Over the last few months, I have stopped keeping track of the data that I have collected. I know that I have had more than 1,000 respondents but as the pattern of data is so predictable, I decided to shift my angle. In the past, the gist of my research was, "Does knowing more about Islam make you happier?". 75% generally said yes, 25% said there was no change. This semester, I am giving the same assignment but with a slightly different question. The new question is, "Does knowing more about Islam increase your eeman?". Eeeman is the Muslim's faith in God. It is generally defined as believing in the pillars of Islam and acting according to these beliefs.
If the statistics are the same, then there is a correlation between eeman and happiness. If the statistics are not the same, then it is possible that people's eeman increases without it translating automatically as an increase in their level of happiness. I guess that all this while, I have been looking for data that confirmed my beliefs rather than trying to falsify my beliefs. I should listen more often to Karl Popper.
We are now finishing Sem 2 2014/2015. I have around 100 students that have submitted the Internet assignment and they have made about 15 videos for the Productive Teens project. I present here a synopsis of the whole project and my latest reflects. I will divide this report into three parts:
Part 1: This was the beginning of the project. It started with a comprehensive review of the concept of happiness. After a lot of reading, it boils down to the Western perspective vs. the Islamic perspective. The Western perspective says that happiness is something we create for ourselves. Depending on whether you are into sports, entertainment, politics, or business, you happiness depends on your achievements. A big debate is whether you should achieve what the Society wants (including your parents) or whether you should focus on your personal goals. The Islamic perspective is that happiness is a gift from Allah SWT. The more sincere you are in your relationship with Allah SWT, the more Allah SWT will put that feeling of tranquility in your heart. In Islam, it is understood that young Muslims will naturally seek the Western approach to happiness. They assume that to be happy, you have to satisfy your Self. Eventually, they experience a lot of frustrations. Slowly, they realize that their happiness foes not depend on satisfying their Self but on controlling the Self and aligning it with what is pleasing to Allah SWT. Once they have figured that out, Allah SWT puts that feeling of happiness and contentment in their hearts. Anybody who wants to understand and achieve happiness must therefore understand and appreciate the concept of al qadar.
Part 2: This includes all the activities that I made my students. A major activity is to get my students to listen to one Islamic talk on the internet every week throughout the semester. So far, about 1,100 students have done this. About 75% reported feeling happier as a consequence. I would argue that this change is probably a lasting phenomena as their increased in happiness is due to new knowledge of Islam. More importantly, the purpose of the assignment is so that they understand the process of transforming themselves. Their happiness must not depend on others. They must control the process. If they are going through hard times, the natural thing for them to do is to start watching Islamic talks. That will allow them to put thing their difficult experience in the right perspective. Other activities included doing assignments on al qadar and making videos for the Productive Teens project. Making these videos was an opportunity to find the true stories of Malays who had "gotten lost" and whose lives were messed up. They have rediscovered Islam and their lives improved since. These videos allowed my students to see al qadar in real life, as opposed to simply reading about it or hearing about it. This part of the project included a lot of data collection. I used a questionnaire to measure spiritual intelligence. I measure the spiritual intelligence of students at the beginning of the semester (before they watched Islamic videos) and I measured their spiritual intelligence at the end of the semester (after watching Islamic videos). No big surprise, there were significant differences between before and after. This data will be presented at an international conference in August 2014, insha Allah.
Part 3: Over the last few weeks, I have become aware that I have fallen into the trap of quantitative data analysis. Although measuring the spiritual intelligence of my students was important (as I concluded in my paper for the conference, developing spiritual intelligence for Muslim employees is a straightforward process); it is a somewhat artificial endeavor. The videos that my students made [which are all on Youtube - from MIP77 to MIP92] are in fact case studies in pain, sorrow and happiness. All the people interviewed started by wanting to create their own happiness. They did things they knew were ethically wrong but they gradually fell into social traps. The experiences range from taking drugs, motorbike racing, to dating and all kinds of experiences in between. Typically, these people did not understand the risk they were taking - they all paid a heavy emotional price (one person attempted suicide). After experiencing this emotional pain, they looked at their Islamic knowledge acquired at school in a new light. What they saw as "old fashioned nonsense" turned out to be wisdom. They simply had to go through the emotional pain to appreciate the wisdom of the Islamic teachings. In the months ahead, I plan to analyse these videos in more detail. For better or worse, we can only discover real happiness after experiencing some kind of emotional pain. I am trying to understand that relationship better
A number of people have asked whether I am still writing this blog. The answer is definitely. However, the number of postings depends on my activities. In 2010, I started focusing on the Western literature on happiness. Since 2010, I have started three projects: i) I am attending weekly lessons of Arabic grammar to be able to understand Islamic references in the original language, ii) I am attending weekly fiqh lessons with a IIUM scholar and iii) I am focusing on tafsir [explanation] of the Qur'an. In particular, there are two surah that appear very "simple", that most Muslims have memorized and yet have a very deep meaning. The first is surah al Kawthar and the second is surah al Tin.
These surah are important because the Western obsession of "happiness as satisfaction of the Self" leads to the paradox that "if the Self always wants more, we can never be happy with what we have". The Islamic perspective is to be grateful with what we have (surah al kawthar) and to know that Allah has created us with the ability to attain Paradise (surah al Tin). Whether we achieve that ultimate destination depends on whether we can develop an internal victory (faith) and an external victory (good actions).
This leads me to the two major projects that I have undertaken. The "Internet assignment" is still going on and about 100 students should complete that assignment this semester. The Productive Teens project is still running and the pilot projects in SMK Hillcrest and SMK Sri Gombak seem to be working. At SMK Sri Gombak, we have had feedback from the parents, the counsellors and the facilitators. Everybody agrees that the students are changing for the better. At SMK Hillcrest,students have taken their "private" time to shoot videos on weekends - I have yet to meet the parents to find out if the students involved changed their behavior at home. This leads me to conclude that "good actions" combines individual psychology (learning about Islam, setting personal religious goals, managing time,...) and social psychology (friends we hang out with, projects we get involved in....). For Muslims who are weak in faith (like the kinds in the SMKs we are working with), it is easier to use group dynamics to help them move from negative disruptive behaviour to neutral behaviour. At a later stage, they can clarify their understanding and their practice of Islam. And Allah knows best.
Since early February 2014, my students have been working with students at SMK Hillcrest and SMK Sri Gombak. Having read the literature since 2010, I have an idea of the theory behind happiness. With IIUM students, I can get them to listen to Islamic talks once a week and they - as an indirect consequence - become happier in 75% of the cases. But how to apply this in secondary schools? My conclusion is that Project-Based Learning (PBL) can help. Many kids at secondary school have a choice: To have an easy life or to have a good life. Happiness requires some sort of planning and this is what most kids at secondary school lack. PBL - in our case, getting secondary school kids to make videos - forces them to consider alternative life options. It helps them to think about the difference between having an easy life and a good life. Sounds simple right? Believe me, it is a lot of work and I have to thank my facilitators for doing most of it.
Since 2010, I have - alhamdulillah - quite a clear idea of happiness from an Islamic perspective. Helping my students become happier is quite easy. Their lack of happiness is rooted in a lack of understanding of Islam. By asking them to listen to Islamic talks every week, I am "forcing" my students to improve their knowledge - and this helps them to develop a more optimistic and happier outlook on life. As an incentive, I dangle very good coursework marks to push them forward.
The trick is whether I can use a similar (but different) approach with school kids who I cannot reward by giving them coursework marks. One idea is to get teenagers to make videos about other successful teenagers. I launched this project today with two schools in Gombak. Hopefully, through a process of vicarious learning, they will find that their life (and level of happiness) improves.
I am teaching management and organizational behaviour at the International Islamic University Malaysia. Since 2010, I have been researching anything related to Happiness in Islam. This blog documents my reading, my hypotheses,s and the data I collected.
This blog documents the perception of Dr Fontaine's students related to developing happiness in Islam. Students need to complete two assignments in which they improve their knowledge of Islam. This increased knowledge seems to lead to greater happiness.
Any comments can be sent to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org