It’s true, we must, but as I am hearing this phrase being thrown around again in the aftermath of the latest PISA study, I dare to ask what it is that we actually mean by that. How does one raise children and young people’s aspirations and what is it that we actually want them to aspire to?
If we are merely focused on getting them to pass exams so that we can tick our boxes then I am not surprised that it is not working.
Surely, if we simplify it and bring it to the point, we want our children and young people to aspire to living happy, healthy and meaningful lives that contribute positively to society and the world we live in.
We tell our children that if they get good grades in school they will get good jobs and if they get good jobs they will earn good money and if they earn good money then they will be happy. Psychologist Shawn Achor, however, argues (and scientifically evidences) that it actually works the other way around: happiness inspires productivity. This is fantastic news because it means that we can focus on teaching children how to live happy lives right now and by doing so, at the same time, improve exam results.
The majority of children and young people who suffer from low aspirations come from backgrounds or live in circumstances that are not conducive to developing high aspirations and often downright adverse to it. Maybe no one in their immediate environment role models and instils high aspirations in them or maybe they are affected by a number of adversities that impact on their wellbeing and therefore prevent them from developing high aspirations.
However, research by Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert shows, that we can manufacture happiness by choice even under adverse circumstances and that this ‘synthetic’ happiness, as he calls it, is no different to the ‘natural’ happiness we experience when we get what we want. It is a matter of training the mind to choose happiness.
While we definitely need to tackle social injustice and inequality and address the external factors that negatively effect aspirations of children and young people, this new research evidence means that there is a lot more we could do right now to help our children and young people use the internal powers of their own mind more effectively. We can provide training and education that empowers them to take responsibility for and control of their attitudes, their mental and emotional choices and their response to what is happening to them. We can empower them to start living a happy life from within through choice and thereby give them the emotional and mental stability as well as the confidence that will enable them to aspire to a meaningful life.