I recently came across a TedTalk video that offers a unique perspective on the happiness many of us find ourselves pursuing. According to the scientist in the TedTalk, happiness is not just the transient feeling of joy, but a result of deep connectedness to the meaning in our lives. Emily Esfahani Smith, who studies positive psychology, used her research in neuroscience, psychology and philosophy, along side interviews with hundreds of people, to develop a four-pillared understanding of what is required to live a life of meaning. I was thrilled to see that the four pillars she details are some of the “ways of being” with children we value most at Highlands Micro School. To watch the video and better understand her four pillars and how they may help develop the best within you, please enjoy her video.
Smith’s Four Pillars and What They Mean at Highlands Micro School
Belonging – Belonging is about being valued for who you are and is an essential source of meaning. Belonging and “sameness” are not equal, as people with diverse perspectives, skills and personalities create a culture of belonging by valuing the things that make them different. A community where sameness is valued over differences may not actually be fostering belonging.
One of the most unique things at Micro is our investment in getting to know the each child, deeply, beyond the somewhat shallow level of academic achievement. We want to know EVERYTHING we can about each child because that is the information we use to help develop the best within them. A sense of belonging is cultivated by preparing an environment where each child feels able to express themselves, and other children are guided to open themselves to those expressions, making connections and deepening ties. When fractures in the community of belonging appear, we take the time to make necessary repairs.
Purpose – Purpose is defined by what you give and why. It is the use of one’s strengths in service to others and roots us in the communities to which we belong.
Our belief is that if work is not tied to something concrete and meaningful, it’s probably not the best use of a learner’s limited time. While we aren’t able to connect every child to the purpose of everything they do, it’s certainly a goal toward which we strive. In fact, our observation that a learner is struggling to make a connection to the purpose of their work is one of the most common reasons our teachers will rally together to discuss new approaches and ideas.
Transcendence – Transcendence is a temporary state of being where the self fades away and one feels a part of something greater.
This pillar of a meaningful life is so uniquely individual and needs space and time to occur. Moments of transcendence can occur when a child is all alone and feeling a connectedness to nature, like discovering an ant colony and watching them march in and out. Moments of connectedness can occur in community with shared experiences, like children swinging in unison, legs reaching for the sky and butterflies in their stomachs. Time to “get lost” in thought and the independence to find flow in their work are ways in which opportunities for transcendence are created.
Story Telling – Everyone has a story, but we also have power over how that story defines us. Being able to edit your own story, within the facts, to include redemption, growth and love are practices of people whose lives are meaningful.
From my office, I hear Susan working with a learner who has become overwhelmed with a task. Susan asks the child to tell her what the specific task is, and that child answers with an ominous expectation of performance. “Wow,” Susan says, “I can see why that would feel overwhelming for you. Let’s see if we can change what we are looking at, so what we are looking at will change.” Then, Susan guides her young learner through a process of re-telling the story so that it empowers the child to feel a sense of control over her environment. The child, who now sees herself as the master of her story, is able to walk away with a very different ending.
This little vignette is reproduced many times a day, in many contexts. For children, life is often something that is happening to them, with few opportunities to be the writers of their own stories. Learning to re-write your story is a skill that comes with experience and intentional cultivation. Through one-on-one work, as well as by repeating back to a child something they said with a new, empowered spin, this critical skill can become second nature.
I am grateful to work in an environment where these four pillars are already in place, and where families and the school can work together to help our children become the best versions of themselves.