Happiness is a skill that can be learnt

Ready, Set, Happy is a multimedia, downloadable children’s resource developed by Denise Flora in 2008. It consists of a collection of songs, poems, plays, games and science experiments for children, families and teachers, based on the 16 Guidelines for Life.  Since it was made available via the website it has had more than 12,000 visits, and we often get news from people who are using it with their families, at their workplace, or to run community activities.

Such is the case of ‘The Family Dharma Club’ at Langri Tangpa Buddhist centre in Australia. When we asked them to share a bit more about how they run the club they sent the article below that is full of useful advice, particularly if you would like to start a similar group. Enjoy!

Sharing the Skills for True Happiness
By Belinda Reed and Ven. Lozang Drolkar

Happiness is a skill that can be learnt! The Family Dharma Club in Brisbane, Australia has been running since January this year, sharing the 16 Guidelines with children and their carers, with the aim of introducing the skills that develop happiness and meaning in everyday life. The sessions run once a month on a Saturday afternoon, and are hosted by the Langri Tangpa Centre. Children range in ages from four through to eight years old, and there is no doubt that with this variety of ages, keeping everyone engaged in the session can be challenging. However, over the past few months a formula has been developed that keeps the session flowing well and exciting for all. 

It is important for the children to be involved and have a voice early in the session; for this reason the introductions at the start are always engaging. Musical instruments, singing bowls and wobbly balls have all been used to get participants to introduce themselves, and a short meditation and motivation are always included to set the right intention for the class. The class is then provided with an introduction to the topic of the class through a fun activity. For example, to introduce the topic of patience, the families were tasked with building a house of cards. The frustration and other negative emotions arising from these activities are a great lead-in to discussing the topic.

Using examples from their own lives helps children recognise the disadvantages of particular negative states of mind and the advantages of its opposing positive state of mind (that being the guideline of the week). Then, once it is established that to be happy we need to alter our way of thinking and behaving, we use simple, fun interactive activities that enable the children to antidote negative states of minds when they arise and to develop helpful attitudes and behaviours. A short, catchy class motto is used to reinforce the topic, and is repeated throughout the session. We also incorporate yoga postures and body movements to support the motto and get the children up and active.

The craft activities are also popular and help to reinforce the session topic. Animal masks reminded us of what we can learn from anyone (humility), mandalas helped us practice patience, family contentment cups helped us manage our greed, and the families made prayer flags of what brings them delight to remind them of all they have when jealousy or disappointment arise.

While the sessions are geared to families of any or no faith tradition, an optional section known as the ‘Buddhist bit’ is always included. The ‘Buddhist bit’ is related to the particular session guideline and the practices are modified to be age appropriate, interactive and enjoyable. The children have tried: prostrating to learn about humility; walking meditations to practice patience; and water bowl and other offerings to practice contentment and generosity.

The sessions always conclude with a story, meditation, dedication and a rejoicing in all of the work we did during the session.

It has been recognised that the mix of activities included in the session is of great benefit, with feedback received stating that “I loved the variety of activities used to teach the topic. The activities incorporated the body, mind and spirit.

We recognise, though, that the Family Dharma Club is only an introduction to the skills for happiness. The most important thing is that the discussions started during the session are continued over the following days and weeks in the family home. Hence it is important that the parents are also skilled in the guideline. To support this, nearly all of the activities are done in ‘family groups’.  Also, we provide a piece of family homework after each session. Families have been tasked with creating calm jars, practicing contentment, providing compliments to difficult people, and recording what they love about each member of their family. In addition, we have set up a Facebook page and email list; this enables us to send out relevant information to the parents between sessions. 

Working with children, while so rewarding, brings its own unique challenges. One of the difficulties encountered is re-engaging their attention after the completion of activities. One thing that works well is using the singing bowl with some clear instructions at the start of each class. It does not take long for the children to learn when the singing bowl rings that it is time to come back to the mat and put their listening ears on. Another issue is the pre-dominance of girls. To address this we try to ensure the activities would be interesting to any gender. 

Currently the sessions run on a Saturday afternoon for an hour and a half. Some feedback has suggested that the sessions could be slightly shorter and/or that they may be better to be held in the morning, while the children and parents are fresh. Of course this competes with many sporting activities, so it is a constant challenge to make sure that the timing of the Family Dharma Club and the great skills that it teaches makes it accessible to as many families as possible. 

The sessions are facilitated by an ordained member and a layperson who are both parents. It helps tremendously to have two dedicated group leaders, as each person brings different skills and knowledge to the sessions. It is also important to have a backup person in case one leader is absent. This was a difficulty experienced by the previous Family Dharma Club hosted by the Centre due to there being only one leader.

The Family Dharma Club could not operate without the generous support of the parents. There are so many competing priorities for families on a weekend, and making it to Family Dharma Club can some days be a real effort. That is why all of the parents should constantly be congratulated. There is no greater gift they can give their children and families than the skills for true and lasting happiness. It is certainly a privilege and an honour to be involved in this process.

Family Club artwork