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Posted: Jul 18, 2012 07:25


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By Rosemary McKinnon

Parents who are visiting Montana Academy for the first time and sitting down for lunch with our students often remark to me that our students appear to be "happy." This seems to take them by surprise. Perhaps this surprise makes sense when we remember that most adolescents who come to Montana Academy associate being happy with pot, partying and hooking up, none of which are permitted on our campus. Why then are they happy and what is going on here?

There is a lot of focus on happiness these days and researchers seem to be falling over themselves to figure out what it is and how to maximize it. Their studies have created a new discipline in the social sciences called Positive Psychology. One of its foremost researchers, Martin Seligman, suggests in his recent book "Flourish" that happiness is "pleasure combined with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose - a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future." Other scientists have found that certain elements are crucial for human happiness: pursuing meaningful life goals, scanning the world for opportunities, cultivating an optimistic and grateful mindset, and holding onto rich social relationships. Feeling that we are in control of our lives drives well-being and performance. Drawing on these ideas, Shawn Achor, author of "The Happiness Advantage," lays out seven principles that fuel performance and success at work, focusing on retraining our brains not to get stuck in patterns of stress, negativity and failure and to capitalize on opportunities including our social networks.

Eric Weiner, a former correspondent for NPR, set out to explore the world to find out whether different countries and cultures set the stage for different degrees of happiness in their populations. His journey is portrayed in "The Geography of Bliss" (2008). He starts his journey in the Netherlands where he visits a professor of happiness studies who runs the world database of happiness. He does not find him to be a particularly happy person. Weiner goes on to visit nine other countries. Memorable among these, at least for me, is Bhutan, which I visited in 2004. Here the former King Wanghuck famously floated the idea of a "gross national happiness" policy to supplant "gross national product." Weiner was told that the GNH is a goal and that it is about "knowing your limitations: knowing how much is enough; all happiness is relational" - it is a collective endeavor. I found easy to love Bhutan at least in part because it shared some physical traits with Montana: remoteness, rugged mountains and a sparse population. King Wangchuck wisely limited tourist access to this small remote Himalayan country squeezed between India and China, as well as limiting access to television and social media. He and his descendants controlled media from the outside world in an attempt to cushion and preserve a traditional way of life radiating out from dzongs (administrative and monastic complexes) cloistered in valleys beneath lofty peaks, and respect for a deeply rooted Buddhist culture. No wonder then that 90 % of Bhutanese who study abroad forsake western style incomes and return to their county.

A year ago the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, started a national happiness index. The UK office of national statistics conducted an on-line debate about the nature of happiness. Beyond the usual unquantifiable importance of love, friendship and family relationships, the British public listed bird song, knowing themselves, the environment, responsible pet ownership, contributing to society, getting out in the wild and reading Socrates (Roger Cohen, NY Times, 12 March 2011). Clearly people need something beyond the material for fulfillment, but how do we put a value on things that don't have a price tag, like open space, security and release from pressure?

Happiness seems to be one of those things that we know when we see it and yet it is also ephemeral, hard to pin down and even harder to engineer. Weiner notes that "where we are is vital to who we are." By this he means not the physical context, although this may have some bearing on one's state of mind, but that the cultural environment matters. Certainly I remember vividly when I first visited American suburban sprawl in the East Bay of California that I wondered how anyone could live there and, similarly some years later when we moved to northern Texas, I took one look at the flat landscape and cried. I, for one, am deeply affected by the nature of the landscape around me as well as finding a sense of community.

So what is it that our students experience when they arrive at Montana Academy? With rare exceptions our students have all attended wilderness programs and have begun to attune themselves to nature, whether or not this was something that gave them pleasure in the past. But these students are by no means solitary nature lovers. At this stage of their lives, whether or not they want to admit it, they crave the fellowship of their peers. Here on this remote ranch they find themselves in the company of 70 boys and girls, day and night, all with a common purpose - healing ruptured relationships and growing up. And they enter a community which welcomes them, embraces them despite their struggles or even because of them and can't wait to get to know them. Additionally it is rapidly clear to them that we anticipate a successful outcome to their difficulties and that there are many students on campus who have invested in their therapeutic work and feel good about themselves so they have every reason to be hopeful. Far from feeling banished from home they are generally relieved to be in an environment where they think that they can succeed. One student put it succinctly, "I don't like it here, but I love it here." This summer one of our graduates finished college and returned as an intern. He has been speaking with visiting parents and told me yesterday that he loves to do this because he believes in what we do and sees how much it helped him.

Recently I met with a new student a few days after his enrollment and found him to be unusually gloomy about the world and his place in it. He described his state of mind to me, telling me that the world was overcrowded, polluted, irretrievably damaged and therefore hopeless and not worthy of his effort. He was experiencing a true existential crisis about the state of the world and his place in it, leading to deep depression. I knew that I was unlikely to make any headway in changing his mind but recommended to him that he simply make an effort to invest in the relationships with his teammates and adults on his treatment team, feeling confident that if he could begin to do so his state of mind would change and his depression begin to lift.

In the end too much emphasis on personal happiness can create problems. We will not always be happy and we need to teach our children to tolerate difficult emotions and states of discomfort. Instead of worrying about ourselves we need to cultivate the capacity to know and value others. Happiness should not even be the goal. Richard Weissbourd suggests in his persuasive book The Parents We Mean to Be that parents who worry about their kids' happiness are missing the opportunity to help them to grow up as good people. Good people are not necessarily happy but they are likely to find meaning and purpose in their lives. I cannot say this any better than an Englishwoman, Margaret Storm Jameson, who lived and wrote in Yorkshire in 1891: "Happiness comes of the capacity to feel deeply, to enjoy simply, to think freely, to risk life, to be needed." With a little luck we may suddenly notice that we are feeling happy while we are engaged in doing something else!

About The Author: Rosemary McKinnon is Co-Founder/ Director of Admissions for Montana Academy in Marion, MT. For more information, contact her at 406-858-2339 ext. 223 or To learn more about Montana Academy, visit

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