At the Centner Academy, a new school in Miami that is opening in September, the school day will start with meditation. Lunch will include a mindfulness lesson. Throughout the day, students have lessons on subjects like emotional intelligence and how to be resilient in the face of challenges.
The school prioritizes happiness and well-being along with academics; it also has a Mandarin immersion program. Serial entrepreneurs Leila and David Centner founded the school with guidance from Tal Ben-Shahar, an expert in the field of positive psychology who cofounded an organization called the Happiness Studies Academy and previously taught a course at Harvard on how to be happy.
“One of my mentors, the psychologist Marty Seligman, always asks two questions when he speaks to parents and teachers,” says Ben-Shahar. “The first question is, what would you most like for your children? The answer that most parents give is, ‘We want them to be happy. We want them to have good relationships, we want them to be healthy,’ and so on. . . . The second question is, what do children learn at school? And the answers are reading, writing, arithmetic . . . there’s almost no overlap between the two.”
Traditional academic subjects are still important, he says, but as evidence grows in the new science of happiness, it doesn’t make sense to ignore that first list of goals. “Whether we’re talking 4-year-olds or 14-year-olds, we know how to help children become happier,” he says.
The founders, who were searching for a school for their own young daughter and couldn’t find a good fit, were inspired in part by a recognition of what their own peers were missing. At a retreat in India, Leila Centner says, she noticed other people in the class were successful on paper but weren’t happy. “I realized, all of these things that I’m learning now, if they’re taught to kids from the time they start school, the world will be a much different place,” she says.
Ben-Shahar and his colleagues had previously developed a curriculum for schools, tested primarily in Israel, based on findings from other research. “The impact is yes, it increases well-being, reduces anxiety, depression, and it also improves grades,” he says. But while the other schools might offer lessons once or twice a week, “whereas here it’s being embedded in the DNA of the school.”
The approach considers five aspects of well-being—spiritual, physical, intellectual, relational, and emotional—and then teaches exercises designed to improve each aspect, from meditation to how to build in-person rather than virtual friendships. It also tries to impart lessons through stories. “For instance, we tell the story of Thomas Edison,” says Ben-Shahar. “Thomas Edison is widely celebrated as among the greatest inventors of all time, but very few people talk about the fact that just as he’s in the hall of fame of inventors, he should be in the hall of fame of failures. Because he has failed more times than probably any other inventor we know or person for that matter. So we communicate the idea through the story that you need to learn to fail, or fail to learn.”
The school also plans to work with parents. “We’re going to have a full-circle approach where we’re not just helping the kids, but we’re coaching and mentoring the parents,” says Centner. “Because we can create the most amazing environment, but when they send them to go back home, if that parent is continuing to dump their own anxieties and fears and pressures onto these kids, it could potentially negate some of the stuff that we do.”
In its first year, the school will be open to children between the ages of 2 and a half and 6, and the school will add another grade level each year. As it progresses, Ben-Shahar will help evaluate the program. “We’re experimenting,” he says. “Obviously we’re basing our work on rigorous research, and we’re going to do more rigorous research to improve it and better it.”
As with a similar school in India that also focuses on teaching students happiness, Centner Academy is a private school, but the founders plan to also create an after-school program for low-income students at public schools and create a template that can be shared more broadly. They also hope that their students can share their own skills. “When we deliver this curriculum to our students, and they become these kind, compassionate, emotionally intelligent leaders when they graduate, my hope is that they’re going to take on the bigger mission, which is how to spread this throughout our planet,” Centner says.