Is wellbeing ‘caught rather than taught’?

When preparing for the first issue of the WISEducation wellbeing newsletter, I reached out to friends, colleagues and other connections to ask whether they would be interested in writing an article on a wellbeing topic of their choice. In my mind I felt, perhaps some would argue naively, that everyone has something to offer when it comes to wellbeing. As many terms are, the concept of ‘wellbeing’ can be contentious and slippery, but in order for me to make sense of this I use the definition of ‘wellbeing’ offered by Davis (2019, p. 1 ), who states that wellbeing can be defined as “the experience of health, happiness, and prosperity. It includes having good mental health, high life satisfaction, a sense of meaning or purpose, and ability to manage stress.” This undoubtedly attaches a lot of weight to the term but in my own understanding, I think of my wellbeing as when I feel that I have purpose, connection and stability (or at least the feeling that I can cope with episodes of instability). 

A response I received several times from people that I knew and valued very much was that they either didn’t feel that they had expertise to offer, or they weren’t sure how their expertise could contribute in a meaningful way. I personally found this really interesting in a couple of ways, perhaps firstly that for me it reflects some degree of western thinking about education in that we don’t have much to offer if we don’t have a degree or masters in a subject, or have undergone a certain number of supervised hours to prove our competence. It also reminded me of a lecturer that I had (and very much respected) during my undergraduate degree who was trying to get us to stop giving our opinions and write more academically, and said something to the effect of ‘you don’t get to have an opinion until you have a PhD’. This certainly helped me to stop writing in the first person and helped me to construct my essays in a more considered and informed way, but it also saddened me a little. In relation to this and to the subject of wellbeing, I have always felt nothing qualifies us more to talk about wellbeing than merely being human and facing the challenges that life has to throw at us. In this sense, and perhaps this is slightly informed by the literature I have read on Motivational Interviewing more recently, I believe that we are all intelligent individuals and know deep down what is best for us (how to be well) but as humans life is complicated, histories are complex, and inherently being human on some level is to fail (and that’s ok). 

This is not to say that clinicians, CBT practitioners, psychiatrists don’t all have extremely valuable input when it comes to educating us, the general public, on mental health and wellbeing issues, but what I have come to understand through my own experiences (and from what I believe at this snapshot in time) is that the roles that schools can play in helping our own students to find purpose, connection and stability should serve at the root of our schools and organisations, and not as an add-on. In this sense if we used a Formula One analogy, wellbeing is how we construct the team that builds the car and works to the best of their ability for themselves and each other, and not the quick fixes or tire changes in the pit stops that enable the car to finish the race and rank themselves amongst others (much like the transition from school to university, work, and beyond). An article that I found really thought-provoking in this regard was entitled ‘Well-being programmes in schools might be doing children more harm than good’ by Professor Kathryn Ecclestone (2015 – https://theconversation.com/well-being-programmes-in-schools-might-be-doing-children-more-harm-than-good-36573). Eccleston describes how a shift towards a preoccupation with teaching children and young people skills such as empathy, resilience, self-esteem and mindfulness have become a non-negotiable way to tackle a wide range of deep-seated problems such as obesity, teenage pregnancy, unemployment and ill-health. However, despite placing these metaphorical eggs into a metaphorical ‘one cure fixes all’ basket, there is simply little evidence that programmes that are aimed at improving young people’s emotional wellbeing are having any impact. The article concludes by saying that perhaps rather than interventions aimed at improving wellbeing in schools (which are arguably largely pointless), rather “well-being should come from the core business of education: a stimulating, enriched, challenging curriculum and extra-curricular activities.” (Ecclestone, 2015, p. 1). 

In a subsequent article, Eccleston and Rawdin (2016) offer a thoughtful and helpfully critique of discourses and policy relating to wellbeing in education (with a UK focus) and posit that more recent educational debates are suggesting that wellbeing is ‘caught rather than taught’ in the sense that “well-being might best be achieved through both imaginative and skilled teaching of particular subjects and a diverse curriculum.” (Ecclestone and Rawdin, 2016, p. 387). When reading this, the idea that wellbeing is not a curriculum that you are taught, but ideas and a way of being that you are exposed to and interpret and give meaning to, really resounded with me. Much in the way that I feel that different contributors with a wide range of life and professional experiences will have to offer by (kindly) sharing their thoughts and ideas on the WISEducation platform.

For me ‘wellbeing’ is not a destination we get to and are allowed to stay at (especially if we work hard and listen in class) but a feeling of purpose and connection that we can find in a multitude of ways. Perhaps the most important way that we can help our students to find that is to create an environment and relationships where they feel that they matter to us and we matter to them, and we can only do that by being the thing that unites us all, by being qualified as imperfectly human.

References

Davis, T. (2019). What Is Well-Being? Definition, Types, and Well-Being Skills. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/click-here-happiness/201901/what-is-well-being-definition-types-and-well-being-skills

Ecclestone, K. (2015). Well-being programmes in schools might be doing children more harm than good. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/well-being-programmes-in-schools-might-be-doing-children-more-harm-than-good-36573

Ecclestone, K., & Rawdin, C. (2016). Reinforcing the ‘diminished’ subject? The implications of the ‘vulnerability zeitgeist’ for well-being in educational settings. Cambridge Journal of Education, 46(3), 377-393.

One thought on “Is wellbeing ‘caught rather than taught’?

  1. “well-being should come from the core business of education: a stimulating, enriched, challenging curriculum and extra-curricular activities.” (Ecclestone, 2015, p. 1).

    YES! YES! YES!

    I also appreciate you breaking down the Davis definition into three key traits: purpose, connection, and stability. During a particularly unstable time when virtual learning hinder connection making, we need to challenge ourselves to think about wellbeing in such a way that we focus on what is important.

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