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Exploring Happiness in Experiential Education

By Dr. Ruprecht Mattig
Assistant Professor in the Kyoto University Global COE Program Revitalizing Education for Dynamic Hearts and Minds

A major purpose of the Global COE Program Revitalizing Education for Dynamic Hearts and Minds is to explore pedagogical ideas and practices as to how they can contribute to people’s happiness. The existing studies on this topic either analyze the relation between happiness and education in very general terms or they focus on education in regular schools (cp. for example Barrow 1980; Zirfas 1993; Taschner 2003; Noddings 2003; MacConville 2008). The following report examines a concrete pedagogical program outside of the traditional school setting, ‘experiential education’, and sketches out its possibilities for enhancing young people’s happiness. As will be shown, experiential education promises to enable a kind of happiness that can hardly be achieved in traditional schools. Namely, with its focus on social learning through exceptional challenges in nature, I will conclude that the experiential education program analyzed here can enable ecstatic happiness. After a brief description of what experiential education is, I will offer some impressions of a program of experiential education in Japan and analyze the observations in terms of happiness.

About experiential education
The term experiential education describes a pedagogical movement that originated from the ‘Outward Bound School’ which was set up in 1941 in Aberdovey (Wales) by the German educator Kurt Hahn (1886-1974). This school provided four-week sailing courses for the youth. The word outward bound is a nautical expression that describes the moment of a ship leaving a harbor; accordingly, Hahn’s pedagogical idea was to enable young people to leave the certainties of normal life and to open themselves up for adventurous and challenging experiences. In the following decades after the founding of the first school in Aberdovey, more and more Outward Bound schools were set up all over the world (cp. Zelinski 1991). In Japan, Outward Bound came to life in 1989.
Nowadays most of the programs have become much shorter than in the early times; in Japan, some programs take just two days. Also, today’s programs of experiential education comprise of many different activities, such as hiking, rock climbing, canoeing, or sailing, depending on the natural environment. Experiential education courses are designed for many different sorts of participants; for example students, trainees, managers, or handicapped people. In some countries, traditional schools would take their students to Outward Bound courses; in Japan, however, experiential education seems to be barely known. The staff of Outward Bound Japan told me that they seldom provide courses for Japanese schools.
Despite the outlined changes since the set up of the first Outward Bound school, Kurt Hahn’s idea seems to be still vivid in experiential education: to take young people into nature so that they can have challenging and enriching experiences together with their fellow beings. The programs of experiential education are designed in such a way that the participants face challenging situations, most of which they realize that they will only succeed with cooperation. One of the main concerns of today’s experiential education is, thus, to develop the social skills of the participants.
From the perspective of the GCOE Program Revitalizing Education for Dynamic Hearts and Minds the following questions will be explored in this report: Can experiential education contribute to the participants’ happiness? If yes, in which ways?

Some observations at an Outward Bound program in Japan
I had the opportunity to observe a two-day program of Outward Bound Japan in fall 2009 at Lake Sai (or Saiko, which is one of the five lakes near Mt. Fuji). In this beautiful surrounding, an International School in Japan participated with its whole 8th grade class―more than one hundred students―in the Outward Bound program. This school had cooperated for several years with Outward Bound Japan, each year sending the eighth-graders to Lake Sai as one of the main out-of-school activities.
The whole group of teachers, Outward Bound instructors, and students stayed on a campground near Lake Sai during these days. The students were split into groups of eight persons (four boys and four girls in each group) and these groups had to accomplish several challenges, three of which I will portray in more detail below. Furthermore, the students were responsible for their meals, i.e., they had to cook for themselves, which was itself an exceptional challenge for these thirteen to fourteen year old girls and boys. In the following description of three tasks that the students had to accomplish during the program (i.e.,‘the wall’, ‘rock climbing’, and ‘rafting’), I will try to describe not only the pedagogical idea which lies ‘behind’ the tasks themselves, but also, in which way the tasks are related to happiness according to my observations.

The Wall
The Outward Bound staff constructed a mobile wooden wall on the campground, 3.60 meters high. On the backside of the wall was a platform. The task was that a group of students must get over this wall onto the platform in 40 minutes without the help of any means (except the students’ bodies). This task was a great challenge for the students; just the mere sight of the wall gave the impression of an insurmountable obstacle.
The main pedagogical idea of this task is that the students need to cooperate with each other and that the students, in doing this, develop their social skills: The task involves the whole group, not just individuals. If the students want to reach the goal, they need to help each other. Before climbing, they need to find a strategy; for example, they need to decide who should be the first person and the last. The first person must be lifted up by all the other persons, and once she has grabbed the edge of the wall, this person needs to be strong enough to climb up on her own. The last person will have no help from below. Thus, this person needs to be good at jumping up to the hands of the other persons. Such crucial considerations need to be made before and during the task. The students need to communicate and debate with each other to make decisions. This exemplifies the fact that experiential education puts great emphasis on handing the responsibility to the students; during the task the school teachers should not ‘help’ the students or tell them what to do. The Outward Bound instructors only moderate the students’ debate if they think it is necessary. Furthermore, the Outward Bound instructors may intervene in the students’ actions in the case of security reasons. During the climbing the students get involved in the task with their whole bodies, and they get close to each other; they need to hold, push, and pull one another, which also means that they literally get closer together.
In terms of happiness it is worth noting that in accomplishing such a task, a certain happy ‘group feeling’ can arise, as one student told me. Especially when finally, usually after several unsuccessful attempts, all of the students stand on the platform, they often burst out in gestures of triumph and enthusiastic screaming―which signifies a high-level happiness.

The first student tries to climb the wall.

Students helping each other to get up the wall.

Students’ triumph after accomplishing to climb the wall (the person on the ground is an Outward Bound instructor).

Rock climbing
For this task the students first needed to hike up a steep mountain at Lake Sai to reach the climbing rock. This hike was already a physical challenge for some of the students. Before climbing, the Outward Bound instructors told the students how to put on the climbing gear. Climbing itself then was, in contrast to the wall, an individual task; each student climbed for himself.[1] At the rock there were different climbing routes, and the students could choose an easier or a more advanced one. According to the chosen route the students had to climb 20 to 30 meters until they reached the top karabiner.
Rock climbing is definitely a hard task; however, in terms of happiness it is particular interesting that when the students reached the top and then turned around, they not only had the satisfying feeling of having accomplished the task, they were also rewarded with a stunning view across Lake Sai of Mt. Fuji. During my observations, one girl turned around after she had reached the top karabiner and then shouted out loudly ‘It’s amazing!’. Another girl, after coming down again, said to her classmates ‘I’m so happy’.

Students hiking up to the climbing rock.

Students climbing.

View of Mt. Fuji from the rock climbing mountain.

At the beach of Lake Sai, the Outward Bound staff put out tire-tubes, some planks and a bunch of cords. The task for the student groups was to build a raft out of this material and to paddle a course around some buoys on the lake with this raft. For the tour on the lake the students got paddles, life-jackets, and wet suits, and they were accompanied by an Outward Bound instructor on a kayak for safety reasons. For this task, again, the students had to make up a strategy together of how to build the raft. And they could ‘test’ immediately on the lake, whether their ideas worked out well or not. One group that I observed paddled enthusiastically in a common rhythm, thereby shouting together ‘row!; row!; Row!’.
As is evidenced by the above descriptions, experiential education is about the contact with nature, the overcoming of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and the development of social competences. The students were not graded for their performances; the teachers rather hoped that the students would be able to transfer their experiences into daily life; that they could go home from Lake Sai with more self-esteem and new social skills.

The material for rafting at Lake Sai.

‘Row!; row!; row’―students rafting on Lake Sai, accompanied by an Outward Bound instructor.

Experiential education and ecstatic happiness
From my observations, I can conclude that the students did indeed experience moments of great happiness during the two-day program at Lake Sai. In what way, then, can experiential education contribute to happiness?
First, the contact with nature should be mentioned. The American educationalist Nel Noddings points out that for many people contact with nature is an important source of happiness. Nevertheless, Noddings admits that traditional schools can do only little to enable the direct contact of students with nature. As a consequence, she merely suggests that students should study natural phenomena and literature about experiences with nature (Noddings, 2003, pp. 124-30). As this report demonstrates, experiential education allows an enriching, ‘real’ contact of students with nature.
Furthermore, the specific form of happiness that experiential education enables can be characterized in terms of ‘peak experience’, ‘flow’, and ‘communitas’.
The concept ‘peak experience’ describes very happy or euphoric states that can be triggered by a variety of events (cp. Maslow 1993). The students’ shout of triumph after accomplishing to climb the wall or the students' enthusiastic reactions on top of the climbing rock are expressions of peak experiences. Indeed, climbing on top of a rock and then seeing Mt. Fuji is a peak experience in a very concrete sense.
The concept of ‘flow’ signifies an uplifting experience which, according to David Nettle, ‘is characterized by total absorption in a challenging activity for which the individual has the skills, albeit the skills are stretched to their limits’ (Nettle 2005, p. 25). In a state of flow one action follows the next in a steady stream, without conscious reflection of the actor; the individual gets immersed in this stream of actions. The paddling on the lake, which the students accompany by shouting rhythmically ‘row!’ is a good example of a flow experience.
Finally, the concept ‘communitas’ reflects the social dimension of experiential education. This concept was developed in ritual studies to describe the exceptional comradeship and often ecstatic feeling of interconnectedness that develops between the young in initiation rites. Communitas has a flow quality (cp. Turner 1982); but while flow (and also peak experiences) can be experienced on one’s own―that means individually―, communitas is certainly a group experience. Communitas is the happy ‘group feeling’ that one student had described (see the ‘wall’).
In a word, experiential education enables what Noddings calls ‘ecstatic happiness’; she identifies this form of happiness, among others, with peak experiences and ritual ceremonies (Noddings 2003, p. 26-9). In experiential education it is the students’ sense of having accomplished something extraordinary that gives rise to states of ecstatic happiness.
Regular schools, with their emphasis on reasoning―which, according to Noddings, derives from the classical Greek view of happiness as contemplation (ibid., p. 9-12)―seem to have limited possibilities to allow this form of happiness. Noddings says: ‘We would be hard put to find a significant form of education that has directed itself at ecstatic happiness’ (2003, p. 26). However, psychologists and anthropologists point out that ecstatic happiness is an important factor of human well-being. Thus, experiential education not only is a pedagogical strategy that enables the students to acquire new skills; it also allows the students to experience a kind of happiness which they will scarcely meet in formal education.


Barrow, Robin (1980): Happiness and Schooling (New York, St. Martin’s Press).

MacConville, Ruth (2008) Teaching Happiness. A ten-stepcurriculum for creating positive classrooms (London, Optimus).

Maslow, Abraham (1993)The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (London, Penguin Books).

Nettle, Daniel (2005): Happiness. The Science behind your Smile(Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Noddings, Nel (2003): Happiness and Education (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Taschner, Frank (2003) Glück als Ziel der Erziehung (Würzburg, Königshausen & Neumann).

Turner, Victor (1982) , Liminal to Liminoid in Play, Flow, Ritual, in: Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (New York, PAJ Books), pp. 20-60.

Zelinski, Mark (1991) Outward Bound: The Inward Odyssey (Oregon Beyond Words)

Zirfas, Jörg (1993) Präsenz und Ewigkeit. Eine Anthropologie des Glücks (Berlin, Dietrich Reimer).

[1] In the program that I observed, the students were belayed by the Outward Bound instructors. This is different to what I knew from Germany, where each student is belayed by other students (usually in teams of three persons), so that, again, the students need to communicate with each other. An instructor of Outward Bound Japan told me that they also usually let the students work in such teams, but that this practice needs a lot of time-consuming instructions; in a two day course there is not enough time for such sophisticated preparation.

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