– Manish Sisodia, Shiksha: My Experiments as an Education Minister, 2019
The Delhi Government’s introduction of ‘Happiness Curriculum’ has received much media attention since its launch in 2018. Hailed as a major innovation in the city’s public schools, the programme designates the first ‘period’ (class) of each school day for various activities aimed at improving the happiness and well-being of students in Classes 6 to 8. There are three components in this curriculum: mindfulness meditation, inspirational stories, and activity-oriented discussions and reflections. According to Manish Sisodia, the Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi who is also the state’s Education Minister, the purpose of the Happiness Class (henceforth, the HC) is to “make our students better human beings” (p. 76). HC is also seen as playing a crucial role in improving learning outcomes and “the holistic development of all learners” (Care et al 2020), supplementing and augmenting the effectiveness of the government’s other initiatives like infrastructure development and teacher-training in schools. While an appeal to ‘holism’ in conceptualising educational outcomes is certainly not new, the actual work of ideas like ‘holistic development’ in classrooms remains something of a Blackbox. As the story of the girl in Sisodia’s book illustrates, “bringing some respite” is not necessarily the same thing as directly addressing discrimination and other tangible inequalities in access to quality school education. This two-part ThinkPiece critically examines Delhi’s Happiness Curriculum to understand what it hopes to achieve, and what this intertwining of education and happiness reveals, and conceals, when set against the unequal educational landscape of the city-state. The first part here focuses on mindfulness meditation and inspirational stories included in the HC.
The first and most fundamental question that arises is what, after all, is ‘happiness’- a daunting question given how very subjective the answers are for each one of us. The Delhi government claims that some eight hundred thousand students currently participate in the HC initiative. The sheer scale of this makes it clear that the mass deployment of happiness as a pedagogical imperative must either rest on distilling some ‘universal’ attributes of this elusive abstraction, or quite simply be a smokescreen for other projects and intents. In the balance, it would appear that the HC is a bit of both, and the first clue is in the handbook for teachers that emphasises the goal to be “the practice of becoming happy” (Happiness Curriculum, 2018, p.3, emphasis added). There is a careful distinction here between students being happy and practicing to be happy, with the latter imagined as an exercise similar to how students practice skills in other subjects (Mittal 2019a). A study conducted by Dream a Dream Foundation on the impact of the HC initiative makes this clearer by remarking that “the HC framing as a set of skills is significant and deliberate”, and goes on to say that its components constitute “socio-emotional skills… thought to contribute to happiness” (Care et al 2020, p. 3). The project of happiness, ‘in practice’, becomes the inculcation of certain universalised ‘skills’ in the classroom that might in turn lead to happiness. The curriculum, it would appear, is not so much about identifying and redressing the reasons why a particular student may be unhappy to begin with, but more about showing said student how to be happy regardless of those reasons.
On the other hand, so nebulous is the metaphysical terrain on which this curriculum is built that it is equally possible the HC ultimately has nothing to do with happiness. Sisodia (2019), confronted with the rabbit-hole of defining the HC, resorts to telling us “what the happiness class is not” (p. 77). “There are no moral science lessons in the curriculum”, he says, and “there is no chanting or praying”. He then proceeds to emphasise how the curriculum is “based on Indian thought and education in which we have merged science (sic).” An experiment in pedagogy comparable to the ‘revival’ of the Panchayati Raj system in governance, no effort is spared by the minister in highlighting how the HC is both that “ancient Indian tradition… that the West is so in awe of” and “a purely scientific syllabus that helps children resolve their dilemmas and become emotionally strong and determined human beings” (p. 83). But even more fascinating are what he recounts as the effects of the HC. The behaviour of students has changed, and “their aggression has gone down and they have become calmer” (p.75). The Dream a Dream Foundation’s report identifies decision-making, focus, empathy and (interpersonal) relationships as the ‘competencies’ that were measured to study the impact of the initiative among students (Care et al 2020). From this, one can surmise that happiness alone isn’t the end goal, given that a student (or indeed any person) can have better relationships and decision-making, and greater empathy and focus, and yet remain unhappy. Moreover, this presupposes that the lack of these ‘competencies’ was the cause of unhappiness in the first place. Most significantly, neither the minister nor the assessment study make any mention of structural and socio-economic inequalities in their discussion of the curriculum. It would appear that so universal is this roadmap to happiness that neither poverty nor caste or gender have the slightest chance of altering its course, nor could they be causes of unhappiness in any way.
Indeed, almost every conversation on the three components of the curriculum is centred on the self as the only site of action and change. In discussing mindfulness mediation in the classroom, Sisodia puzzlingly remarks:
“With experience, children start to analyse their thoughts. They realize that their thoughts stem from wrongdoing in the past or present struggles or worry about the future. Children are trained to not analyse their thoughts but just to focus on how they enter their minds and how they leave on their own. Slowly but surely, students learn to focus on sounds surrounding them, the working of their bodies, and the thoughts entering and leaving their minds without unsettling them.”
(Sisodia 2019, p. 78, emphases added)
Not only does the contradiction of analyse-not-analyse their thoughts sound counter-intuitive to the development of critical thinking, students are essentially expected to train themselves to be immune to these potentially destabilising ‘thoughts’. The cause of these thoughts is unimportant, since the goal is to help the student “become centred and, as a result…focus on their work and behaviour.” One could argue that such an approach is not only geared towards making students merely pliant and ‘teachable’ in the classroom, but that it also eschews problem-solving in favour of bypassing said problems. The excessive focus on the self through mindfulness cannot assume the self as an isolated abstraction disconnected from one’s surroundings and, worse still, thrust the responsibility of achieving such ascetic discipline on the students’ shoulders.
The inspirational stories included in the curriculum are perhaps much more revealing of the moral self-disciplining project of the HC. While Sisodia first claims that these stories “don’t teach one to not lie or to be well-behaved or give an understanding of right or wrong”, he contradicts himself in the very next paragraph when he says, “they help them identify what is right and what is wrong” (p. 79-80). Radhika Mittal’s (2019b) insightful analysis of the 20 stories included in the curriculum reveals that they convey four major themes: happiness is within you; happiness is in relationships (family, teacher, etc); happiness is in the pursuit (of happiness?); and happiness lies in helping others (and in their happiness). While these themes may not appear problematic at first (beyond their puzzling vagueness and overarching focus on the self), it is the content of individual stories that subtly propel other ideas of self-disciplining. In the story Teen Mazdoor, Teen Nazariye (Three Labourers, Three Perspectives), three labourers constructing a school are asked what they are doing. The first one replies, “I am breaking a stone”, the second one, “I am earning my daily bread”, and the third, “I am building the temple of education.” The ‘lesson’ here is that one’s happiness depends, not on one’s material conditions, but on one’s perspective of it. The cruel choice of manual labourers to illustrate this ‘morality’ of unquestioning acceptance seeks to not only invalidate the truth of the first two statements in favour of the celebratory third, but also comes dangerously close to reaffirming the dharmic tenet of being happy in one’s ‘position’ in life which is a well-known pillar of the caste system. In another story, a rich farmer chastises manual labourers for comparing their wages to others (the lesson here being that one must not compare and be content with what they have) by saying “I have more money, so whether I distribute to others or I throw in river it’s my choice… you are not unhappy about how much money you got, but why the other workers [who, it is implied, worked for fewer hours] got the same amount of money?” Demanding fair wages is conflated with greed, and socio-economic inequalities that are otherwise entirely absent in the curriculum only surface to affirm a moral normative of the ‘ideal worker’ who is subservient and unquestioning.
Other stories in the HC similarly reaffirm the centrality of the self in the pursuit of happiness, be it through ‘positive outlook’, self-sacrifice, or the suppression of one’s ‘ego’. It is also noteworthy that only a quarter of the stories have children as protagonists (Mittal 2019), which implies that they are primarily meant to be lessons in ‘good conduct’ and ‘values’ for future adulthood. Our examination of the first two components of the HC so far reveals that the curriculum is less about happiness itself and more about foregrounding the importance of self-discipline, where happiness merely serves as the tantalising ‘reward’. The focus on self-cultivation in preparation for future lives and livelihoods seen here echoes the self-discipline propelled by both neoliberal management wisdom and India’s neo-spirituality movements like Art of Living and Isha Foundation. The ubiquity of such a ‘politics of the self’ in India’s post-liberalisation public discourse has understandably also been identified as holding important implications on ideas of citizenship, rights and democratic engagement (Gooptu 2013). The early inculcation of such disciplining in public schools, while not entirely new, demands closer attention and scrutiny, not in the least because this celebrated initiative seeks to reinvent what Srivastava (1998) termed the ‘science of personality’ in schooling to a new ‘science of self-discipline’ in the guise of happiness. The next part of this ThinkPiece delves deeper into the everyday implementation and experience of Delhi’s Happiness Curriculum through an analysis of classroom activities and discussions.
Care, E., Talreja, V., Ravindranath, S., & Sahin A.G. 2020. Development of student and teacher measures of Happiness Curriculum factors. Dream a Dream Foundation & Brookings
Gooptu, N. 2013. Introduction to Enterprise Culture in Neoliberal India: Studies in Youth, Class, Work and Media, Gooptu, N. (ed.) Oxford: Routledge
Mittal, R. 2019a. From Learning Happiness to Happiness While Learning: Reflections on the Happiness Curriculum. The New Leam, 5(41) https:// thenewleam.com/2019/03/from-learning-happiness-to-happiness-while-learning-reflections- on-the-happiness-curriculum/
Mittal, R. 2019b. ‘Searching for ‘Happiness’ in Happiness Curriculum’, IJSHW 5(1)
SCERT Delhi & DoE Delhi. 2018. Handbook for Teachers (Happiness Curriculum) Grade 6-8. New Delhi.
Sisodia, M. 2019. ‘Happiness Class: Understanding Emotions’, Shiksha: My Experiments as an education Minister. New Delhi: Penguin Random House India
Srivastava, S. 1998. Constructing Post-Colonial India: National Character and the Doon School. New York: Routledge.
Author information: Abhishek Ranjan Datta is pursuing a DPhil in International Development at the Oxford Department of International Development (ODID) as a Clarendon and Lincoln-Kingsgate Graduate scholar. His research interests include youth, education, language, media and politics in South Asia.
Suggested Citation: Abhishek Ranjan Datta. 2021. ‘Delhi’s Happiness Curriculum: The New ‘Science’ of Self-Discipline’, Think Pieces Series No. 10. Education.SouthAsia (https://educationsouthasia.web.ox.ac.uk/).