For the past three weeks, students across India's capital have been attending a radical new course: happiness.
The Delhi government introduced "happiness classes" in an effort to shift the country's academic focus from student achievement to emotional well-being. In a country that uses standardized testing to determine student success, offers a limited number of seats in top universities and sets high expectations, educators have been seeing mental health consequences.
Delhi's Education Minister Manish Sisodia is charged with implementing the unorthodox curriculum. "It will address the ever-growing concern - levels of happiness & wellbeing [are] decreasing, while stress, anxiety & depression are increasing," he tweeted the day the program launched at the start of the month.
Sisodia's among many who say those pressures are linked to India's high student suicide rate.
"For the last 40 to 50 years the education system has been translated into an industry worker-producing system" at all education levels, he tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon.
India's rigid academic environment encourages rote memorization that often leads to cramming — and stress. This structure neglects the development of creative and social skills, Sisodia says.
"We have given best-of-the-best talent to the world," Sisodia said, according to The Washington Post. "We have given best-of-the-best professionals to industry. We have been successful so far. But have we been able to deliver best-of-the-best human beings to society, to the nation?"
In happiness class, there are no textbooks and no exams. During the daily 35-minute lesson, teachers lead students in meditation and creative exercises.
With the hurdles placed on reaching higher education levels beginning at an early age, Sisodia says that's their starting point — teaching children in nursery school (ages 3-4) through grade 8.
The Post says children broke out of their first happiness class with some excitement. "We should work happily," 11-year-old Aayush Jha, a seventh-grader at a public school in east Delhi told the paper. "When you work sadly, your work will not be good."
Sisodia hopes to deliver these tools to help students live happier inside and outside of the classroom, whether or not they're not achieving their academic benchmarks. "I don't know if [happiness] can be learned but yes, it can be practiced," he says. "Once you start practicing living with happiness, then it becomes part of your life."
One in four Indian children aged 13 to 15 struggles with depression, the World Health Organization reported last year.
As freelance journalist Susan Brink reported for NPR in 2015, the government "has made changes after noticing that some young people, under great stress to do well in school, resorted to suicide if they felt they did poorly."
"In South India, they observed higher suicide rates after exam periods among schoolchildren who failed," Alexandra Fleischmann, a project coordinator for WHO's "Preventing Suicide" report, told Brink. "Then they introduced the possibility of redoing the exams, and that reduced the suicide."
The happiness curriculum is the latest in a series of educational reforms shepherded by the Delhi government's ruling Aam Aadmi Party. This year, 26 percent of Dehli's budget is going to education, up from 23.5 percent last year.
A successful program starts with the teacher's attitude, says Rajesh Kumar, head of the state committee tasked with planning the curriculum, according to CNN: " 'You must enter with a smile. How can a teacher who knows no Hindi teach Hindi?' he asked, illustrating that it takes happiness to spread happiness."
So far, Sisodia says 20,000 teachers throughout 1,000 schools have been trained to teach 1 million students under the program.
Bharti Dabas, an English teacher at a government school, tells The Washington Post that public schools are too packed and aren't suited for the level of awareness that the program demands. "If we have 80 students in our class, how can we keep track of every kid in just 35 minutes?" he tells the paper.
Sisodia says teachers working for the Delhi government are set up for happiness: They're well-paid and are sent to train at prestigious schools.
It's early, but Sisodia — who's been sitting in on some classes — says teachers are already reporting that they themselves have benefited from participating in the program.
"Teachers are telling me that they themselves are finding a lot of calmness, a lot of improvement in their behavior, because they also sit into mindfulness with their students," he says.
NPR's Sophia Boyd and Peter Breslow produced and edited the audio version of this story.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Can you learn happiness? Some students in India are finding out. Children at about a thousand schools in Delhi returned to class this month to find a new course - happiness class. India has one of the highest student suicide rates in the world. More than 9,000 youngsters killed themselves in 2016. That number appears to be rising every year. Manish Sisodia is Delhi's education minister and the person charged with implementing happiness class. He joins us from Delhi over Skype. Minister Sisodia, thanks so much for being with us.
MANISH SISODIA: Thank you very much, Simon. It's my pleasure to be on your show.
SIMON: What do you teach or learn in a happiness class?
SISODIA: You see, every student, while learning languages, while learning science or mathematics or history or humanities, should also learn how to live a happy life. And you rightly said that I don't know if can be learned, but yes, it can be practiced.
SIMON: Can you give us a for instance of what is taught?
SISODIA: To be precise, what we are doing here in Delhi, we are introducing mindfulness - practicing mindfulness then understanding the essence of stories. And especially in India, there is a problem that once you're reading a story in class, you hardly test the intent of the story. You just teach the content. You test the content. You remember that, and you get your examination passed. So we're touching the intent of the story; the essence of the story is being worked upon in these classes.
SIMON: Minister Sisodia, what are some of the reasons the student suicide rate is so high?
SISODIA: For the last 40, 50 years, the education system has been translated into industry worker-producing system at high end, also, at low end, also. So - and that education system is becoming a reason to be tensed about the examinations themselves, the jobs, the admissions to the higher education classes, and every student was almost dying to get at the top positions. So all this was creating a lot of problem. So that's why we are not touching right now at graduation level; we are just touching about the bottom level - that is, starting from nursery classes to grade 8.
SIMON: Minister Sisodia, who teaches a happiness class?
SISODIA: So there are 20,000 teachers that we have trained so far to take these classes, and they're taking these classes daily. This is 35-minute class, every day, first half of the morning. One class is for happiness class.
SIMON: I have to ask, has any teacher said to you, if you want me to teach a happiness class, pay me more? That'll make me happy.
SISODIA: (Laughter) Which, actually, we already are paying better. The Delhi Government, I can say, is a good paymaster. Three years back, we came to power. We understood their problems. There was infrastructure problem. There was dignity problem. There was in-service training problem. So we are trying to solve these problems, and we have moved ahead. We are sending them now to Cambridge, to Harvard, to Singapore, to Finland for teachers' trainings. And in India, also, best of the best trainings are being provided to them for that. So they are happy.
SIMON: You were known as an educator who has an unorthodox approach.
SISODIA: I don't know, but I'm a public representative. And I understand the pulse of the public problem, and I'm trying to solve this through education.
SIMON: The happiness course has been running for a couple of weeks. Any immediate reaction?
SISODIA: Teachers are telling me that they themselves are finding lot of calmness, lot of improvement in their behavior because they also sit into mindfulness with their students. So that's bringing a change in the teacher's approach also.
SIMON: You've been sitting in on a lot of these classes. Are you happier?
SISODIA: Yeah, I'm feeling happier because if my kids are happier, my teachers are happier, then an education minister himself is happier.
SIMON: Manish Sisodia, Delhi's Education Minister, thanks so much. And, if I may, much happiness to you, sir.
SISODIA: Thank you so much, and I wish happiness to you, also (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: That's a happy government minister. We'll try and keep good vibes going. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.