completed the Institute’s Teaching Happiness course who said it was the most important skill to teach children because happiness underlies all other learning.

The programme has been a big success: “It’s a course that can be integrated into the curriculum at primary and second-level without having to add on extra lessons. Feedback from parents, teachers and social workers on the course, which is now in its third year and which now has students from all over the world, has been very positive.

“People are telling us that it promotes mental health and helps them calm their students. We are hearing that children are more productive, caring and kind,” McIntyre says.

“It’s like an inoculation programme against depression and anxiety,” she says.

Psychologist and author Tony Bates, founder-director of the youth mental health group Headstrong, who has just published a successful book, has seen children as young as five being taught the principles of mindfulness.

“I’ve seen it taught to children who are five or six or seven or eight, and I’ve worked with 13, 14 and 15-year-olds myself.”

Parents can pass on the principles quite easily, he believes:

As leading psychiatrist and author Daniel J Siegel says in the foreword to Hawn’s book, we should consider moving beyond the basic three Rs of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic to three more ‘R’s — reflection, relationships and resilience.

He might just have a point.

* 10 Mindful Minutes by Goldie Hawn with Wendy Holden, is published by Piatkus €16.75

A diary of happiness is a good way to start

Primary school teacher Aideen Ahern, who completed the ICEPE online programme Teaching Happiness course last summer, was quick to implement its techniques in her classroom:

“The message that I got very strongly from it was that happiness can be taught,” she says.

“Children have obstacles and difficulties in their lives. Their responses can often come into the classroom in terms of their mood and can manifest in a negative attitude to learning or an unwillingness to learn,” explains Ahern, who has been teaching for 12 years and who now implements the happiness techniques she learned with her current fifth class of 10 and 11-year-olds.

In Ms Ahern’s class, the day starts with a happiness diary.

“I get the pupils to focus on the good things in their lives by listing three small things which made them smile — walking to school with their best friend, for instance, or remembering someone who made them laugh.”

They love it, she says.

“They really enjoy sharing their stories with each other. I find that increasingly they have more good things to talk about – they might have 10 things rather than three things and some of them actually do it by themselves without prompting from me.”

The techniques can even help soothe the fallout from playground scraps.


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