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Could Redesigning Education End the Mental Health Crisis?: A Paradigm Shift to a More Relevant System | Andrea Downie

Is our education system contributing to a decline in human thriving? Is the current focus on wellbeing in education, organisations and society unintentionally making mental health worse? Should our obsession with teaching happiness skills even be a focus? Could we prevent mental ill health and enhance wellbeing, but aren’t getting it right?

Sixteen years ago I started my teaching career and became one of those statistics to leave the profession within the first five. Not because I didn’t love teaching — I loved it with every inch of my fibre — I left because I wanted to try something different; a new challenge. After a few months travelling the developing world with my husband, a year working for a fortune 500 company and then losing one of the people I loved most- my dad, my world turned upside down. I then made a ‘heart’ decision to return to the profession I was passionate, happier in and ultimately creating a more meaningful life aligned with my values.

Partly due to being previously immersed in a corporate industry where competition, success and desire was rife, it became apparent to me that schools were doing more and more to focus on connection, belonging, contribution and supporting young people to be ‘well’ and ‘do good’, rolling through program after program and allocating significant spending and leaders to wellbeing. Yet the intention did not appear to have the desired impact. Wellbeing, as it stands today in education, is not working to the degree desired.

Mental ill health, such as depression and anxiety, is on the rise world wide. This fact has been significantly highlighted by the inclusion of mental health by the UN in the sustainable development goals and by the mass production and overuse of the term “wellbeing”. Despite an abundance of well intentioned focus in this space (google the term wellbeing and you can get anywhere between 1.6 and 2.8 billion results), there is more mental ill health and disconnection than ever. According to the World Health Organisation, 20% of children and adolescence globally currently have a mental health condition. Depression and anxiety, the two most common mental health conditions, cost the global economy as estimated US $1 trillion each year.

Despite the vast number of initiatives, programs, frameworks and research into wellbeing, why are our best intentions not having the desired result? Why aren’t children thriving?


Because knowing something, doing something and having something are very different things.


The perspectives of wellbeing

I have spent the past few years asking hundreds of people across the world of varying ages, from different demographics and social economic statuses, these two fundamental questions: ’What makes you genuinely happy?’ and ‘How do you see society seeking happiness?’.

One’s background was found to have no unique bearing on their responses, the findings were consistent. There is a huge disconnect between what we know makes us happy and how the overwhelming majority seek it. Our well-intentioned efforts on enhancing wellbeing are having unintended consequences and it has everything to do with what we pursue. To understand this, let me first explain the two perspectives of wellbeing, both dating back to fourth century B.C.

Hedonia is about pleasure, enjoyment and absence of distress. Hedonism comes from the Greek hēdonē “pleasure”. As human beings, we have a tendency to move away from pain and towards pleasure so our natural state is to lean into hedonia. Yet, constantly pursuing hedonia at the expense of all else is said to be a dangerous way to live. It is in many ways self-serving and described as ‘the fast-food of happiness’. Meaning researcher Professor Michael Steger has described hedonia as, “basically doing whatever the hell you want”. The bigger house, the faster car, the latest smartphone, these may provide a temporary spike in happiness, but before long, they have a point of diminishing return. Our happiness levels eventually return to baseline or even below. This phenomena is coined “hedonic adaptation,” where we become stuck on a hedonic treadmill chasing that next bit of pleasure or shiny thing. For example, a person turning towards drugs might be very happy in that moment but know that happiness isn’t a sustainable way to feel good and they may be doing things that are ultimately harmful over the longer term. Professor Veronika Huta explains that hedonia might derail into addiction, chronic escapism, destructive impulsivity, selfishness, antisocial behavior, greed, excessive consumerism, and the likes.

Importantly, pleasure and happiness shouldn’t be confused with the broader notion of wellbeing.

In comes the second perspective, Eudaimonia. Eudaimonic wellbeing is about meaning, purpose, authenticity and personal growth. Not only is it one of the oldest definitions, it has stood the test of time for good reason. Eudaimonia is a combination of the prefix eu meaning ‘good, or well’, and daimon which means ‘spirit’. Alan Waterman, a leading happiness researcher and professor emeritus says, eudaimonia is a condition we achieve when we live in accordance with our truest self. Underneath its umbrella is also ‘flow’, ‘psychological wellbeing’ and ‘self determination’.

People who focus on more eudaimonic activities not only report feeling greater satisfaction, stronger positive emotions and more meaning in life, but those feelings are also more long term and can be sustained into the next day known as a “happiness hangover”. Research tells us that the pursuit of eudaimonia results in happiness (eudaimonia yields hedonia); however, the opposite isn’t true. Other studies have shown that eudaimonic behaviour also has huge health benefits, such as increases in longevity. Despite being considered the cornerstone of wellbeing, meaning is often neglected in wellbeing frameworks, initiatives and resilience and happiness education programs.


Findings to the questions asked

Ninty five percent of responses to the question ‘What makes you genuinely happy?’ were eudaimonic. The most common responses were family; deep and meaningful connections; pets; being immersed in nature; being surrounded by water, mountains, sunsets or gardens; movement and exercise; spirituality; doing for others and giving. Whilst 90% of responses to ‘How do you see society seeking happiness?’ were hedonic. These responses included seeking happiness through wealth; money; materialistic items; substances (drugs and alcohol); self-interests; power and social media. In regards to social media, respondents referenced likes, acknowledgement, instant gratification and selfies. Research from JetCost showed that 61% of millennial travellers said they wouldn’t go to a tourist destination if they couldn’t get a good picture to post on Instagram. It has become less about the experience and more about getting the perfect photo. Social Media is a playground for inauthenticity. I post, therefore ‘I am’.

Portrait of a man taking selfie. Focus on smartphone


The fundamental key differences between the two perspectives

Hedonia is considered short term, whereas eudaimonia longer term. Hedonia can be associated with taking from others or the environment, whereas eudaimonia is more about service towards others or the giver. Eudaimonia tends to be more about deeper connections, Hedonia, on the other hand, involves shallow connections. Hedonia focuses more on satisfaction whereas eudaimonia is associated with personal growth and ‘heat experiences’ or getting outside of one’s comfort zone. A study by Antonella Delle Fave et al. of people in Australia, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and South Africa showed that staying within the confines of your comfort zone, partaking only in those hedonic experiences that are at your fingertips, such as a good meal, an escapist movie, a shopping trip to the mall, is strongly linked to depression. “People who didn’t perceive challenges in their lives that called upon them to develop skills and resources had the lowest levels of life satisfaction. In the long run, a life of ease does not allow you to develop into a more complex, mature person.”


Growth demands doing the hard stuff.


One of the things we want to do for people when they are struggling or in pain is ‘fix it’, when ultimately we need to be there, listen and connect. Perhaps the most impressive differences between the two perspectives is this: research by Cole and Fredrickson showed that people who have high levels of happiness but low to no sense of meaning, have gene expression patterns like those experiencing chronic adversity. When eudaimonia can’t keep up with hedonia, we can literally get sick. That is why emodiversity (feeling a wide range of emotions) is counterintuitively better for us and can actually help guard us against depression.

When it comes to pain, trauma and adversity, it makes sense that as humans we are more likely to be drawn towards hedonic pursuits to ignite joy and seek ways to alleviate or escape suffering. Findings from the Adverse Childhood Survey showed that young people who have experienced chronic adversity are 4600% more likely to end up with addiction. These pursuits however are not the mechanisms that will enable healing or ultimately lead to longer term wellbeing.


We are at this incredible moment in science where we now know what we do with the mind can literally change the molecules in our bodies that are responsible for our health.


One of the biggest misconceptions about wellbeing is that it is about being happy all the time. Sometimes it is in sitting with and acknowledging pain that growth can occur. As Professor Steger says, meaning can be generated through both happy and sad moments. It is not hedonia that is the problem. Fredrickson suggests that the problem is when it isn’t matched by eudaimonic well-being. “If you have more hedonic wellbeing than would be expected, that’s when this gene pattern that’s akin to adversity can emerge.” We need both.

The field of positive psychology and wellbeing science has grown phenomenally with great contribution made to the science of wellbeing. Within early stages of the field, there was strong support for hedonic wellbeing but there has also been a chorus of concerns by the likes of psychologists Ryan and Deci who developed the Self Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation and social psychologist Roy Baumeister, that individuals can become stuck within a hedonic cycle, constantly seeking immediate gratification at the detriment to personal growth and social connection, thus decreasing overall wellbeing, not enhancing it.


Is happiness a by-product of living a meaningful and connected life? A case for change

We are a quick fix society. We spend more time reacting to things than we do on building potential. Instead of challenging things from a social fields level, we may take the short-term approach because it’s deemed ‘instant and easy’. As Carl Honore said in his book ‘In Praise of Slow’, we have become so impatient that even instant gratification takes too long. If we think children aren’t resilient, we bring in a simplified resilience program, if they are anxious, we bring in an anxiety program. The recommendations from the Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System demonstrated that we don’t focus enough on investing in building wellbeing potential. Maybe we haven’t known how, but one thing is for sure, we are consumed by the urgent and stuck in a cycle of reacting to the negative.


We need a new education paradigm and the shift needs to begin now.


To fully address this paradigm shift we first need to understand the evolution of education, where the challenges arose and how we can build potential moving forward. In the 19th century education was all about the curriculum, preparing young people for jobs as we went through mass production and exploration of labour. In the 20th century it expanded to include individual fulfilment and new disciplines were added. It’s here, in the beginning of the 21st century, I propose we went too far with a focus on individual fulfilment and unintentionally gave birth to hyperindividualism. Did the pendulum swing too far and we became more concerned with constructing ourselves as individuals rather than being part of society, connected to each other- resulting in fundamental implications for our wellbeing? The reality is that we are wired to be interconnected, this is a fundamental part of our DNA and survival.

In addition to this, in 2009 Martin Seligman, the founder of the field of Positive Psychology, said that happiness skills should be taught in every school in addition to academics. This revolution was a really interesting time for schools because in many respects this is when happiness skills, positive education and a focus on hedonia really started to take off. Did we unintentionally neglect a eudaimonic approach? Did we compromise instilling meaning and personal growth? Were learners able to show up as their authentic selves and truly create cultures of belonging or was education about conformity and trying to fit in?


“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience”. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin


In 2009 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s gave one of the most profound Ted Talks, “The Danger of a Single Story”. Adichie argues that single stories often originate from simple misunderstandings or one’s lack of knowledge of others.

There is danger in any single story. The single story that teachers and parents have been told in this instance is that for children to be happy, we have to teach them ‘how’ to be happy. This has been prioritised over creating conditions for eudaimonic wellbeing. But what if the solution isn’t all about happiness education and what if the problem is their ‘cage’? What if in this paradigm shift we spend more time getting the conditions right from a social fields level? What if we understood how things interrelate and let this inform our processes and policies that we put in place to set young people up for long term success? What if all schools focused on designing their environment, the school culture, curriculum and our pedagogical practices with eudaimonia in mind?

Current education approaches and policy makers have the best intentions; however, that doesn’t mean it’s best practice or right. We say we value wellbeing above all else, but pressure is placed on results such as the ATAR and NAPLAN, and the constant comparison of schools eventually means academic pursuits win. Systems thinking is neglected.


“If we don’t understand how things are interconnected, sometimes our solutions can cause more problems”. Peter Senge


Happiness Education undermines a eudaimonic approach. Audits of schools around the world demonstrate a stronger focus on hedonic and reactive initiatives. Education is outcome and short-term happiness focused which provides a challenge. It is incredibly difficult to measure meaning, purpose and authenticity, or the long term effects of eudaimonia, so many schools don’t. In some wellbeing measurements, meaning is even replaced with optimism. The challenge with measuring happiness in wellbeing data is that happiness is an emotion and emotions are fleeting and transient. This data isn’t really telling us anything about the genuine holistic wellbeing of that person or their future likelihood of wellbeing and resilience. Yet if we don’t measure things in schools, they are very often not supported, and therefore eudaimonic activities might be left off the menu- despite the fact that wellbeing is not about being happy all the time.

Eudaimonic Education


The paradigm shift towards Eudaimonic Education®

A paradigm shift is beginning to take place, one that is being co-initiated and co-designed. A ground swell. I’ve coined it Eudaimonic Education. This is not a program, not a lesson, not one day; it’s a way. A way of educating, a way of designing the environment, a way of culture, a way of learning, ways of being, living eco-systems aspiring to thrive. An understanding that learning and wellbeing happens everywhere and that it isn’t confined to the four walls of any classroom. Eudaimonic Education® has been deeply inspired by my experiences, lessons, learnings, shortcomings, work with hundreds of schools and leaders around the world, and by the works of others.

The paradigm shift encompasses the following. A focus on:

  • personal growth, not conformity;
  • authentically loving learning for its own sake;
  • contribution and cooperation, above competition;
  • the journey, above the outcome;
  • meaning and purpose, above content;
  • authentic and experiential processes;
  • learner agency;
  • co-creation and context;
  • systems thinking and leadership.


There is a lot of ‘doing too’ and not a lot of ‘doing with’, in education and it starts at the top.


The world needs more context specific co-design, more young people acting intentionally to lead and initiate change and growth. Ultimately young people need the following:

  • connection to and responsibility for self;
  • connection to and responsibility for others;
  • connection to and responsibility for the environment.

The relationship one has with self is fundamental and all too often neglected. Neuroscience has shown us that the brain changes its structure based on the relationship one has with itself in the same way as it does based on the relationships we have with others. To have deeper connections with others, we need to have deeper connections with ourselves. Additionally, we need to learn how to work with nature rather against it. In 2020 we hit a new devastating record — there are now more human made objects than there are living things on earth. No longer can we talk about wellbeing and thriving without talking about sustainability; people AND planet thriving are co-dependent.


What would this future of education look like for human thriving?

Less ego, hyper individualism and apathy — more genuine connection and empathy. Less focus on content and outcome — more focus on skills, attributes, mindset development and learnings from the journey. Less focus on comparison and more focus on personalisation and contribution. Less focus on hedonism (short term feel good) and more focus on eudaimonic activities (long term feel purpose) and flow states. Education would be a thriving ecosystem with systems leaders getting the soil right through co-designed processes, creating conditions for young people to thrive.


We have become so obsessed with outcome and yield and have destroyed the culture of learning”. Sir Ken Robinson


Competition depletes meaning and contribution goals trump achievement goals on every level. A sense of belonging on the other hand, enhances meaning and predicts how meaningful life is perceived to be. This isn’t to say that hedonia doesn’t have a place, it absolutely does. Eating ice-cream on a hot day brings pleasure and happiness. But eating ice-cream all day, every day, and seeking immediate gratification through hedonic means at the expense of all else, is not sustainable.

When travelling the developing world with my husband over a decade ago, I first heard of the African Philosophy Ubuntu. Ubuntu is an eternal African philosophy of ‘Oneness’ — this oneness is an understanding of the interconnectedness of all life. Travelling has reinforced for me that eudaimonia is in surplus in developing countries whilst it is in deficit in the developed world where hedonia can be rife. Ubuntu means ‘I am who I am because of who we all are’ or ‘humanity towards others’ (humanness). It is a concept in which your sense of self is shaped by your relationships with other people.


“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” Carl Jung


As we look forward to the future of education, there is hope as we begin to acknowledge and understand that the wellbeing of humanity and the wellbeing of the planet are highly dependent on each other. But as Michael Fullan, Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto once said, “If we don’t bring meaningful learning to young people, they will remain disconnected. It is in these experiences that not only will they build connections with each other and importantly their world, but they will also forge a stronger sense of and connection to themselves and this is where we see massive divides at the moment”.

The most powerful thing we have is the ability to change the stories we tell ourselves and others. We need to change our collective story of the purpose and focus of education in modern society. This paradigm shift is not an easy quick fix; if it were, we would be living it now. But if we start planting the trees and getting the soil right, there is a good chance we could create a future with less mental ill health, where people have the best chance to live meaningful lives and the best possible chance to authentically thrive. Maybe, searching for happiness and instant gratification results in the very opposite of the intention. So, do we eradicate hedonic activities all together? Of course not. Perhaps equilibrium is key.

But, think about what could happen to the state of mental health if a whole generation focused less on quick fixes, external validation and greener pastures and more on meaning, purpose, authenticity and personal growth- acknowledged the hard stuff along the way — and then savoured the happiness that follows.

This is the world we can create - if we are brave enough to try.

This article was originally published on Medium and republished with permission from the author, Andrea Downie.

Andrea Downie

This article was written by Andrea Downie, who is a Wellbeing Scientist, Educator and Keynote Speaker. Andrea is the Co-Founding Director of Project Thrive Australia and an Honorary Fellow at the Centre for Wellbeing Science at the University of Melbourne.