If there’s one way third-grade teacher Erin Michelle Threlfall’s lessons have paid off, it’s in the way her students have put into action their self-made mantra: “Do something awesome every day.”
For Threlfall, doing something awesome meant standing up in front of more than 300 people at TEDxUbud on Saturday and sharing her experience turning happiness into a core subject, like reading or math, for her 24-strong class of 8-year-olds at the Bali International School.
She set out to answer the question: “What happens when children learn the habits of happiness, and then practice them every day?”
Threlfall’s journey to discovering the secrets of happiness began eight years ago, when she was working at a refugee camp in Ghana.
People there had lost their homes, families and everything of value. Still they danced, sang and smiled. Threlfall, who shares her ideas on the Huffington Post and the World Moms Blog, consulted with an elder at the camp who explained that his only options were to find joy in life or drown in depression, and “happiness seemed like the wiser choice.”
She then embarked on her own “happiness journey,” researching what makes people feel gratitude for their lives and implementing her own practices to stimulate it.
Upon entering the classroom, she decided to combine her teaching skills with the techniques she learned to become a more satisfied person.
And so, her “Happiness 101” class was born, and Threlfall gave her third-graders a well-being survey, modified from the version Harvard professors administer to their students.
The results, Threlfall said, were alarming: one third of her students reported that they did not consider themselves happy. That, combined with data showing increasing rates of youth suicide worldwide, put Threlfall on a mission.
“Suddenly,” she said, “this project became a lot more important.”
Through journal assignments on gratitude, focusing on personal strengths, meditation and performing random acts of kindness, Threlfall taught students that happiness was not an inherent emotion — it was something that had to be learned and cultivated.
“Happiness isn’t this quick-fix, feel good, temporary thing,” she said. “Happiness is deep contentment and it comes from the way that we live our lives, from our daily habits.”
By the end of the school year, Threlfall discovered that not only did her students’ happiness rise in a very measurable way (she tied it in with math lessons on data collection and analysis to prove it), their academic achievements soared and they were more engaged with learning.
They also made a positive impact on their school, leaving kind notes for each other and putting on puppet shows to teach youngsters.
“I am more and more convinced that throughout a child’s development, it is crucial that we empower them with the tools that they need to manage their own happiness,” the teacher said.
Threlfall’s inspiring presentation, complete with images of her students and the former actress’s on-stage exuberance, kickstarted the Bali version of the TED Talks, a nonprofit organization that gives leading thinkers an opportunity to share poignant ideas in 18-minute presentations.
More than 6,000 TEDx events have been hosted worldwide. The third annual TEDxUbud featured a slew of dynamic speakers who shared ideas with the power to change the world, starting with Indonesia.
Comedian Ernest Prakasa had the audience giggling through a discussion on what he says are the three basic truths about men — “protective, perverted and logic-driven” — and how they could be harnessed to fight the dubious practices of some baby formula companies, which include paying midwives to steer mothers to certain products and illegally sponsoring hospital maternity wards.
Ernest founded Ayah ASI, Indonesian fathers’ first breast-feeding initiative, to spur discussion among men on what is often a women-only topic.
He cited studies that show that not only is breast-feeding healthier for the baby, it stimulates important bonds among families — a fact that he said appeals to the protective nature of men.
The physiological nature, he added with a laugh, was enough to pique men’s perverted side, while he lured them logically with some basic math.
“If you stop buying baby formula for six months, you can buy a new iPhone,” he said.
The comedian’s light-hearted yet powerful speech came shortly after viewers were moved to tears when Ruici Tio, a human rights advocate, gave a passionate talk on curbing human trafficking in Asia through “small acts of resistance.”
“You may be surprised to find that the average cost of a human being isn’t $10,000 or $5,000, but that the global average is $90, and that here, in Asia, it’s as little as $5,” he said. “For $5, someone could be sold to a brothel and be forced to serve up to 20 clients in a day.”
Inspired by a 14-year-old Vietnamese girl who was forced into sex slavery before escaping three years later, he joined the team behind MTV EXIT (End Exploitation and Trafficking), a multimedia campaign using videos, concerts and social media to spread awareness about human trafficking.
The group has worked to rescue people from exploitation and raise awareness of the warning signs, simply by spreading the message far and wide, mainly on the Internet.
“Social media at times is no more than a substitute for action. But it creates the space for voices to be heard,” Tio said.
He and his family know all too well what can happen when space for political ideas and activism disappear from public discourse.
His grandfather, a social activist, and great uncle, a long-standing member of the Indonesian parliament, were jailed for more than a dozen years starting in 1965, during the anti-communist purge.
This gave Tio an appreciation of the importance of free speech in activism, setting him apart from the generation of people critics have labeled “slacktivists.”
At a recent concert in Bandung, Tio handed out 2,000 wristbands that could be swiped at stations throughout the venue and automatically post a message about human trafficking on the wearers’ social media profiles.
In 90 minutes, he said, they reached more than 2.5 million people with a message about a social issue they may not have heard about before. Groups that formed as a result of this concert now put on their own anti-trafficking events throughout Indonesia.
“We have an opportunity now, because small acts of resistance, small acts of courage and small acts of compassion create the space that allows voices to be heard,” Tio said.
“And it’s these voices that can start to dictate that this political moment is not defined by one that commodifies human beings.”
TEDxUbud offered a first step to putting into practice innovative ideas in Indonesia.
From building public libraries in outlying areas to repairing coral reefs using underwater gardening near Gili Trawangan in West Nusa Tenggara, the ideas shared at the event sparked discussion among audience members about potential solutions to the most important problems afflicting the world today.
Videos of the presentations will be posted soon on the TEDxTalks YouTube channel.