Book Review

Book Review: “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor

Considering happiness in school, to some, might be akin to considering the colour scheme in the building or what flavour of juice is served in the cafeteria: a nice idea, but completely superfluous to the point of education. Sure it might be nice to pick the perfect shade of eggplant purple for the walls, but it doesn’t really matter on a fundamental level––certainly not as much as say, assessment, learning goals, or test results. Happiness is just not rigorous enough to pay attention to.

But we are starting to discover that supporting the emotional lives of students can actually make them smarter.

However, is being “smarter” really and truly the goal of school?

Did anyone go to teacher’s college with the sole purpose of making children smart? Probably not.

Most of us get called to this profession with a deep rooted desire to help young people flourish.

Enter “The Happiness Advantage”.

I’ve been curious about positive psychology for a number of years now. I’ve read a few books, followed a few folks on Twitter, and dappled a little here and there with some strategies in my homeroom class. “The Happiness Advantage” is without a doubt the most enjoyable read on the subject I’ve discovered to date. Achor’s writing is imbued with a charming sense of humour that opened me up to receiving the ideas and considering how the seven principles of happiness could relate to my own practice.

I think many parents who chose to send their students to an elite independent school, believe on some level that they are helping to give their child a competitive advantage. That by exposing their child to outstanding teachers, fantastic resources, and a classroom of high achieving learners, they will boost their child’s chances of success. I think if we probe parents a little more about why being successful is so important, after enough cycles of toddler-esque “but why”, we will eventually burrow down to the idea that being successful will allow their children to be happier.

But what if we’ve all gotten it backwards?

For untold generations, we have been led to believe that happiness orbited around success. That if we work hard enough, we will be successful, and only if we are successful will we become happy. Success was thought to be the fixed point of the work universe, with happiness revolving around it. Now…we are learning that the opposite is true. When we are happy––when our mindset and mood are positive––we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful. Happiness is the center, and success revolves around it. p. 37

I want my students to be happy. Not because it is fun, not because smiling is my favourite, and not because I don’t want my students to work hard. I want my students to be happy during their middle school years because their lives depend on it––emotionally and academically.

As Achor explores in his very digestible read, happiness (pleasure + engagement + meaning) is what helps students work through difficult situations, it is what makes learning sticky, it is what helps them be connected to those around them, and what helps them innovate and see new opportunities. In short, it is what will make young people successful.

Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels. They help us organize new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it faster later on. And they enable us to make and sustain more neural connections, which allows us to think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving, and see and invent new ways of doing things. p. 44

As I was reading this book, I scribbled enthusiastically in the margins different applications to my work in the classroom: both through the social-emotional component in homeroom and academically as an English / Social Studies teacher. Things like:

  • Giving students a quick jolt of happiness before an important assessment (could be as simple as candy or an inspirational YouTube clip) to help them perform better (studies show it actually works!)
  • Remembering that the brain needs 2.9 positive comments for every constructive one in order to best absorb the feedback
  • Giving students more control over tasks in their lives, both with jobs throughout their classroom and school, but also academically to allow them to know their “sphere of control” and have more engagement in their learning
  • Reframing their portfolio to prime students to see how their setbacks allowed them to grow or improve in their learning


While “The Happiness Advantage” is not explicitly designed for teachers and education, the application is obvious once you start in on this joyful read. I think personally, the idea that resonated the most with me was around managers. Studies have found that when managers (or in our world, teachers) themselves are happy (experience pleasure at school, are engaged in their work, and find meaning in their profession), students perform better and enjoy their learning more.

We all get into those slumps during the year when we rarely see daylight, we are buried under a pile of marking, and we are feeling more than a little oppressed by that looming report deadline on the all too near horizon. But what if during those times we could try a happiness boosting exercise to dial up our pleasure, meaning, or engagement levels?

What if during the drudgery, we played the “meaning assessment” game? Take the worst, most loathed part of the profession––say, writing reports––and we write that task in a column on a piece of paper. Then we drew an arrow into another column and wrote what the purpose of the task was and what it will accomplish. Keep repeating this until you arrive at an answer that gives you meaning. Even this simple reframe has the power to transform your relationship to most frustrating aspects of our profession.


In the aftermath of Trump getting elected to office, it has become even more clear to me how important a well-educated, critical thinking, and socially conscious population is if democracy is going to work. School is not just about ensuring that students graduate knowing how to do long division, can use a comma, and rattle off a handful of facts about the days of yore. School should be designed as a lab of future thinking, an incubator for dreamers, a nursery of potential, a bank vault of promise. We have a responsibility to design school so our population can not only find a job that pays enough to keep their debt collectors at bay, but so that our population can chart a course to thrive and flourish, making the world a little brighter than they entered it.

“Hanging In: Strategies For Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most” by Jeffrey Benson (a book review)

Whether or not you teach in a school with students who could be labelled as “challenging”, reading Jeffrey Benson’s “Hanging In” will prove to be time well spent, as any teacher can learn from the gut-wrenching and heart-string-plucking stories in this 180 page, 2014 text.

This book was my final check mark on my “required summer reading” list and I was impressed with how invested I became with the stories and the characters Benson introduced. Each chapter focused on a different student (names and specific details altered to protect the students’ identities) or pairing of students whose stories exemplified a different challenge Benson and his team (at a school for students who typically struggled in traditional educational settings) experienced. It is equally surprising and refreshing to read not just the success stories of his team, but also the raw moments of failure and Benson’s humble analysis of what went wrong for the students that he didn’t effectively reach. More professional resources should acknowledge our failures (big and small), as we all know that everything doesn’t always go as planned or hoped.

From “Hanging In”, I am reminded of the importance of relationships and students feeling truly seen and liked in order to be willing to be pushed by their teachers. But deeper (and perhaps more important) than just the relationship, Benson cautions against teachers counter transferring onto their students (transference is when a students sees a teacher as their parent, so counter transference is when the teacher starts to see the student like their child). In other words, develop close, caring relationships with your students, while still being mindful of the power of projection. Moreover, after reading this book my belief in the importance of working on a supportive team has undoubtedly been strengthened. Those stories where teachers collaborated to understand a student better or looking at a challenging student through their curricular strengths really helped me feel immensely grateful for the kind of teaching team that I am currently on.

This book will be an important member of my bookshelf for years to come and will certainly be covered in sticky notes and pencil markings in due time. I imagine that if we work together, at some point in our relationship, I will loan this book to you, as all teachers can (and should) learn something from these stories.

“Breaking Into the Heart of Character” by David Streight (a book review)

jpegThis text was as useful as it was brief. This 104 page manual on supporting character development in schools was a swift, enjoyable read that helped refresh my perspective on teaching and mentoring young people. Truthfully, I might not pick it up off a shelf had it not been on our summer reading list. I might have thought that “character education” was not a focus professionally for me right now. Or I might have said to myself that there surely must be more important books to read on my precious summer days (exactly the same rationale has made me put off reading Harry Potter, actually). But David Streight’s book helped reconfirm why I am in this profession: the hearts of young people matter.

I spend a significant amount of time wondering what the point of school really should be (and really is) and what roles a teacher and a student play in an ideal situation. David Streight makes a great case for why character education really does matter (or really should matter): our minds are not disconnected from our hearts or our hands. We are educating whole people and, “When the needs are effectively filled, learning and memory are more efficient (Neimac & Ryann, 2009; Reeve et. al., 1999; Reeve, 2006)” (p. 23).

It was hard to not see myself and my colleagues in the stories offered on these pages, or find myself nodding in sympathy with Streight’s message. The wisdom offered in “Breaking Into The Heart of Character” is so straight-forward and logical that I wanted to find a time machine and give the first year teacher version of myself a copy to avoid some of the obvious pit falls and set backs that most fresh teachers make.

Or better yet, this book should be on every new teacher’s reading list to prepare for the task of teaching young people how to be human. If you know a friend who is starting to teach, do them a favour and put a copy of this book in their hands. They will thank you for it…or maybe their students will instead.

The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine (a book review)

A slight confession: I wholeheartedly admit that when I saw the book “The Price of Privilege” on our reading list, by Madeline Levine, I was in part hoping for a book that would pick apart the devastating effects of power and affluence in white communities and how this privilege not only affects those people who are oppressed, but also the negative affects of those who wield this power and how it affects children academically. I was excited. I was ready. I was looking forward to having my ideas blown wide open.

Sadly, this was not that book.

While I admit that there is a wealth of useful information in this book, and that some parent might stumble on this book and gain insight into some of their child’s issues, as an educator, there was nothing new or revelatory in this book that I didn’t already learn from reading Barbara Coloroso’s 2002 book “Kids Are Worth It”.

Despite this criticism, I found myself highlighting great one liners and bits of wisdom. Madeline Levine definitely knows what she is talking about and could certainly be a great source of inspiration for many weary parents. Her message is pretty clear and undoubtedly useful: Set limits for your children. Be firm and flexible. Cultivate warmth. Practice containment. Understand the difference between being in control and being controlling.

This all makes me wonder though if this is not actually a message for affluent parents and just for parents in general. Are the problems of affluent parents really that different from parents from average SES backgrounds? It seems that the beginning of the book, Levine is almost defending the notion that affluent families have problems too and are worthy of her care and attention (poor little rich girl syndrome). While I know that affluent families have complex, challenging situations of suffering (because affluent families are comprised of humans and humans all suffer), the challenges that Levine describes seem like less to do with affluence and more to do with living in the modern industrialized world.

I did not grow up in an affluent family and many of the plagues Levine described are variations on a story I experienced when I was child.

Short story long: privilege is not just something owned by the wealthy. Levine could have really explored what it means to have “privilege” and other ways of being “affluent”, other than just having a well endowed bank account. Perhaps the “price of privilege” is not something that only wealthy folks have to pay and is something that has more to do with being white, living in a developed country, and being of a certain income bracket (a much lower income bracket than Levine suggests). Which begs me to question if the solution is not merely the prescription offered by Levine on these pages and should also include a consideration oppression, identity, and how these interplay with privilege.

Despite my obvious disappointment with this book, I enjoyed the quick, useful read and will keep it on my shelf, perhaps referring to when “Kids Are Worth It” is slightly out of reach.

“Quiet” by Susan Cain (a book review)

I happen to be one of the lucky few who has happened to find herself teaching at a school whose ideologies regularly match her own. I am nurtured and nourished by the idea of reading juicy, provocative, and challenging texts over the summer to push forward my practice as a teacher. I even, dare I say, feel elated when these summer reads are as interesting as they are useful! I’m heading away in a few short weeks for a summer adventure in Japan, so I thought that I should get a start on the reading while the reading is good. So this is the first in a series of edu-book reviews; partially to share some ideas for good books for my wider PLN, but also to help me remember what it was that I read once September rolls around again.


“Quiet” by Susan Cain

For those of you who have yet to see Susan Cain’s mesmerizing TED talk, her dynamic presentation might make you give pause and wonder, “Is this woman actually the introvert she claims to be?” When watching this talk, maybe two years ago, I actually started to recognize the beauty of my own introvert status and let go of the guilt I would sometimes feel when I would rather stay home with one or two close friends than have a night of raucous revelling on the town. Here is the video for a short sample of Cain’s message:


The book is even better than this talk.

As a teacher, I think the most useful thing I can take away from this text is remembering that more of my students will be introverts than I will realize or know and this should affect my teaching. Our modern world, according to Cain and the research she dissects for her readers, is an extrovert’s world, one that values the loud, flashy, salesmanship of personality, over the subtler, deeper, and often more reflective qualities of character.

“All of which raises the question, how did we go from character to personality without realizing that we had sacrificed something meaningful along the way?” (p. 33)

 While I can’t control the shifting ideals of “self” in my classroom (at least not directly), I can control how I structure the unravelling of curriculum. One practice that I can take away from Cain’s book is to honour how good ideas are actually formed (surprisingly, not through brainstorming) and recognizing the role solitude can play in creativity. Cain explore Steve Wozniak’s story and how he successfully leveraged social connections to further her creative computer design, but how ultimately he did the real creative nose-to-the-grind work alone.

“Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases: groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which do worse than groups of four,” (p. 88)

So collaboration and co-operative group projects might not get the best work or most creative ideas out of my students. How I structure and scaffold collaboration matters and, perhaps more importantly, how I structure and scaffold independent practice and thinking routines really matters! The studies that Cain shares tells the story that online collaboration is a beautiful mix of solitude and sharing, allowing more quality ideas to come to the surface. I wonder if “thinking routines”, such a the “chalk talk” (from last summer’s reading “Making Thinking Visible“) would be a good balance of collaboration and independence, permitting better ideas to be documented?

I have very little criticism of Cain’s powerful and endearing book. It was easy to relate to and I saw many of my students and beloved friends between the numbers and stories shared. I do have to wonder though, if more time could be devoted to considering how to encourage more people (perhaps mostly people in school, still developing and forming their ideals of “self”) to “stop talking” and tap into the powers of quiet.

Susan Cain aptly recognizes the importance of introverts learning effective coping strategies to speak in front of auditoriums full of people, successfully embrace their leadership potential, and know how to “put on” being extroverted for the sake of jobs and careers they love, but what about the importance of extroverts finding balance themselves? Presumably many people reading this text are legitimate extroverts. While much of the world celebrates the gregarious, uninhibited, confidence of a true extrovert, how can teachers scaffold for these people how to become a deep and compassionate listener? How can parents show their children the beauty of reading a book for an evening of entertainment? How can adults learn to find a more nuanced, balanced leadership style?

The quiz Cain offers her readers to determine your introvert status is telling: there are many aspects that make up who we are. Rarely is a person only one thing in all situations. When I am in front of my students, I am singing, dynamic, and full of life (mostly…depends on the coffee situation), but when I am with a new group of people at a party, I am cozied up with one or two people, having an in depth conversation. I am not only an introvert. There is a clear benefit in training students to see their strengths as a quiet, reflective, introspective, and creative person, but there are also merits in training young people to be capable speaking in front of people powerfully, comfortably leading others, and meeting new people in new places. One way of being is not better than the other and true power comes from knowing what tool is needed for any given situation.

“The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of available power, but to use well the kind of you’ve been granted.” (p. 266)