Architects of Happiness: Internalizing Visionary Leadership to Enhance Our Happiness and Human Development

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Photo: Yasser Taba

The UAE's recent appointment of a minister of happiness could be more than a glimmer of hope in challenging times. It could be an institutional example pointing in the direction that we, as individuals, need to go on a deeply personal level. Happiness and human development, supported by visionary leadership, are closely linked in what I call the happiness-human development dialectic.

A couple of years ago, I ran a playgroup for Muslim mothers and children. Eleven children ranged from two- to five-years old. Their mothers hailed from Algeria, Morocco, Bosnia, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, and Canada. The point of the playgroup was to carve out a little creative space to be Muslim together in a non-Muslim culture, and to start the process of teaching our children about Islam. So along with making messy art, we prayed the congregational prayer together. Instead of singing Old Macdonald, we sang Tala Al Badru Alayna. My intention behind running this playgroup was motivated by a question: If we could enhance the enjoyment, relevance, intrigue, and happiness around teaching Islamic material, could we also deepen the learning and appropriation of that material? As children love to play, I explored various types of storytelling, story acting, and play within the group. I would tell a story from Islamic history, Waldorf-style, using gracefully carved wooden animal figures and bolts of material to evoke shimmering deserts and deep blue seas. Embedded in the story would be moments where the children could contribute using imaginative play. Ibrahim is coming back to Mecca after a year of being away! How might Hajar and Ismail welcome him back? The children offered ideas: Draw a picture? Make a present? Cook a meal? The children would rush off to construct and crystalize their ideas, then bring them back to the story, which would continue.

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Photo: Saadi Alkouatli

Telling a story, encouraging the children to dissemble it through their own creative, embodied play, and then coming back together again to reassemble it collectively, may serve to deepen children's pleasure, interest, and understanding of the material, and simultaneously enhance their imagination and abstract thinking. The key here is affect, or emotion. As Lev Vygotsky, the brilliant Russian developmental psychologist, once said, "affect is the alpha and the omega, the first and last link, the prologue and epilogue of all mental development." Recognizing the tightly interwoven connections between emotion and cognition, the physical and the spiritual--and the life-long, interrelated development of each--is not only crucial to our learning and development, it is crucial to our wellbeing as complete human beings. Our essential happiness.

Starting from this point, I am interested in the dialect of happiness and human development, and how it is supported by visionary leadership. Does happiness enhance our human development? Does our human development contribute to our happiness? I put the question to a multi-age group of children. A nine-year old girl replied, "Yes. Because, say, you are a kid who is not in good shape. Maybe you are a little bit overweight. The other kids make fun of you. They bully you. But then your parents encourage you to play a sport. You practice that sport and you start to get really good at it. Now the other kids respect you; they don't bully you any more. And now you're more fit. Definitely, you would be happier." In this spontaneous example, the girl illustrated how physical, social, and emotional development is related to happiness.

Could it be that happy people are simply people who envision and pursue their own development in a balanced way? Is happiness a fleeting, ephemeral feeling that can never be quantified? Or is it a state of being--a state of becoming--that can be deliberately attained and sustained? Researchers suggest both. They posit a two-part definition of happiness. The first part involves the experience of happy emotions: joy, contentment, wellbeing, love. Happy people experience more of these happy emotions. The second part involves a sense of satisfaction with one's life, meaning, and progress toward life goals--living a meaningful life. Researchers correlate happiness with other benefits including productivity, creativity, and social ability. Educators suggest that happiness is a state within which learning and development are expanded and accelerated.

Some researchers focus upon the ways in which human beings actually synthesize happiness: they suggest that we have a natural tendency to think ourselves into being happy, especially in bounded situations beyond our control. Others focus upon relationships and happiness: the happiest people are the ones in warm, quality relationships. Still others suggest that we are happiest when we are in our element: doing what we are both good at and what we love.

If we look closely at these aspects of happiness, we see that they are actually the faculties that make us uniquely human: thinking, loving, acting, and wondering--working toward meaning greater than our small selves. I believe that the very roots of happiness lie in the development of this complete humanness, in the primordial human faculties of thinking, loving, acting, and wondering. It is the unity of these faculties, not one in isolation, which provides the substrate of happiness.

But we also need to think deeper about each faculty. Take thinking, for example. Critical thinking has historically received all the accolades. Recently, creative thinking has stolen some of the limelight. But there are multiple other types of thinking crucial for today's learners. Caring thinking involves thinking with children--deliberately and verbally--in ways that develop empathy, care, and perspective taking; literally forging caring pathways in the brain. Contemplative thinking--quiet, mindful looking-in--is vastly under practiced in many educational spaces. Yet Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, and her colleagues have identified a default mode of brain activity that they call constructive internal reflection, otherwise know as wakeful resting or daydreaming. They suggest that taking time to simply daydream is crucially important in our busy, media-saturated lives, for recalling social experiences, making moral sense of situations, self-awareness, and imagining.

If happiness lies in striving towards our highest human potential, what is the role of visionary leaders? In my example of the Muslim playgroup, the children's play was guided by someone who had a vision regarding their happiness and their human development. While providing for spontaneity, imagination, and choice, the children's play was guided toward a higher end: the learning material itself and each one's own human development. Perhaps, the UAE's new minister of happiness will provide on a governmental level what I offer on an educational level, and what individuals pursue on a personal level. As parents, educators, and social leaders, we need to create happy learning spaces where we, and the children in our care, can develop our unique human faculties in balanced totality. Focusing on social and personal dimensions of happiness and development as crucial aspects of a country's happiness and development is visionary. And vision, like happiness or any other human faculty arising from the interaction of individual and environmental factors, can be nurtured and grown.

The happiness-human development dialectic, then, is a deep framework for systematically developing ourselves, from the tips of our toes to our deepest inner knowing, with guidance from more experienced others and, ultimately, our own metacognitive selves. While we may enjoy facilities and leaders that nurture our happiness and human development, the goal is actually to foster our own internal leadership of this dialectic. To internalize the visionary leader, become master architects of our own happiness and, simultaneously, help our children become architects of their own.

And while individual happiness is the starting point, it is not the end goal. The end goal is an exalted, just, actualized life, not of one individual, but a whole society. As the Quran tells us: "Verily, God does not change people's condition unless they change their inner selves" (13:11).