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Dr. Thomas de Maizière

Can you learn to be happy?

Thomas de Maizière on the skills that young people need in the 21st century.

Is happiness something you can learn? At school? Alongside English, math, geography and French? The Dalai Lama thinks so: He unveiled a happiness curriculum in India not that long ago. There are also schools here in Germany that teach happiness. I was quite skeptical when I first heard of this approach. After all, life contains highs and lows that we can’t always change, wouldn’t you say? At most, you might be able to earn some well-deserved happiness, I assumed. But a class on happiness? It sounded too fanciful to be true.

I recently discussed this very topic with psychologist Steffi Burkhart at a Deutsche Telekom Stiftung event in Düsseldorf. Ms. Burkhart is an expert on young people in Germany and a self-described spokeswoman for “Generation Y”, the age cohort that is said to value happiness at work over career advancement. I found the discussion fascinating since we are experiencing a period of intergenerational conflict, most recently manifested in the “Fridays for Future” movement.

I’m thrilled that young people are fighting for something again. But I’d rather that the protests did more than demand that older generations change. Instead, I’d like to see young people take on responsibility themselves, get involved in the institutions and actively help bring these challenges to heel. Of course, that’s harder than painting posters and loudly chanting about changing the system. But I believe it is the only way to effect change. And so I say to our youth: Be ambitious, join the institutions and parties, get involved, work hard and show us what you can do. It is perfectly normal for young people to push their elders from the throne; that’s just how the world works.

However, we talked about more in Düsseldorf than intergenerational conflict. We also talked about education. Specifically, about whether we are preparing our children and teenagers enough for the challenges of the 21st century. The panel’s judgment was unanimous: We are not.

Deutsche Telekom Stiftung has done much to promote good STEM education in schools and daycare centers, that is, better teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We now believe that we must do more than teach these hard skills. Why? Simple: Today’s world is so fast-paced, and technological change so rapid and potentially disruptive, that no one can honestly predict what high-school graduates will need to know in order to succeed in the workplace ten years from now. (I recently wrote another article on the possible consequences of this trend for teachers.) We don’t know what jobs there will be and what new fields or professions will have been created.

But how does this realization affect our foundation’s work? First, our projects will no longer focus exclusively on teaching hard MINT skills but will also include certain soft skills. Critical thinking is one such skill, as are judgment, creativity, communication and teamwork. As a foundation, we also want to help young people acquire these skills in a focused, targeted way in the future.

Resilience – the ability to weather crises and persevere amid adversity – is another valuable soft skill. And that basically brings us back to the happiness curriculum. After all, the whole purpose of teaching happiness is to develop students’ character and improve their psychological fortitude. Children and teenagers can then talk about life plans, practice meditation and mindfulness and thus learn more about their strengths and themselves. Steffi Burkhart passionately argued that point in our discussion.

So is that happiness? No. You can’t learn how to be happy. But maybe, just maybe, you can learn to be open to happiness.

Picture credit: Jens Schicke/Deutsche Telekom Stiftung