Waldorf Education and Happiness: Is there a link?

Learned helplessness is a psychological condition in which an individual believes they have no control over their situation and thus does not try to alter it. It can lead to low self-esteem, low motivation, and lack of persistence. Most worrisome is that learned helplessness shares many symptoms with depression. Some signs of learned helplessness in children include easily giving up, low self-esteem, passive personality, and low intrinsic motivation. 

In Waldorf schools, we counter the development of learned helplessness by offering many opportunities for our children to engage in meaningful activities.

According to Gordon & Gordon (2006), learned helplessness often results in a tendency to give up easily in the face of a task that the child judges to be difficult. Soon, the child comes to believe that all tasks are difficult, easily giving up on school and other ventures. A child that displays learned helplessness has developed a conditioned response to ‘turn off’ after any failure, however small. A lack of opportunities to practice and develop new skills in a meaningful, age appropriate manner may contribute to the development of learned helplessness. Sometimes, the adults around the child will have unknowingly contributed to this notion, hindering a child’s autonomy and independence by helping too much. Well intended actions may be conveying the wrong message: You can’t. You are not capable.

In Waldorf schools, we counter the development of learned helplessness by offering many opportunities for our children to engage in meaningful activities. Through relevant, hands-on experiences from early childhood to high school -whether in classrooms, stages, workshops, sports fields or class trips- Waldorf education contributes to the development of what psychologists call sense of coherence. Sense of coherence is a global construct expressing the degree to which a person has a pervasive and dynamic, but lasting, feeling that the internal and external stimuli and stressors in their environment are comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful. Comprehensibility refers to the extent to which one might perceive both internal and external stimuli as being understandable in some kind of rational way, while manageability refers to the extent to which one might perceive that resources are available to meet the demands posed by these stimuli. Meaningfulness refers to the extent to which one might perceive that these demands are challenges, worthy of investment and engagement. According to some studies, sense of coherence helps people move towards, or stay at, the healthy end of the continuum between health and disease.

In Waldorf schools, children engage in purposeful tasks from early childhood on. If you were to peek into one of our early childhood classes, you would probably find children sweeping, sewing, chopping veggies, hammering, tending to animals, and handling wheelbarrows and gardening tools. And this is only the beginning. Throughout their time at Green Meadow, all children take part in complex and challenging activities, not only academically. What all these have in common are manageability, comprehensibility and meaningfulness.

On any given day, children can be found knitting and sewing, practicing a complex melody in a musical ensemble, learning lines and creating costumes and props for a play, weaving complex patterns in a basket, carefully hammering out a copper bowl, and dribbling a basketball.

Although often considered secondary to academic tasks, all of these endeavors are a core part of Waldorf education. They strengthen a child’s sense of coherence, self-efficacy and resilience in a wholesome, practical manner, everyday. The feeling of accomplishment and agency that students develop when completing projects in handwork, practical arts, music and drama, transfers directly to their mindset when faced with all other tasks in life, including the academic realm. Our students come to understand that difficult tasks can be learned and mastered, they believe that abilities and skills can be developed through hard work and perseverance. They are more likely to embrace challenges, develop creative problem solving skills, and persist in the face of setbacks. 

With each new meaningful project or task, our students strengthen their sense of coherence, increasing their capacities and confidence.

And guess what? Happiness has been emphasized as an important indicator of physical health and is predicted by a positive sense of coherence!