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.