Sunday, 15 April 2012 17:41

Happiness and Gratitude

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happinessI once heard an inspiring TED Talk entitled “The Happy Secret to Better Work” by Shawn Achor, CEO of Good Think Inc. A big idea in his 12-minute presentation is that in our society people tend to believe that we should work hard in order to be happy. Achor suggests that this way of thinking could be backwards. He argues that happiness makes us more productive, creative, and successful. Consequently, happiness should come first.

My eighteen years as a classroom teacher tell me that Achor’s words contain a great deal of truth. I know, for example, that when my students start their school day in a good mood, they are likely to work hard, get along well with their classmates, embrace challenges, and produce quality work. On the other hand, when students enter the room angry about something that is happening with their friends or upset about something occurring at home, focusing on their school work can be a mighty struggle. It is an even larger struggle for kids who feel this way on most days.  

Whenever I notice that someone in class appears to be off to a rough start on a given morning, I make it a point to speak privately with that person as soon as I can. As much as I want to jump in and focus on academic work, I understand that it is very difficult to relate to people on this level when they are preoccupied with other concerns. I need to help them change their mindset first. Once students are in a more positive frame of mind, then we can talk academics.

The question becomes, how do you achieve a more positive mindset when you’re not feeling happy? At the end of his TED talk, Achor shares some ways that people can use to focus on the positive aspects of their lives and become happier. One of his ideas resonated with me, and upon hearing it, I immediately decided to incorporate it into my teaching. Achor asserts that individuals who try this idea for 21 straight days can train themselves to think differently about their lives and actually re-wire their brains.

The idea is to think of three things in your life for which you are grateful. So, for three weeks (fifteen consecutive school days) my students and I did this. At the end of our daily, morning movement warm-up routine, I gave everyone about a minute of quiet “think” time. Then several volunteers shared their ideas with the class. During this daily gratitude activity the primary challenge was to think of new things every day. By the end of our three-week endeavor, the hope is that students, over time, would realize just how many positive things they have in their lives, and as a result, the classroom environment would change.

That is exactly what happened. I have a few students who tend to pout or complain when things don’t go their way, and that behavior largely disappeared. Of course, I can’t know for sure whether out daily gratitude activity was responsible for causing that change, but it is reasonable to believe that it played an important part. During this three-week period other positive signs emerged. The most powerful occurred anytime I met one-on-one with a student who seemed to be sad or lacking confidence. Though I met with the kids to discuss academic work, I didn’t start talking with them about the task at hand right away. Instead, I first asked them to tell me their three ideas from that morning.

Doing that seemed to bolster their spirits, and then we could address the school work. The overall mood and effort level in the classroom also improved. Over the three weeks I was curious to see how student responses would evolve. Initially, I thought the kids might have difficulty generating new ideas after mentioning family, friends, school, food, shelter, and other familiar ideas, but that really didn’t happen. Instead, the kids shared a wide variety of responses, including: health, our country’s freedom, classmates, freedom of religion, siblings, William Shakespeare, the environment, math, money, the opportunity to learn, peace, baseball teams, food, books, basketball, art, pets, the protection offered by police officers and firefighters, surgeons, trees, technology, the Sun, a warm bed, medicines, the library, grocery stores, tools, an efficient math system, and electronics.

Even though my students and I have concluded this initiative, I can now use it as a reference point for the remainder of the year. Our Putting Happiness First project is something we can revisit on a regular basis to help us build and maintain a sense of gratitude in our lives and a sense of perspective. During those inevitable times when things don’t go your way and the bad seems to outweigh the good, you can remember coming up with forty-five positive things for which you feel grateful. Maybe that can help you ride out those difficult times and maintain a positive attitude, even when it feels difficult to do so.

Give this idea a try. It may help you find that positive mindset that is so critical for performing at your highest level and producing your highest quality, most creative work.