One year ago, Tamus Alam, a small farmer, donated a parcel of land for us to set up an educational center called SEEKHO in Bishanpur Village, Bihar. Upon donating the land, he said, "We are born naked and die naked, so what counts is what we do, not what we have."
SEEKHO is built on the principle of Gross Village Happiness (GVH). GVH is a new model and policy for empowering people in rural communities with the tools needed to increase and improve the five elements of wellbeing known as PERMA, as coined by Positive Psychology founder Martin Seligman: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.
A few months back, I was teaching a learning camp in Bishanpur Village focused on basic literacy, as this group was made up of mostly dropouts. I started off with an art-based activity to inspire some creativity and self-expression in which the children were to draw their families. However, all of the children refused to pick up the markers, and when I asked them why, they said that they would not be able to do it. I encouraged the children to at least try, but parent showed up and said, "You're wasting your time. They can't do this."
These children showed signs of what is called "learned helplessness." Learned helplessness describes a perceived lack of control over a situation, which causes people to resign to their current condition, rather than seeking improvement. As these children are part of a disadvantaged caste group, they have internalized false ideas about what their innate capacities are that prevent them from learning.
Studies show that helplessness is associated with lower levels of wellbeing, according to PERMA. While these students are economically disadvantaged, the main constraints to their freedom and learning are mainly social not economic -- though there is a relationship between social and economic status.
It is for this reason that merely defining their wellbeing according to their income would be inadequate. Gross National Happiness (GNH) used in Bhutan is seen as a more holistic measure of human flourishing. GNH measures factors such as community vitality, education and psychological wellbeing to account for the various factors that make up "the good life."
Yet, while I agree with the underlying premise of GNH, namely that we should be measuring and striving to increase wellbeing, I do not believe the model for doing so is one-size-fits-all. Many of the institutions that set policy for the nation actually reproduce social hierarchies, essentially making those from disadvantaged rural communities second-class citizens. For example, a nationally-mandated curriculum is made for children in the urban context, which leads to discouragement, low participation in the classroom and high dropout rates amongst children from oppressed groups, like those I was teaching.
Rather than relying on national structures that often exclude the less fortunate, it is time to give disadvantaged groups a voice in their own future so that they will be able to flourish. Cross-disciplinary efforts between psychology and economics indicate that character strengths and virtues that contribute to wellbeing -- such as curiosity, resiliency, and optimism -- can be learned and measured. In addition, studies have shown that individuals with higher wellbeing have better health and longevity, increased engagement and productivity at work, are more accepting of those from different socioeconomic groups, and earn more money. In Bishanpur, these boosts in human flourishing make for a more cohesive community built on collaboration and collective action for a better future.
Supplementing traditional approaches to development with the more holistic Gross Village Happiness framework will require empowering villagers with the tools they need to teach, measure and practice wellbeing. As Tamus Alum put, how we live is just as, if not more, crucial than what we have. In this light, SEEKHO has shifted to a model that strives to teach and increase wellbeing at the grassroots level. More specifically, we aim to get children into school, where they are taught by government teachers trained in a culturally-relevant wellbeing curriculum. At the same time, we are also training local high school and college students in a leadership methodology based on these teachings to ensure the village continues to focus on happiness and wellbeing.
During the past year, the children have become more versatile learners. Similarly, my own growth during this period has been tremendous, as the children have taught me how to better practice listening, empathy and resilience. A large part of the reason why we have been able to grow together has been SEEKHO's focus on wellbeing, which has created an ecosystem of positive behavior and reinforcement. This experience has shown me that not only can wellbeing be increased when we give communities a voice in the process, but also that it is necessary for policy if we want to empower villages to thrive.
The shift to Gross Village Happiness will require experimentation and a keen sensitivity to the local context in order to empower the next generation of children in rural India. It is time to expand our definition of success and wellbeing so that children feel empowered to not only to draw and paint artwork, but also their own dreams.