By the fifth time round, it works rhythmically. The message: giving other people space, but also confidently claiming your own space, is a requirement for social well-being.
While the psycho-game suggests a soft course for the less bright, the school says it is trying to address an inadequacy that affects even clever pupils in Germany’s academically oriented public education system.
Character building is not an overt aim of German schools. Unlike schools in other nations, they do not usually have school sports teams, do not seek to build school spirit and are not allowed to advocate religion.
Though many teens admit they are lonely and confused, school is not usually the place to find relief.
The Willy Hellpach School, a kind of junior college in the old university city of Heidelberg, is the first in the nation to develop a happiness course, intended for 17-19-year-olds preparing for university-entrance exams.
Ernst Fritz-Schubert, the school principal, said he came up with the idea after seeing an Austrian survey of 9-13-year-olds that found them happiest on holiday or at home and least happy at the dentist or at school.
The numbers would fit Germany just as well. Fritz-Schubert resolved to teach his teens some of the competence in achieving happiness that many people wait a lifetime to learn.
He formed a committee of 18 teachers and other experts to advise him.
“The course isn’t there to make you happy as such,” he warned over-expectant pupils, “but rather to help you discover the ways to become happy.
Marcel, still a schoolboy at the age of 19, which is practically the rule in Germany’s late-start school system, tells reporters that the happiness syllabus ranges across sport, balanced nourishment, the biology of feelings, human motivation and philosophy.
Cooking a meal together will be one of the class exercises, along with improving body language under the guidance of two professional actresses.
“In the first period, we had to each say something positive about another member of the class and about ourselves. No laughing at people or teasing,” said Fanny, 17.
The message: self-esteem improves happiness too.
The course is taught for three periods a week and will be graded as a part of overall assessment, with the blessing of the education department of Baden-Wuerttemberg state.
Despite the happy subject, the pupils themselves insist it is no laughing matter.
Max, 18, says he is happy when he finds people who share his interests. Janina, 18, says she needs to be fit to feel happy.
Research by the school shows it is not the first to start happiness classes: they also exist at some US universities, but are mainly based on positive thinking, using findings from studies of depression.
“That would be too one-sided for us. We want to show how decent food or exercise can help too,” the principal said.
A survey by UNICEF’s Innocenti Institute published in February showed Germany children ranked only 11th out of 21 industrialized countries in a survey of child well-being, with family and peer relationships scoring low.
Pupil well-being projects, such as anti-bullying campaigns or projects to reduce the stigma of depression, have been conducted mainly by a handful of private German groups, not by the authorities.
The Heidelberg school has attracted national interest since announcing its new course.
“When you consider what a tidal wave of attention this has got, it makes you think there must be an enormous longing for happiness in Germany,” mused the principal.
Fritz-Schubert hopes other schools in Germany will copy the idea “and get out of their teaching rut.”