Emotional education: what it is and why it is vital for student wellbeing

Nick Bennett, CEO & co-founder, Fika, explains why emotional education is needed at universities

Philosopher Alain de Botton, in The School of Life, argues that emotional education, once the pinnacle of literary and intellectual achievement, “has been vilified by [modern] elite culture. Go to a university today in the hope of finding answers to life’s great dilemmas and the academics will laugh – or call for an ambulance.”

And yet, according to our research, 96% of UK students are calling on their universities to add emotional education to their curriculums, saying it could help solve the student mental health crisis.

Even graduate employers insist emotional education is needed at university, with nine in ten concerned new graduates arrive in the workplace without the emotional skills they need to cope. Ninety-nine per cent of employers we surveyed argued that receiving formal emotional education modules at university would vastly improve students’ chances of career success.

The appetite for emotional education couldn’t be clearer. In fact, we’ve reached a point where the critical issue is not so much ‘appetite’ as ‘need’, with 88% of students reporting anxiety, 77% struggling with the transition to university, and half of millennials having left a job due to mental health problems.

Ninety-six per cent of UK students are calling on their universities to add emotional education to their curriculums

Have we reached a cultural tipping point?

But perhaps we’ve reached a tipping point, where universities are beginning to recognise the value of this once-revered form of education. The University of Bristol last year unveiled its Science of Happiness course – an optional module teaching students the importance of sleep, meditation, slowing down, gratitude, practising random acts of kindness, and spending time with friends.

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre makes courses available to all Oxford University students and staff, training them in how to dissolve negative thinking patterns to become more mindful and aware.

These represent important milestones, at well-respected institutions, but before we see cultural change at scale, a more universal approach will be needed.

At Fika, we are on a mission to reverse the global mental health crisis – starting with young people, and using education, science and technology as our tools. Our goal is to rebrand mental health – educating young people of the positive potential of having good mental health; empowering them by helping them build their emotional muscle, for the long-term; and reminding them that, just like physical fitness, emotional fitness takes regular practice and work to see results.

Our app is filled with simple, science-backed, five-minute emotional workouts, encouraging young people to learn, reflect and act on different areas of their emotional health, and shifting their inner dialogue to a more positive, proactive mindset. And we have started with the university population, in part because of the disruptive nature of the transition into university, which often coincides with the first instances of declining mental health, and in part because achieving cultural change should always start with young people.

At Fika, we’re mindful of the importance of introducing emotional fitness into the routines of young people before they begin to set, and we are in conversation with schools and colleges about extending our offering to schoolchildren.

And earlier this year, The Department for Education unveiled plans to roll out wellbeing classes in all schools by 2020 – another important milestone, as government begins to look to our education system, as opposed to our health system, for a preventative, long-term wellbeing.

“Rhetoric is cheap; evidence comes more dearly.” (John Fund)

To effect genuine change, we will need hard evidence on the positive impact of emotional education and emotional exercise, across a broad spectrum of markers.

At Fika, we are working with academics across our partner universities to build such a body of evidence, linking regular emotional exercise with uplifts in attainment, student retention, social inclusion on campus and employability, as well as quality of life and wellbeing.

Our long-term ambition is to build a self-funded research centre of excellence – leading the way, not just for the higher education sector, but for government, businesses and culture on a larger scale – working with decision-makers across all sectors to influence widespread societal change.

We are already proving our impact and will continue to demonstrate the importance of rebranding mental health in favour of a more proactive, education-based approach.

While changes to the university curriculum will inevitably take time, we see it as the responsibility of tech-based solutions like Fika to partner with institutions across the higher education landscape, providing opportunities for rapid cultural change at scale. 

You might also be interested in: The University of Hertfordshire partners with students’ emotional fitness app Fika

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