Bringing Sustainable Happiness to Life
New Pedagogies Develop Leader Character

By Catherine O'Brien • March 7, 2016

Transformation of education requires transformation of ourselves and at the root of this transformation is leader character. Mary Crossan, Distinguished University Professor, Western University

Last summer, my sister, Dr. Mary Crossan, and I had a long, lingering conversation about the intersection between her research on leader character and mine in sustainable happiness. We were both on vacation and enjoyed the opportunity to catch up on each other’s work. It was a pivotal moment in our discussion when Mary asked me what kind of person is likely to choose sustainable happiness. Given the various options and pressures that individuals have on a day-to-day basis, what motivates one person to engage in sustainable behaviour and another person, who may be fully aware of environmental consequences, does not? She pressed further with questions about what kind of person will care deeply enough about other people or even future generations in order to embrace sustainable happiness in a meaningful way. She explained that in her view, who that person is – the choices that they make – will ultimately be influenced by their character.

Mary referred to the significance of character development as ‘bedrock,’ meaning that it is a fundamental to our well-being. It is entirely possible that many teachers would agree. A Canadian study that reviewed recommendations for 21st century competencies noted that when teachers were asked about their views on the weight that ought to be placed on character development in the classroom, “the results, which are consistent across provinces, indicate that teachers attribute more importance to character development than they feel the curriculum does” (Action Canada, 2013, p. 11).

If character is a major influence on the choices that we make, it stands to reason that it is relevant for our students and also relevant for educators.

At this point I should mention that when Mary and I were chatting about character I was already familiar with character education and the classification of character strengths and virtues that have been developed by Peterson and Seligman (2004). I had not yet articulated for myself why that view of character hadn’t resonated with me as a strong connection with sustainable happiness. However, over the course of many more conversations with Mary, I began to understand how leader character is essential to individual and organizational transformation – and how leader character differs from the positive psychology perspective on character. I also had the opportunity to participate in a workshop on leader character that Mary facilitated with a group of managers. During the session one participant leaned toward me and said, “This is remarkable! I could see this work being applied to every field! Imagine if this was taught in school!”

Leader character and change

Character is developed over a lifetime. It is a journey, rather than a destination. Every situation presents a different experience and opportunity to exercise, apply and develop character. (Crossan, Seijts, & Gandz, 2016, p. 30)

Reading through the character education and positive psychology literature the following questions arose for me:

1) It is highly likely that helping students to identify and develop character strengths will contribute to a stronger awareness of their strengths and potentially enhance their well-being. Will the development of character automatically lead to healthier and more sustainable choices?
2) We are immersed in a consumer culture with daily pressures or incentives to engage in behaviour that is not in the best interest of our well-being nor a model of sustainability. (E.g. eating fast foods; purchasing products regardless of their origin, packaging, or the fair labour practices associated with their production; driving for convenience when many of our trips are within walking distance). How does the Peterson and Seligman (2004) character classification assist individuals to navigate this kind of socialization or situational pressures?
3) How does the character of teachers, administrators, and education policy makers impact the transformation of education? For instance, how does it impact our openness to implement new pedagogies or to be leaders of educational change?
4) What kind of character development will assist students to be leaders of change – for themselves personally, and of education?

As I pondered these questions, I contacted Mary once again to deepen my understanding of the work that she and her colleagues are doing at the Ivey Business School (Western University). I learned that while their previous research incorporated the Peterson and Seligman (2004) character classification, their latest work is a very important departure. Their team used an engaged scholarship (Van de Ven & Johnson, 2006) approach to investigate how various leaders view the character strengths classification, and indeed, if the strengths are relevant to the real-world challenges of the organizations they lead. The impetus for this research came from the economic crisis that unfolded over the last half of the previous decade. The researchers wondered, what was the role of business schools in averting the innumerable catastrophes that reverberated throughout the world. They began to frame their answer to this around leadership. The Ivey research team developed a discussion paper and set up focus groups with business leaders from various kinds of organizations – small, large, public, and private – in Canada, New York, Hong Kong, and London to garner feedback on the paper. A theme that emerged from these discussions was the role of leader character and the publication of Leadership on Trial (Gandz, Crossan, Seijts, & Stephenson, 2010). This theme was reinforced for the team when Domenic Barton, head of McKinsey’s global consulting practice, formulated the importance of character during his commencement address at Ivey. “When we think about leadership,” Barton told the graduating class, “we focus too much on what leaders do . . . and we don’t spend enough time on who leaders are—the character of leaders” (Seijts, Gandz, Crossan, & Reno, 2015, p. 65).

Let’s think about this statement in the context of schools. Could we say the same about our classrooms? That we focus too much on what students do, with insufficient attention to developing who they are? For example, if we consider the many benefits of real-world, project-based learning, we can see that this affords students the opportunity to experience themselves as leaders and to grow from the experience of interacting with the ‘messiness’ of contexts that are not carefully controlled with pre-determined answers.
Might we also learn from the Ivey team’s quest to understand the role of business schools in averting economic calamity? The education sector and teacher training institutions could likewise take a hard look at our role in preventing human suffering and environmental degradation, as well as contributing to greater health and well-being.

To continue the Ivey story, the team obtained a major research grant to pursue the study of leader character. Drawing upon research literature and insights from practitioners (leaders) they shifted away from the Peterson and Seligman (2004) classification and established a model for leader character that is based on 11 dimensions. Each of the circles in their model (below) is referred to as a ‘dimension’ and within each dimension you see words that describe ‘elements’ of those dimensions.

Source: Seijts, Gandz, Crossan, & Reno (2013)

Source: Seijts, Gandz, Crossan, & Reno (2013)

This is a dynamic model that views character as a collection of virtues, values and traits. It is important to note that the values and traits are not just a random cluster but rather include only the ones that are defined as virtuous. Another extremely important differentiating factor is that good leadership relies on all of the dimensions. It is not sufficient, for example, for a leader to draw upon his or her top five dimensions (akin to working with one’s top five signature strengths) and depend on others to complement him/her with their “strengths.” Likewise, the dimensions work in concert. They are interdependent. For example, imagine someone who has exceptional Drive. You very likely know someone who does! If that person lacks Integrity, Justice, or Humanity it is possible that an “ends justifies the means” attitude could prevail. Thus, each dimension is important. Also, finding the right balance amongst all of the dimensions is essential. Building on the example of someone who has exceptional Drive, such a person would not necessarily lower that drive to be balanced, but rather increase his or her development of Temperance. In other words, preventing excess in one of the Dimensions involves having strength in the others.

You will also notice the central location of Judgment. At the beginning of this blog I shared the questions that Mary had posed to me about what kind of person would choose sustainable happiness. Looking at the leader character model, we find some answers. The character dimensions come into effect as an individual responds to each choice that they make on a daily and moment-to-moment basis. Will I recycle my coffee cup, or not? Will I make a healthy meal or reach for the processed food? Will I plant a vegetable garden? The quote below from the Ivey team’s book, Developing Leadership Character (Crossan, Seijts, & Gandz, 2016) outlines the particular significance of Judgment.

A word more on that central dimension: judgment. Each of the other dimensions of character represents reservoirs of varying depth – in other words, people may have lots of courage or a little, or great integrity or not so much. How an individual’s character influences their actual behavior in a particular context depends on their judgment. It serves to moderate and mediate the way that the other dimensions determine individuals’ behaviors in different situations. In effect, it acts as a sort of air traffic controller, determining when courage should be shown and when it is better suppressed; when collaboration is appropriate and when a leader should go it alone; when it’s appropriate to demonstrate humility and when to demonstrate great confidence; when to be temperate and when to be bold; and so on. Conversely, judgment without the other dimensions moderating it is inherently superficial. (Seijts, Crossan, & Gandz, 2016, p. 10)

You can read more about leader character and education in my forthcoming book, Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being. However, today I would like to share some of my current thinking about the relationship between leader character and new pedagogies. Over the past year, I have been inspired by reading books, articles, and blogs by innovative educators. I believe that teachers who are using new pedagogies such as Genius Hour, flipped learning, innovation classes, inquiry-based learning, real-world project-based learning and so forth are actually developing leader character, even though this term has not yet been used by them. Quotes from various innovators below give us a glimpse of this story and its relationship to change.

The biggest game changers in education are, and always will be, the educators who embrace the innovator’s mindset. These teachers and educational leaders look at change as an opportunity, not an obstacle, and they constantly ask: “What is best for this learner?” With this mindset, they provide new and better learning experiences for our students every single day. (Couros, 2015, pp. 227-28)@gcouros

The students who are taking your courses need to know how to think for themselves. They need to know how to discover their passions, work with others, behave like professionals, and use social media effectively and appropriately. Even without a course description titled Innovation Class, you can impart those skills and help your students build character traits that will serve them well. (Wettrick, 2014, p. 148)@DonWettrick

Another innovative Genius Hour teacher, Sheri Edwards, says that she asks her students to create, contribute, communicate, consider, cooperate, collaborate and curate successfully. What could be more important for success in this century? (Krebs & Zvi, 2016, pp 27-28)@mrsdkrebs @gallit_z

I enjoyed Genius Hour. I think it taught us that we as seventh and eighth graders can change the world with our genius. (Krebs & Zvi, 2016, p. 84)@mrsdkrebs @gallit_z

Inquiry-based learning (especially at the high school level) is about providing time for students to grow as learners, individuals, and creators. They may not be a straight “A” student, but their inquiry project will blow you away. (Juliani, 2015, p. 63)@ajjuliani

In the coming weeks I will be writing more about leader character and new pedagogies. Please send me examples of how you see new pedagogies developing leader character:

The first part of this blog is an excerpt from my book: Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being. It is available for pre-order through Routledge.

Action Canada. (2013). Future tense. Adapting Canadian education systems for the 21st century.
Couros, G. (2015). The innovator’s mindset: Empower learning, unleash talent, and lead a culture of creativity. San Diego: Dave Burgess Consulting.
Crossan, M., Seijts, G. H., & Gandz, J. (2016). Developing leadership character. New York: Routledge.
Gandz, J., Crossan, M., Seijts, G.H., & Stephenson, C. (2010). Leadership on trial: A manifesto for leadership development. London, ON: Ivey Business School.
Juliani, A. (2015). Inquiry and innovation in the classroom: Using 20% time, genius hour, and PBL to drive student success. New York: Routledge.
Krebs, D., & Zvi, G. (2016). The genius hour guidebook: Fostering passion, wonder, and inquiry in the classroom. New York: Routledge.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.
Seijts, G.H., Gandz, J., Crossan, M., & Reno, M. (2013). The dimension and elements of character. Leadership Character Insight Assessment (LCIA).
Seijts, G.H., Gandz, J., Crossan, M., & Reno, M. (2015). Character matters: Character dimensions’ impact on leader performance and outcomes. Organizational Dynamics, 44, 65-74.
Van de Ven, A., & Johnson, P. (2006). Knowledge for theory and practice, Academy of Management Review, 31(4), pp 802-821.
Wettrick, D. (2014). Pure genius: Building a culture of innovation and taking 20% time to the next level. San Diego: Dave Burgess Consulting.

Who is transforming education?

By Catherine O'Brien • January 31, 2016

During my university sabbatical last year I spent the first four months just reading and mulling over everything I read about transforming education. Books by ‘thought leaders’ discussed creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, 21st century learning, integrating technology, and so on. Very few of those books drew connections to student and teacher well-being, the importance of spending time in natural environments, or the broader perspective of sustainability.

As I read, my mind was filled with questions like: Is it possible that a focus on innovation, in the absence of sustainability, could lead to innovators who accelerate the development of products that deplete non-renewable resources? If children and youth continue to be disconnected from the natural environment, how will they develop a profound desire to safeguard the ecosystems that sustain us? Why aren’t we talking about the fact that how we teach is impacting student and teacher well-being?

Every one of us who has been schooled in formal education has developed countless assumptions about it and I knew that as I pondered what is needed to transform education I would have to challenge my own assumptions about its purpose. If Michael Fullan (2013) is right that education needs a complete ‘makeover’ does that mean that education, as we know it, needs to be entirely dismantled? Should we embrace unschooling, or just draw lessons from it? Should we look to the social innovators like Khan Academy to understand how to bring a world class education (Khan, 2012) to everyone? I interviewed social innovator, Michael Furdyk, one of the co-founders of TakingITGlobal to discover more about their truly extraordinary initiatives. What could we learn from the Green School Bali? How could I apply what I had learned from my doctoral research at the Barefoot College in Rajasthan, India where more than forty years ago they had challenged their assumptions about education in rural communities and created internationally recognized and award winning education programs that were ahead of their time?

My intention was to disrupt myself as my assumptions were challenged, teased apart, considered critically, and combined with times of deep reflection. Quite frankly this led to an uncomfortable feeling of being ‘discombobulated’ – unclear of the way forward but that also told me that I was on the right track. In the process I found myself consistently returning to a conviction that education should be contributing to well-being for all, sustainably (Hopkins, 2013). It should help us to meet our global learning needs individually and collectively. From this starting point, we can see that creativity, innovation and an entrepreneurial mindset need to be part of a coherent well-being for all vision for education that enables people and ecosystems to flourish.

As I continued to explore these ideas it became evident to me that we can transform ourselves and education when we notice that who is teaching, what we teach, when we teach, where we teach, why we teach, and how we teach play a significant role in shaping education. Focusing on the ‘how’ part of this, I have been particularly inspired by the educators who are engaging in new pedagogies, challenging themselves to discover what happens when they try Genius Hour, flipped learning, real-world project-based learning, and New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (NPDL). As I engage with this worldwide movement of innovative educators I’m feeling heartened by the generosity of teachers who are sharing resources, collaborating with colleagues, celebrating their students, taking risks, and openly inviting others to join them. They are enabling students to be choice-makes and change-makers. As Don Wettrick says, “innovation in education is education. You can and should be innovative in any classroom, whether you have a chunk of time called Genius Hour, or just a willingness to integrate new approaches to learning” (Wettrick, 2014, p. 15).

I began my sabbatical wondering how I could contribute to transforming education and along the way I’ve discovered that there are teachers and students across the globe who are already leading the way. The makeover is already in progress and everyone’s voice is needed. As Denise Krebs and Gallit Zvi say about Genius Hour:

We need you dear friends. As you set out to create Genius Hour in your classrooms, please add your voice to the global conversation about Genius Hour. We need you to become resources for others because together we are smarter. It is time for you to share your genius in your own schools and with the world. Use all the social media you love and celebrate by posting all the wonderful projects and work of your students. However, we want you to dare to do more than that. That is, to tell your own story. Share how your own learning and teaching craft are being honed through the process and products of Genius Hour. We want to hear about your journey. (Krebs & Zvi, 2016, p. 87).

These days, my teaching practice is being influenced by educators like this. When I connect with Joy Kirr (@JoyKirr), Peter Cameron (@cherandpete), AJ Juliani (@ajjuliani), Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher), Hugh McDonald (@hughtheteacher), Angela Maiers (@angelamaiers), Denise Krebs (@mrsdkrebs), and Gallit Zvi (@gallit_z) I feel an urgent desire to share this learning with the pre-service and in-service teachers who are my students, inviting them to join the conversation. Together, all of us, with our students, are transforming education.

Coming soon!…Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being


Fullan, M. (2013). Stratosphere: Integrating technology, pedagogy, and change knowledge. Toronto: Pearson.

Hopkins, C. (2013). Educating for sustainability: An emerging purpose of education. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 49(3), 122-125.

Krebs, D. & Zvi, G. (2016). The genius hour guidebook: Fostering passion, wonder, and inquiry in the classroom. New York: Routledge.

Wettrick, D. (2014). Pure genius: Building a culture of innovation and taking 20% time to the next level. San Diego: Dave Burgess Consulting.

Sustainable Wellbeing, Creativity, and Innovation

By Catherine O'Brien • January 23, 2016

This is an excerpt from: O’Brien, C., & Murray S.E. (2015). Sustainable wellbeing, creativity and innovation. International Journal of Innovation, Creativity, and Change.

Considering the ponderous pace of change in formal education, shifting towards learning that fosters creativity and innovation, dislodging it from the ‘factory model’ that moves students along the conveyor belt of schooling through successive grades of prescribed content, is a formidable task. On a very practical level, trying to infuse creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship into existing education structures that favour conformity is destined to mute the potential positive impact of doing so. Ultimately, as Fullan (2013) has suggested, what is required is an extensive make-over of education systems. One element of that make-over process, he proposes, is the use of ‘new pedagogies.’ This makes sense if we look at the great hopes and expectations associated with updating education through greater use of technology. Simply adding technology to existing practice hasn’t been nearly as transformative as expected (Bain &Weston, 2013). Rather, Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) needs to be utilized with new pedagogies. Moreover, the new pedagogies and make-over need to be associated with a coherent vision of education that has challenged outdated assumptions about the very purpose of education.

Zhao (2012) advocates the benefits of developing an entrepreneurial mindset but, similar to the pitfalls of adding technology to encrusted modes of teaching, he questions whether an entrepreneurial mindset can be nurtured in a traditional school environment. Along with many others, he calls for a paradigm shift in education.

The vast majority of children in the world today still attend schools that attempt to instill in them predefined knowledge and skills in a lock-step fashion.

Worse yet, we are moving backwards. […] the world is moving toward more curriculum standardization as a way to fix the traditional paradigm. (Zhao, 2012, pp. 157-158)

Despite this severe critique of traditional school, Zhao believes that constructive change is possible and that taking the following measures will help: provide a school environment with more freedom and flexibility for students to develop and follow their interests and passions, create opportunities for students to be decision makers, offer diversity in physical space and access to learning facilitators (i.e. teachers facilitating learning and students also having access to talented mentors outside of the school environment). Additionally, he discusses the importance of designing learning experiences to develop a sense of agency in students as they take more responsibility for their learning and to express their unique voice in the world. This points to a crucial role for students as change-makers, not only as future global citizens but also as vital contributors to the ‘make-over’ of education. Can we assume, though, that any make-over is inherently good and at the very least will not increase harm to others and the environment? It has been questioned, for example, whether education is part of the problem or the solution to meet our global learning needs.

We are faced with a paradox: Is education the problem or the solution in working toward a sustainable future? At current levels of unsustainable practice and over consumption it could be concluded that education is part of the problem. If education is the solution then it requires a deeper critique and a broader vision for the future. Thus, whole systems redesign needs to be considered to challenge existing frameworks and shift our thinking beyond current practice and toward a sustainable future. (UNESCO, 2005, p. 57)

Optimistically, educators seem to be more open than ever to the realization that conventional education is outdated and diverse “alternatives” are demonstrating fresh new directions: expansive education, flipped learning, competency-based learning, social and emotional learning, and the gamification of learning, to name just a few. This is also a time in which various recommendations for transforming education are being offered beyond creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. Recommendations vary from simple modifications for delivering existing content, to “add on” programs/toolkits, to complementary programs, to significant revisions of both curriculum and content, to abandoning formal education altogether with unschooling. For instance, in addition to competencies included within the various 21st century learning lists, there are advocates for greater attention to sustainability education/Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), social and emotional learning, Health Promoting Schools, enhancing student connections with Nature, and positive education (CASEL, 2008; Hopkins, 2013; JCSH, 2008; Louv, 2012; Morrison & Peterson, 2010; Seligman, 2011; UNECE, 2011). What is lacking at this time is a coherent vision of education that has the capacity to integrate the strengths of all of these recommendations while setting the foundation for a truly innovative approach to learning that will enable us to meet our global learning needs, sustainably (O’Brien, 2014). Hopkin’s (2013) view that repurposing education with a vision of wellbeing for all, sustainably will assist us with reframing our discussions.

Wellbeing for all, sustainably brings forth two key perspectives that are often absent in the innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, and 21st century learning literature: sustainability and wellbeing.

The full text of this article is available at:

Coming soon!…Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being

Sustainable Happiness and 20% Time

By Catherine O'Brien • January 3, 2016

I honestly hadn’t heard of Genius Hour or 20% Time when I established an inquiry-based process for my Sustainable Happiness course, an elective in our Bachelor of Education program at Cape Breton University (CBU). Since the launch of the course in 2009, it has always included a project that encouraged students to apply sustainable happiness in the ‘real world’ – though I hadn’t explicitly viewed this as one of the new pedagogies that are transforming education.

Sustainable happiness is about well-being for all, inspiring people to find ways for everyone to thrive. My definition of sustainable happiness is:

Happiness that contributes to individual, community, or global well-being and does not exploit other people, the environment, or future generations.

It integrates research from positive psychology and sustainability, reinforcing the fact that our happiness and well-being are intertwined with the well-being of other people and the ecosystems that sustain us. It can also be used as a roadmap to explore what truly makes your heart sing.

Over the past ten years there has been an escalating interest in happiness. Hundreds of books and studies have emerged to guide us toward finding the good life. Research is providing convincing evidence that it is vital for individuals, communities and nations to pay greater attention to happiness and well-being; helping us to understand how to flourish and become more resilient.

However, achieving personal happiness is only a part of the equation. To appreciate the missing part, we need to recognize that none of us exists in isolation. Our happiness and well-being are interconnected with other people, and the natural environment. When happiness is partnered with well-being and sustainability it takes on a whole new dimension – sustainable happiness. Here’s what the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen has to stay about it:

But perhaps the connection between sustainability and happiness is best illustrated by the concept
of “sustainable happiness,” which was coined by Catherine O’Brien, an associate professor of education at Cape Breton University, in Canada. Sustainable happiness is happiness that contributes to individual, community, or global well-being without the exploitation of other people, the environment, or future generations. When perceived this way, it is no longer possible to imagine a future where the pursuit of happiness is not somehow connected to sustainability. As the human species continues its quest for happiness and well-being, more emphasis must be placed on sustainability and the interaction between sustainability and happiness. (Happiness Research Institute, 2015, p. 16)

Through the lens of sustainable happiness we can see that our daily actions and decisions contribute to, or detract from, our own well-being, and that of others. Sustainable happiness is about enduring happiness and life satisfaction but it’s not only about individual happiness because the choices we make on a daily basis have an impact, for better or worse, on other people, the ecosystems that sustain us, and even future generations.

Pre-service teachers at CBU are learning how to bring sustainable happiness to life, personally and professionally. In addition to readings about sustainability and positive psychology, a significant portion of the course involves their exploration of topics such as gratitude, genuine wealth, connecting with nature, understanding interdependence, shifting consumption, and identifying their own sustainable happiness footprint. The course syllabus is available at: You will find a detailed discussion of the course and activities in “Sustainable happiness: Assisting pre-service teachers to understand the relationship between sustainability education and well-being” (O’Brien, 2014).

There is an underlying theme of inquiry throughout the course. One of the first assignments prompts the students to interview “the happiest person you know.” They set out to complete their interview without any preset definition of happiness. In fact, that is intentional. I want them to consider the attributes of a happy person. Is it someone who is generous? Always there for them, essentially a good friend? Is it someone wise, or humorous? Is it someone who seems content with life?

The interviewees have ranged from children to seniors and despite the apparent simplicity of the assignment, the learning is often profound. Typically, students discover that their happy person has overcome considerable adversity in their life and has grown through such life challenges. Relationships with family, friends and community are always described as a significant source of happiness. The interviews tend to reveal insights that are reinforced later in the course through readings on positive psychology research.

A twelve-week course can only highlight central themes so by the sixth week, students engage in their own personal inquiry into one of the topics that has intrigued them, investigating it in greater depth and sharing what they have learned with the class.

This sets the stage for their sustainable happiness project! It is an open-ended five-week project through which they determine how they will apply sustainable happiness to enhance individual, community, or global well-being (or even all three). The project plan is shared with the class at the outset to obtain any additional ideas that we could bring to their plan. If I have the impression that the project is not quite substantial enough to warrant the time that they are given to complete it, we negotiate options for adding greater scope.

Every year, I am impressed with the commitment that students bring to their projects. Often, students have realized during the course that they have been neglecting their own well-being and consequently establish a healthy living plan that involves attending to what they are consuming, increasing physical activity, and getting sufficient sleep. This year, a number of students integrated several sustainable lifestyle components such as striving to purchase local products, reducing packaging, and limiting junk food (junk food is unhealthy for them and also generates considerable waste). One student expanded her project to include several friends and the group collected recyclable cans that were cashed in with the proceeds donated to a women’s shelter. One of the mature students discovered through her sustainable lifestyle project that getting enough sleep made a huge difference in her enjoyment of life and learning. These are critical lessons for aspiring educators who now have first-hand experience with leading future students towards healthier lifestyles. They are also keenly aware that their own well-being is a vital part of their effectiveness as a teacher.

Other projects have been more community oriented, such as the winter clothing drive to support families that struggle to keep growing children in warm clothes during our Canadian winters; the all-female community clean-up crew that called themselves Girls Against Garbage or GAG (they even had T-shirts made); an artistically talented student drew a picture that was auctioned off to support a children’s hospital; and two students introduced sustainable happiness to an elementary school using the Sustainable Happiness and Health Education Teacher’s Guide.

Learning about 20% Time through books by Don Wettrick (Pure Genius) and A.J. Juliani (Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom) have helped me to restructure the introduction of the sustainable happiness project. I have learned that some students need a little more guidance to understand the free-form nature of the process. One pre-service teacher told me that she had never experienced project-based learning and was bewildered about how to do it! Her comment reinforced for me that it is essential for teacher training institutions to model this pedagogy in our courses. Providing examples of sustainable happiness projects from previous courses gives them a more complete understanding of what is possible. For many of them, their prior experience of formal education has been far more linear with firm boundaries around what is expected. I tell them that I am deliberately making the project open-ended so that they will stretch themselves.

Discussions about 20% Time, Genius Hour, and other new pedagogies are teaching us that these new pedagogies are essential for fostering creative thinking and innovation. Equally important, new pedagogies are contributing to the well-being of students and teachers. We can expand this further by integrating elements of sustainable happiness!

If you have stories about 20% Time and well-being, please send them to:

Stay tuned to this space for more on Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being.


Happiness Research Institute (2015). Sustainable happiness report: Why waste prevention may lead to an increased quality of life. Happiness Research Institute and Danish Ministry of the Environment, Copenhagen.

O’Brien, C. (2014). Sustainable happiness: Assisting pre-service teachers to understand the relationship between sustainability education and well-being. In F. Deer, T. Falkenberg, B. McMillan, & L. Sims (Eds.), (2014). Sustainable well-being: Concepts, issues, and educational practices (pp. 157-172). Winnipeg, MB: ESWB Press. Retrievable from

Under the Spell of Spines

By Patrick Howard • March 24, 2014


I have always been aware of a sense of self that was anomalous.  At times, I have been acutely aware of my incongruous interests, but most often this incongruity was latent, manifesting itself as a tremulous tension subtly tugging the sinews of my being. I loved libraries and books.  As a child I would hide in the towering stacks of the small public library lulled by the smell of books, and quietly trace my fingers along the book spines as I moved along.  There was something profound about it all.

Under the spell of spines is the way I like to think of it now.  Clumsy fingers thumping along the vertical rows of neatly ordered books.  A title, an illustration catches the eye and the book goes to the floor.  Cowboys, dragons, knights and animals – always animals.  Later, around age ten or twelve, it was science, or more aptly, natural history, archaeology and paleontology that became my passion. The words, the illustrations, the drawings drew me in, and at the same time drew me out – outside, out-of-doors.

My mother tells of her frustration in taking her toddler for walks.  Every twig, stone and leaf was handled, examined and collected.  Crouching motionless by a mud puddle I have faint memories of stirring watery cumulus clouds of silt in endless wonder; my mother’s patience would sag.  Later, I collected insects and spiders in white plastic ice cream containers.  Caterpillars and sow bugs, crane flies and ants – always ants – two varieties – red and black.  Many summer afternoons were spent staring into the writhing mass as an emperor surveys his Coliseum.  The small wood behind our house was my world.  I knew the spiders and supplied their webs with hapless flies.  I marveled at the spiders’ speed, agility and the beauty of their silken and deadly designs.

Later, I was permitted to venture to the ocean’s edge spending countless hours on the community wharf steeped in the smell of brine and tar staring into the depths until the reflected sun hurt my head.  In the tide pools, seas in miniature, sponges encrust the rocks, each hungrily drawing in through its myriad mouths the nutrient-laden water.  Starfish, sea anemones and prickly urchins were common. In these pools I stooped and spent the day until the chill of the North Atlantic anesthetized my feet and lower legs.  But I did not notice, for once again, I am a child under the spell of spines of a different order.

Inevitably, the science of my childhood, of collecting and observing, of imagination and wonder was replaced by another kind of science – the science of the academy, of middle and high school. It was a science of abstraction and generalization far removed from my experience. I lost interest and drifted away.  I pursued my love of literature into the English classroom and relegated the spiders and tide pools to the stuff of childhood.  Childhood wonder banished to the attic of my life.

Science reduces; reductionism is invaluable to scientists; it is what they do.  It is indispensable to all of us.  As Wendell Berry reminds us, there are times we must know the composition of things, how they hang together, what laws and principles govern their behaviour.  But most often what happens in dissecting the owl pellet is that the owl disappears, the mouse that was her meal disappears.  In the quest for empirical certainty, in reducing an entity, a species to its constituent parts, it disappears in abstraction.  The creature, the being is lost – the individual and the unique are lost.  The trees are lost to “forestry,” the skeins of fog and misty droplets to the “water cycle.”  In a sense, life is lost.  Science cannot show the life in the life cycle of the owl.  Its life is a wholeness inherent in its totality of experience in a place. Yet, our children need this connection to keep the inherent wonder of childhood alive and to strengthen the affiliation with the living world that comes naturally to them.

Things cannot survive as abstractions, but only as unique, individual creatures, entities living in place. We must find ways to infuse our science with poetry and our poetry with science, to build on the natural wonder of children and immerse them in the life and mystery of the places they call home.

Patrick Howard is a professor of Education at Cape Breton University, Nova Scotia. He is interested in the intersections between language arts, literacy and Education for Sustainability.  To contact go to;

Your Happy List

By Catherine O'Brien • March 23, 2014

Sustainable Happiness is…My Happy List2 copy

Happiness that contributes to individual, community, and/or global wellbeing and does not exploit other people, the environment, or future generations.” (O’Brien, 2010)

Sustainable happiness links happiness and sustainability together. It reinforces the fact that we are interdependent with one another and the natural environment – that our mutual wellbeing is interconnected. It can also be used as a roadmap to explore what truly makes your heart sing.

Rick Foster and Greg Hicks (authors of How We Choose to Be Happy), who interviewed hundreds of very happy people, found that the happiest people know what makes their heart sing and they consciously weave this into their life.  For example,  if you enjoy going for a walk in a wooded area, make time to do so as often as possible because this is something that replenishes you. Rick, Greg and I have teamed up to offer workshops and courses and the Happy List is adapted from an activity they created. (We also co-developed an online course on sustainable happiness, along with film maker, Ian Murray).

Your Happy List

Some people like to set a timer for the Happy List activity. If that appeals to you, set one for four minutes.

When you’re ready, with a piece of paper and a pen, start making a list of all the things, people, places and activities, that make you feel happy. Just speedwrite without censoring yourself. Let the ideas flow until the time is up, or beyond. If you still have more to add keeping writing even after the timer goes off!

Once you’re done, take a look over your list and revel in what makes your heart sing.

Then, consider if there is anything on your list that you are already doing and things that you would like to do more often, integrating your Happy List more fully into your lifestyle.

You can refine your list to be a Sustainable Happiness List by reflecting on those things listed that make you feel happy but may not be contributing to your wellbeing, or possibly even harming other people and the environment. For example, some people enjoy taking a long drive. They find it relaxing. However, we know that most of our motorized vehicle emissions are destructive to human and environmental health. With sustainability in mind, we ought to be reducing car travel. Consequently, it would be beneficial to develop other options for relaxation.

If you are interested in cultivating your Sustainable Happiness List, recreate the list with only those things (and some new ones if you like) that contribute to sustainable happiness. You may want to post this on your fridge as a reminder of your commitment to sustainable happiness.

(Excerpt from Lessons in Sustainable Happiness)

International Day of Happiness

By Catherine O'Brien • March 11, 2014

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Ian Murray

On March 20th people across the globe will celebrate the International Day of Happiness! Some may hear about the day and lump it into the happiness buzz that emanates from advertisements, blogs, books, magazine ads and talk shows that promote the secrets to happiness. However, the event grew from the UN Resolution on Happiness and Wellbeing – a resolution that was endorsed unanimously by UN member states. Beyond the pop culture, happiness research has attained sufficient credibility for many governments to acknowledge that happiness and wellbeing should be considered in the formulation of national policies.

Cities are looking at opportunities to boast that they are the happiest city and many are trying to determine how to enhance the happiness of their residents. There are serious attempts to interpret the implications of research about social engagement, trusting neighbours, liveable cities, walkable communities, and access to natural environments with the aim of planning for happiness and wellbeing. gil and wheelchairsThese efforts will be further advanced when municipalities examine their policy and practice through the lens of sustainable happiness – considering how to build sustainable prosperity so that the happiness and wellbeing of their communities have not come at the expense of exploiting other people, the environment, or future generations. Copenhagen is a world leader, demonstrating that a high quality of life can be achieved with sustainable lifestyles. This Streetfilms video shows us how!

The International Day of Happiness provides the impetus for deeper conversations about the role of happiness and wellbeing in our lives and our schools. Children growing up in North America over the last ten years are being immersed in a culture that is enthralled with happiness. From happy shampoos to happy pet food, commercial products are being associated with happiness. Coca Cola’s “happiness truck” and Cadbury’s campaign to capture the sounds of joy in New Zealand are capitalizing on the popular fascination with happiness. Is this the only source of education about happiness that we want for our youth? What counterpoint are schools offering? How can we assist students to differentiate commercialized happiness from the kind of happiness that leads to enduring life satisfaction?

Formal education curricula are transitioning to adapt 21st Century learning competencies but most schools are not yet teaching students about positive psychology and the lessons from happiness research. Yet, concerns about student mental health in K-12, colleges and universities suggest that we need to offer more instruction about mental wellbeing, resilience and happiness skills. I believe that incorporating sustainable happiness into formal education would assist students (and teachers) to appreciate that our happiness and wellbeing are interconnected with the happiness and wellbeing of other people and the natural environment. We can create experiential learning opportunities for children and youth to explore what happiness means to them (and that happiness is not the only acceptable emotion), how happiness is portrayed in the media, and how their daily choices contribute to, or detract from, the happiness and wellbeing of other people. They can discover new options for living happily and sustainably.

Many educators have shared inspiring stories about the lessons they have used from the Sustainable Happiness and Health Education teachers guide. It’s an ideal (free) resource that can be used to involve students in the International Day of Happiness. Please tell your teacher friends!

For higher education instructors, I encourage you to view the syllabus for the sustainable happiness course that I teach at Cape Breton University. Many of the course activities are also available on the University tab of this web site. College students are signing up for the online sustainable happiness course and using the Directed Study Guide to accompany their learning journey.

Wishing you a day of sustainable happiness Sustainable Happiness Poster2on the International Day of Happiness! Please feel free to use this poster.

Living Schools

By Catherine O'Brien • November 26, 2013

In a previous blog post I shared the inspiring story of the Schoolyard Market Garden, a collaborative project between Vancouver Technical Secondary and Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society.  The garden is an example of the kind of education that models Living Schools, an essential concept to consider for anyone who is interested in reforming or transforming education. Living Schools can integrate the many progressive visions for revitalizing education – Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), 21st century learning, Health Promoting Schools, entrepreneurship education, social and emotional learning, along with a creative culture that nurtures the passions of children and teachers.

Through this one schoolyard garden project students learn practical skills that help them feel connected to the community and nature, and that connection is likely to bring an experience of well-being. They are actively engaged in a healthy endeavor that teaches them about sustainable lifestyles. As a market garden, they’ll learn entrepreneurship skills. The project is also complex enough to draw upon diverse learning styles and passions, from construction to promotion. And they spend time outside!

This schoolyard market gardenVancourver Schoolyard garden copy is not an isolated example. David Thompson Secondary also launched a garden last spring, working with the Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society. In Australia, there is a Living Schools organization. In Europe, the Living Schools Lab explores applications of information and communication technology (ICT) for social learning. It’s a network of 12 Ministries of Education.

Why Living Schools?

I hear almost daily from teachers, administrators and education consultants that there is an urgent need to create more positive and innovative school cultures. They ponder questions about 21st century education – what education practices ought be retained? What new ones are needed?

It’s evident that a transformation of education is essential, for the benefit of our students and for society. It’s daunting for teacher education institutions, educators and administrators to determine what vision to follow. If we embrace 21st century learning competencies we will supposedly prepare our students to be successful and competitive in a rapidly changing global context. Yet these competencies don’t always embrace sustainability in the vision. One could argue that a 21st century learning vision without ESD would be modernizing education to support an unsustainable trajectory. Furthermore, teachers are reporting increasing incidences of student mental health challenges and struggle with concerns such as bullying, substance abuse, and anxiety.  The need for preventive measures is paramount and the exemplary work of Health Promoting Schools (HPS) offers a valuable framework and resources. In Canada, the Joint Consortium for School Health developed a Positive Mental Health Toolkit for educators to assess and plan for positive school health.

How could educators possibly implement all of the diverse visions for transforming education? Each one on its own has tremendous merit but no single one addresses all of the factors that must be considered if education is going to genuinely contribute to student well-being and sustainable societies.

My recommendation is for educators and education policy to find the ideal nexus where these diverse principles, competencies and visions converge. Living Schools illustrates how this can happen and how this is already happening. You likely have examples of a Living Schools initiative in your region (even though it may not have that label). Please share those with me and I’ll spread the word. Email:

Who is Teaching Us about Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being?

By Catherine O'Brien • November 17, 2013

Abstract. The growing recognition Who is Teaching Usthat happiness and well-being are intertwined with sustainability is leading to new opportunities for enhancing happiness and well-being, sustainably. The education sector has a critical role in advancing this work but has been slow to incorporate sustainability education and applications of positive psychology. The concept of sustainable happiness (happiness that contributes to individual, community and/or global well-being without exploiting other people, the environment or future generations) (O’Brien, 2010a) offers an innovative perspective to re-invigorate sustainability education and shape priorities for 21st century learning – contributing to resilient, sustainable happiness and well-being for all.

Children growing up in North America over the last ten years are being immersed in a culture that is enthralled with happiness. From happy shampoos to happy pet food, commercial products are being associated with happiness. Coca Cola’s “happiness truck” and Cadbury’s campaign to capture the sounds of joy in New Zealand are capitalizing on the popular buzz about happiness. Thousands of books, magazines, blogs and talks shows discuss the secrets to happiness, building on the research from positive psychology and happiness studies. Beyond the pop culture, happiness research has attained sufficient credibility for many governments to acknowledge that happiness and well-being should be considered in the formulation of national policies (CIW, 2009; Helliwell et al, 2012; Stiglitz et al, 2009).

Read more in the Journal of Health, Culture and Society

Of BIG questions in education…

By Chris Adam • November 10, 2013

At a recent world conference of environmental educators, I discussed the notion that institutions of higher education produce much important research, but that it is not balanced with as much important action that make a positive contribution to the community. Where are the Big questions like how do we, as an institution modeling change and meeting societal needs, become carbon neutral in 10 years?, or how do we increase urban agriculture by 25% in our town by the time the incoming cohort of students graduates?, or how do we identify and implement 50 projects on campus that benefit local wildlife, increase biodiversity and act as living labs for students in various disciplines?

BIG questions are complex, interdisciplinary by nature and require considerable problem solving. They involve the deconstruction and construction of ideas, norms and existing societal structures, exactly the creative and critical thinking skills we want in graduating students. In addition, these competencies are imbedded in many subject areas needed to solve BIG questions. In the form of authentic projects, BIG questions promote literacy of all kinds, exercise the action-based research we know lends itself to meaningful learning and builds community through the need for interdisciplinary input.

Because BIG questions are bold, and because engaging youth with modest life experience to tackle any complex challenge is bolder still, these questions can lead to places an institution did not expect to go, create unanticipated responsibilities and turn over stones that some do not necessarily want overturned. However, if bold questions lead to a reflective process where we individually or collectively evaluate our values – the very values that direct behaviour -  then change can take place. This shift in thinking and behaviour must be viewed as positive change that doesn’t dwell on the negative notion of “you didn’t do this properly.” This has far-reaching consequences when evaluating outcomes and maintaining stakeholder engagement.

Positive and fresh outlooks excite people and attract internal and community input.

Managing interpersonal space with strong group facilitation and clear expectations is the difference between big failure and big success in projects. Positive outlooks increase intake of learning by students and increase teacher engagement. Group leadership, therefore, from directors meetings to the smallest student committee, is of the utmost importance to ensure productive outcomes. This is vital in overcoming the potential barriers of regulations, traditions and egos that may not support change.

Colleges and universities are sitting on a human resource that has not been nearly engaged enough to solve the societal, economic and environmental challenges that sustainability education defines itself by.  Research is essential, but too much research and too little action is inexcusable. We can‘t be in an educational rut that fills the information bucket at the expense of community building, polarizes disciplines when solutions scream for integration, and separates knowing from feeling in the classroom. This recipe of education is the breeding ground for apathy. Fortunately, apathy runs for cover where there is hope, and BIG questions entrusted to faculty, support staff and students combined with adequate support builds ample amounts of it!

BIG questions often involve conflict – that is what makes them big.  Well-managed classrooms where students can experience and learn about this conflict is the real-world learning that they benefit from most. We need to let them field-test their action skills and experience the consequences of their behaviour first hand. BIG questions are often moving targets that invariably produce pockets of failure, consequently a dedicated  group connected individually to a challenge can dig deep when needed to continue the process. We need to guide their enthusiasm and deep desire to help, channeling this incredible potential of good will right back into the communities they come from. This is where their loved ones are, where their sense of history is anchored and where memories of childhood adventures are associated to local physical geography. It is an all-powerful relationship that can drive learning forward when it may otherwise stall.

Who is bold enough to pick one of the many BIG questions society needs answered and teach in an institution that is confident enough to let its community take it to academically rich places it hasn’t yet visited? The challenge is ultimately not a question of lack of finances, human resources, or policy, but one of human will and spirit. It’s the challenge that leads to Bold Education.

Chris Adam is the Executive Director of the Earthvalues Institute and teaches at Dawson College in Montreal.