Wellbeing and the wellbeing industry

Wednesday, 20 Oct 2021

If you taught, or raised a child, during the 1980s or 1990s, you almost certainly remember the ridiculous and facile focus on children’s self-esteem. As well as misdirected classroom exercises focusing on how special each individual child was. A certain ethos took hold during this time: It was the job of schools to educate as always and to instil in children a sense of their own specialness and potential. As one would expect, this self-esteem ‘industry’ flourished and began in California. (A man named John Vasconcellos, a state legislator, was the genesis for this movement). Fuelled by a desire to find cost effective alternatives to dealing with crime and backed by a body of spurious research, the self-esteem industry was set afloat on its own hype. Correlation and causation were endlessly confused.

In schools, the notion gained momentum and the focus was on how children ‘felt’. The self-esteem industry has wrought havoc across many homes and schools as self-contradictory slogans like ‘everybody is special’ gained ideological traction and ignored the obvious question: if that were the case; is anybody special?

We have a better understanding today. Feelings of self-esteem, in particular, and happiness in general, develop as side effects of mastering challenges, overcoming frustrations, excelling and achieving. The feeling of self-esteem is a by-product of doing well and working hard. There is no question that feeling high self-esteem is a delightful state to be in but trying to achieve the feeling side of self-esteem directly, before achieving a good work ethic and outcomes, confuses profoundly the means and the end.
The ‘Wellbeing Industry’ might be in danger of doing and becoming what the ‘Self Esteem Industry’ did, and became in the 1980’s and 1990’s. There is a parallel there and again we run the risk of confusing profoundly the means and the end. (A great article on this can be found here. For educators, it is both tragic and yet hilarious to read about good feelings that were supposed to travel with the ‘Koosh ball’ as it was thrown across the room. Similarly, the cheesy phrases “believe in yourself and anything is possible” which were manifestly BS spouted like mushrooms). To say that as a principal I am bombarded by this concept of ‘wellbeing’ is not an understatement.
I see the same self-esteem phenomenon happening in what I’d now call the ‘Wellbeing Industry’. The pernicious effects of this are equally evident particularly when ‘Wellbeing’ is conflated with ‘Wellness’. Often both have little palliative worth other than to line the pockets of wealthy business savvy individuals and companies who are flogging products which purportedly optimise your wellbeing.

The self-esteem industry correlation and causation nexus has its parallel in wellbeing. My contention is that if we focus exclusively on wellbeing, rather than the conditions that lead to wellbeing, we end up being mired in ridiculous attempts to make people happy by doing ridiculous things.
If we approach wellbeing by focussing exclusively on wellbeing rather than say, culture, building trust, resolving conflict well (think Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions of a team) professional growth, a spirited teaching and learning environment, a place of openness and enquiry, a place that makes staff feel safe, self-efficacy and who have the courage to develop their potential – then we run the risk of focussing excessively on the feeling side and confusing the means and the ends. In doing so schools then end up with fatuous ideas such as ‘massage day’, mindfulness afternoons etc.
Personally, I think I’d rather focus on gratitude. In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. Most of the studies published on this topic support an association between gratitude and an individual's well-being.

There is a concept in educational research which comes from John Hattie (of Visible Learning fame) which refers to Collective Teacher Efficacy (CTE). CTE is not just all the teachers in the school believing they can all make a difference (although this is critical). Teachers working to have appropriately high expectations of what a year’s growth for a year’s input looks like fed with the evidence of the impact is what sustains it.
Having CTE builds what I call the ‘peloton effect’ in schools. It means the school can build a collective cohesion, vision, purpose and mission as everyone gets behind the ‘slipstream’ of success. This builds wellbeing. Individual wellbeing is often built on the back of collective wellbeing as much as the success of the Yellow Jersey winner is built on the back of the ‘domestiques’ and front riders. (Apologies if you don’t watch the Tour de France!).

More recently, we engaged a psychologist for one of our professional development sessions. Prior to her undertaking, she surveyed the staff with results as follows:

1. 95% said that they were engaged as a teacher
2. 90% said that they were excited about their job
3. 88% said that they were effective
4. 100% said that they felt their job was meaningful 90% said that they were satisfied with their job
5. 80% they felt leadership team was responsive to feedback
This does not look like a school that is wallowing in wellness/wellbeing practices.
My (our) focus has been on the conditions that lead to wellbeing not wellbeing per se. In the same way that achievement in reading builds a child’s self-esteem as s/he believes in his/her ability to read, the approach by a good leader to trust and listen to his employees will lead to better wellbeing than a paint-balling session. The refusal to accept and to allow individuals to feel moments of pain, sadness etc and to keep people in a state of permanent happiness underpins some of my concerns.

Of course, there are many people with serious mental health issues and this requires the intervention of experts. There are many children who are experiencing social dislocation and are depressed. These issues should be front and fore of appropriate interventions. But let’s not lie people on the floor and tell them to breathe and listen to their mindful app or drink green smoothies in the futile hope that their problems will dissolve. Even then, a school’s or workplace’s response can and should be no less than what I have outlined previously.

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