India is known as a country steeped in ancient wisdom and spiritual traditions like meditation and yoga that embody what it means to live a good life. And while these traditions have inspired individuals and influenced cultures around the world, they don’t always find their way into India’s own education system — where students face alarmingly high levels of stress and depression.

One school is trying to change that by creating an environment that specifically prepares students for challenges that go beyond careers and competition — including finding happiness and inner purpose.

At Riverbend School, a middle and high school soon to be built in the southern coastal city of Chennai, academics will be just one aspect of a student’s education. As Fast Company reported earlier this year, the school aims to make students’ happiness the top priority.

Danish Kurani, the school’s lead architect, told Thrive Global that Riverbend will prioritize the development of a child’s “personality, character and the goodness in their heart” — traits most traditional classrooms don’t view as their responsibility.

“We want to raise kids who are good people, who go out into the world and do good things and contribute to society,” Kurani said. The goal is to raise well-rounded, high-achieving students who are also “driven by an inner purpose,” cofounder Vivek Reddy told Thrive Global. 

“Happiness is a habit”

Reddy has noticed a trend of “unhappiness” coinciding with “unprecedented levels of knowledge and material progress” at schools following the existing educational model. The conventional mindset is to “achieve now, even if you go through emotional pain and ill health, and you’ll be happy later,” he said.

Alternatively, Riverbend’s view is to “start from a base of feeling good and making smart, healthy, stress-free choices, and achievements and success will surely follow,” Reddy explained. He hopes teaching happiness at a young age will help students learn they don’t have to sacrifice health to achieve success.

“Happiness is a habit,” said cofounder Indira Reddy Dodla. “Joy of living comes naturally. It’s who we truly are. We just need to be reminded of it and practice it.”

Indian students face immense family and academic pressure to excel in school, making mental health a critical issue. Every hour, one student commits suicide in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. In 2015, Tamil Nadu, the state where Chennai is located, had the second highest number of student suicides.

The concern isn’t limited to the country’s students. Since 2014, India’s ranking on the world happiness index has consistently fallen. This year, it ranked 133rd of 158 nations.

“College is just one option”

Instead of a traditional curriculum, Riverbend will emphasize learning through experience. All students will take common core classes, such as math and science, but they’ll also be able to explore their personal interests in digital creation labs, woodworking studios or test kitchens where they can explore cultures through cuisine.

Dodla told Thrive Global this freedom will not only give students a “sense of confidence and empowerment” but will also eliminate stress that’s rooted in constantly comparing yourself to others.

At Riverbend, “college is just one option,” Dodla added. “Pursuing entrepreneurship, taking a job and following a passion, such as in sport or art or hobby, are all within the realm of possibilities.”

Teachers will also use ancient Hindu texts to help teach students how to live a happier life. “I think from a Western context, you tend to believe that the environment controls your happiness,” cofounder Kiran Reddy told Fast Company. “So you attempt to control your environment. In an Eastern philosophy, you tend to believe that you control happiness through your mind — in how you perceive things, so you can disconnect the environment from your happiness.”

“We’re in this together”

The campus layout, Kurani explained, was inspired by a Harvard study — which found a direct link between relationships and happiness — and a documentary, The Economics of Happiness, about how villages foster strong relationships. Influenced by these insights, Kurani decided to model Riverbend after a village.

In addition to borrowing the concentric ring model from villages, Kurani also aims to preserve the “organic” nature of villages. “A lot of times when you’re master planning a campus or neighborhood, it tends to feel very scripted,” he said. “You end up with a lot of right angles, straight lines, the shortest path from A to B, because you’re aiming for efficiency. And that can really be a happiness killer.”

All the buildings are intentionally “human-scaled” — one to two stories — and devoid of right angles. Kurani said he doesn’t want the buildings to have a clear front or back; he wants them to feel equal all around. “It gives more that sense of we’re in this circle,” he said. “We’re in this together.”

“Not a school for everyone”

Construction is scheduled to begin this year and end by 2020. But Riverbend is experiencing pushback from local government, according to Kurani. Since traditional Indian schools emphasize getting into the best colleges, the government requires Riverbend to follow an established curriculum — the “same system of stress-giving common exams, unbalanced workloads and uninspiring, irrelevant subject matter,” Vivek Reddy said. But doing so would undermine Riverbend’s entire philosophy.

Kurani acknowledged that Riverbend is “not a school for everyone,” but a number of academic institutions have recently revisited their educational priorities in a similar way. For example, 18 American schools have now incorporated meditation into their curriculum to combat stress earlier on in students’ lives. And Yale introduced a class about happiness this year, which quickly became the university’s most popular course ever.

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