My writing classes always work with a group topic before moving on to their own personal research topics. Last year, we used climate change as our group research topic, but my summer writing class focused on happiness.
I made a PowerPoint (you can download it at Happiness.org) and we delved into research on happiness. We found out the actions people can take to increase happiness, we took some of those actions as a class, we speculated on why we don’t always do the stuff that makes us happier, and we wrote some excellent papers.
One of the major studies on the subject of happiness, the Gallup-Healthways global project that produced the book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, found that teachers are the happiest people of all. Our composite score of 71.7 edges out business owners at 71.5 (I’m in that group, too). So we already have an advantage.
Don’t rest on your laurels, though. Increase your happiness quotient by applying the lessons of that study and the rest of the current research on the subject:
- Nearly half of your happiness level appears to be genetic. You have a sort of “happiness set point” that you’re born with, and you can’t really do anything about that. Only about 10% of your happiness depends on outside circumstances, though. If you spend a lot of time thinking that you’d be happy if only, then you should give that up. Thinking about how you’d be happy if only you changed schools, found the right guy or girl, or bought a new car doesn’t make you happier.
- Still, nearly half of your happiness level rests on your own decisions and actions. One of the reasons teachers are happier is that teachers are less likely to smoke and more likely to exercise and eat right. Taking care of yourself physically is something you can do to take control of your happiness.
- People who do things for others are happier than people who don’t. Obviously, as teachers (and often also parents), we spend most of our time taking care of other people. We need to spend some time being a little bit self-indulgent: shopping, getting pampered at the salon or day spa, spending some time in the hammock reading novels. But you may be surprised to find that spending some of your time in volunteer work or community action will make you happier. Just be sure it’s something different from what you do every day in your classroom — if you teach math, volunteer to usher at the arts center; if you spend your days with kindergartners, volunteer to refurbish old computers for the needy.
- One of the areas in which teachers aren’t completely happy is their working environment. Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements gives some insight into what makes for a happy working environment, and we could see right away some areas where teachers could improve their lot. First, are you one of the teachers venting in the common room? Sometimes getting something off your chest helps, but prolonged complaining and gossip make people feel worse. Stick with the positive groups in the teachers lounge, or avoid it altogether. Work on the noise level in your classroom, too, or at least carve out some quite time during the day. Everybody needs a little quiet sometimes.
- Having friends at work is super important to our happiness, and we’re good at making friends with our colleagues, but try not to let your work and home life overlap so much that you no longer have any space between them. Date night with your spouse, family activities, or a hobby that’s different from what you do at school will reduce the chances of burnout.
Learn more about current research on happiness:
- Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements is a comprehensive guide to what makes happy people happy, and how you can apply that information to your own life. Extensive references.
- Wellbeing: the Website
- Stumbling on Happiness, by Harvard prof Daniel Gilbert is an intriguing look at why, since we know what makes people happy, we so often make choices that won’t make us happy. A fascinating read.
- The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, by Gretchen Rubin, is a personal exploration of claims about happiness. Less stringent research than a diary of a self-help quest, but fun to read.
- The Art of Happiness, 10th Anniversary Edition: A Handbook for Living, by the Dalai Lama with Howard Cutler, is not research based, but has become a classic.
- This Is Your Brain on Joy: A Revolutionary Program for Balancing Mood, Restoring Brain Health, and Nurturing Spiritual Growth, combines Christian philosophy with biology and chemistry for a different perspective. Lots of information on the behavior of the human brain and how that relates to how we feel.
- The Science of Happiness: How Our Brains Make Us Happy-and What We Can Do to Get Happier, by Stefan Klein, is a well written round up of current research on the subject.
- Chief Happiness Officer is a fun blog about happiness at work.
- Mindtools’ Wheel of Life lets you plot the balance you’re experiencing among the various areas of satisfaction in your life. Create your diagram interactively online and print it out as a baseline. Make proactive choices, try it again after a month, and see how you’re improving.