The Malta Independent 8 December 2022, Thursday
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FIRST MAGAZINE: The Road to Happiness

First Magazine Friday, 29 September 2017, 11:11 Last update: about 6 years ago

How a rethink of education and the workplace can lead to a happier and satisfying lifestyle. Julian Cardona writes

You wake up and wish the day was already over. You look at the mirror, frown. You have your breakfast, your shower, your Yoga or jog, your commute or walk. You enter the workplace or classroom, look at the clock: eight hours to go. Same desk, same computer, same teacher, same books. A long list of tasks that change little, mean nothing and help no one, except those who tell you that you should be grateful.

Look to your left then to your right: the same faces, same gossip. It's a game you realise: who smiles the widest, wins. And the next day it is same thing; the next week, the same thing. Then the weekend comes. By Saturday it peaks, often underwhelmingly; by Sunday you've already gone into the 'tomorrow it's bloody Monday' mood and you barely have any strength to enjoy yourself.

You suddenly realise you are not living, but copy and pasting the same year - year after year. From a very young age you are taught that this is the way it should be: get an education, a job, a big wedding and a few kids. Then pass the baton and off to the grave where, hopefully the real party starts. This is Modern Western Human V2.0: we have no wars or Great Depressions to survive (as yet), just life. Live to survive life: tattoo that somewhere because you're going to need it.

Many modern researchers are beginning to conclude that the modern world is becoming an unhappy place for most people because we have detached ourselves from nature, and from what is natural. According to Eva Selhub, MD, co-author of Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature's Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality, "We often think of ourselves as different from animals, but we evolved to live in nature. Being removed from that is highly unnatural and stressful to the brain and body."

The cubicles, concrete buildings, grey walls and sedentary lifestyles play a big role in shaping our state of mind. Stephen Kellert, PhD, author of Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World, adds: "The sensory deprivation from working in bland indoor environments takes a major toll on higher-order cognitive functioning like our ability to solve problems, create, and think. No matter how advanced we think we are, we do not function properly if we engineer environments that are non-natural. Whether we like it or not, we are animals: capable of asking the question "why are we here?" but incapable of answering it adequately."

The obvious question is, of course, "what can we do about it?", assuming that there is a desire to do something about it in the first place. Many shrug sceptically at anyone who dares even propose a drastic change. I believe it starts from schools. It is important to understand that a natural life is not simply related to being in touch with the wildlife but also being in touch with our explorative human nature.

The tragedy is that the robotic lifestyle that plagues our adult lives is programmed extremely efficiently in our brains from an early age. School curriculums, timetables and classrooms seem to be modelled on the cubicles, meeting schedules and 8 to 5 models that shape the workplace. This means that we are dehumanised at a very young age.

Of course, critics would immediately jump and say that children need to learn the value of order and discipline at a very young age but many argue that it shouldn't be this way. Children should be allowed to enjoy freedom in controlled environments. Time management and creativity are not mutually exclusive; open-ended, creative questioning and exam preparation should go hand-in-hand.

If we look at the Maltese situation, I believe that we can happily say we have come a long way since the traditional chalk-and-board, three-desks-per-row classroom models. Being a trained teacher myself, I can testify to the fact that a huge effort is being made to create new teachers who approach teaching creatively with the goal to entertain rather than pump information. New teachers are embracing modern technologies that offer a wider sensory experience and new class formats that place an emphasis on collaborative work.

But are we doing enough to create open-minded, fearless, creative individuals who will grow up to be happy? I believe that the sad answer to this question is that we are not. In Malta, because of the bump-and-grind journey to final examinations, even the most creative teachers end up being sucked into the swamp of learning-by-rote and past-paper crunching. The problem is that the fear of failing is still such a big part of the schooling experience and thus environmental, civic and physical education is usually discarded with the result that "we have more time for the important stuff that will help you find a job".

Educators should work hard towards a world in which classes are held outside more often than inside, where physical education is a priority over the core subjects (even after Form 2) and civic studies that foster love for the nation and respect for each other and the environment, is taught ubiquitously. For this to be achieved, the entire examination system needs to be revised so that teachers can have more freedom.

How would this translate into a modern working place? Beautifully, I believe. By making education fun and attractive, more people will become educated rather than schooled. Educated people live better and expect more from themselves and life. Cubicles and long, non-flexible working hours will no longer be accepted. The properly-educated person looks for what is natural: time with the family, time for themselves, exploration of the natural environment and community life.

Rather than float through life aimlessly, this person has a well-defined understanding of who she/his is and develops a well-grounded model of what life should look like. Unable to find willing employees who accept the non-reasonable, companies will start offering a better work-life balance and more social, attractive work places. Companies will benefit too. Happier employees will be more efficient which, in turn, will lead to better work, more trust, life-long learning and even more efficiency and so on, leading to a virtuous cycle of self-fulfilment driven by success - and success that is shared equally.

This can already be seen in places where there is a high rate of tertiary-educated people, such as Scandinavian countries. Working conditions in these areas are some of the best in the world. It is no secret that people in these countries are more in touch with the natural environment because they have evolved as people who are balanced and seek inner fulfilment more than materialistic gain. And whilst no country is perfect, when you look at statistics on job satisfaction, cleanliness, curbs on emissions, green economy, happiness and life expectancy, they often rank amongst the best.

Thankfully, Maltese workplaces have come a long way. Family duties are being shared and the 8-5 choke is now negotiable in many modern Maltese companies. Young Maltese people are starting to ask "why?" and "what for?" and are out to search fulfilment in every decision they take. As the level of education increases (even flawed as it is) more Maltese people will start asking for modern working conditions that make a job part of life not a life itself. Modern Western Human V3.0 will be more well-rounded and balanced because of this. Children will have parents that are more present and our country will have inhabitants that are more respectful. Maybe I am a dreamer at heart but even though many Maltese believe that the next stage of our glorious history is even more growth, I believe that the next stage is more balance, more peace and, ultimately, more happiness.

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