Mental health for educators continues to be an issue. While we are still not entirely sure what percentage of teachers leave the profession in the first five years (read more about this from The Washington Post), we do know that teachers are still reporting an increase of “poor mental health” days when reflecting on their past work week. Increased stress levels and poor mental health ultimately is a problem because our society relies on teachers help raise up the next generation.
Research suggests that while each of us have genetic predisposition for levels of happiness, there is a certain percentage of happiness that is within our control. Not only does happiness makes us feel better and is more enjoyable, but it is also associated with better physical health, longer life expectancy, higher salaries, more resiliency to difficult life situations, and have a higher overall productivity.
In Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness: A New Approach To Getting The Life You Want, she points out what happiness is NOT. It does not just magically happen to us, and your life circumstances (like getting a job or marrying) does not increase our lasting happiness.
So the question is: “How do we increase the happiness we feel?” And more specifically, “How can we increase happiness in the teaching field?”
Within the book, Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman (a leading founder of the field of positive psychology) summed up happiness as the act of using your strengths within everyday life. While there a lot of things that bring positive emotions (such as eating chocolate, taking a warm bath, or winning money), creating situations where we feel entitled to happiness brings more “authentic happiness” to our lives.
Sonjya Lyubomirsky and Martin Seligman both map out core areas that bring happiness to our lives. Research shows it is best not to tackle every area of happiness, but rather to find areas that come naturally. Then increase those areas.
If you are interested to take a quiz to find your strengths you can visit Seligman’s quiz here and Lyubomirsky’s quiz here. (although if you buy their books, quizzes are included inside)
Since Sonja’s list is a little more user friendly, I will be specifically referencing her activities that have been researched to bring happiness. They are:
- Expressing Gratitude and Positive Thinking
- Investing in Social Connections
- Managing Stress, Hardship, and Trauma
- Living in the Present
- Committing to Your Goals
- Taking Care of Your Body and Your Soul
As I review these areas, I am only skimming the surface of the full idea. If you are serious about increasing happiness, I highly encourage you to read both of their books.
Expressing Gratitude and Positive Thinking
What is it: This area of happiness includes expressing gratitude or appreciation for your life, increased optimistic thinking, and avoiding overthinking.
How to do it: creating a gratitude journal, writing a letter of thankfulness to others, calling someone to say thank you, create a “blessings” list, allow another to experience things you are grateful for in your own life, writing down your goals and dreams, creating a “best possible self” idea board
Specific Teaching Ideas:
- Pick one thing a day to say thank you to your class or to your students.
- Have a whole class game where students look for ways to be grateful. Keep track of all the positive things happening in the classroom.
- A few times a year, pick a coworker or administrator to appreciate with a letter or small gift.
- Have a “secret buddy” to secretly support throughout the year.
- Have your class fill up a positive jar. Every time student expresses a positive statement or a growth mindset statement, add a token to the jar.
- Create classroom and personal goals.
- Find time to meditate and take mental breaks throughout the day.
- Create a visual or written reminder of the “big picture.” (Will this matter a year from now?)
- Learn to argue with yourself when you are ruminating on negative thoughts. First determine if there is evidence to back up your negative belief. Then decide if there is alternative causes to why you might be feeling or seeing things a certain way. Next, determine the implications of the belief (if you really did do something stupid in front of your boss, will you get fired? Probably not for a one time offense.) And last, determine the usefulness of holding the belief (Is this belief going to make you better or worse?) This strategy is taken directly from Seligman’s book.
Investing in Social Connections
What is it: This is area is more self explanatory. Creating situations where social connections can be fostered and being kind to others increases our happiness.
How to do it: go out of your way to be kind a few more times than normal (doing too often loses it’s effectiveness), find a cause to participate in (allows you to see yourself as a “good person”), think of new ways to be kind to people, make time to visit with other people, express admiration for others, apologize when you are wrong, be willing to give a hug
Specific Teaching Ideas:
- Set up a monthly teacher’s night out to visit with your coworkers. Try to focus on topics outside of work.
- Spend time getting to know your students and their families. Call their families a few times a year. Write notes home that are positive before you have to send a negative.
- Reach out to another teacher you have not gotten along with previously. Take time to get to know them and apologize for any past wrongs.
- Make time for school/community events. Encourage parents and students to attend.
- Take breaks from your work to spend time with family and friends. Create specific evenings that are scheduled for your family.
- Have your students participate in a “secret classmate” exchange. Have them write positive notes to each other, do acts of service, and look out for each other during recess and lunch.
- Pick another class in the school to secretly do nice things for. Find ways to sneak in and help them out.
- Pair older students with a kindergartener to look out for.
- Plan ways to be kind to your own family before you come home exhausted. If you already had a plan to do something nice, it’s way easier to get it on the hard days!
Managing Stress, Hardship, and Trauma
What it is: Managing hard life circumstances can be done by learning optimal coping skills and learning to forgive others.
How to do it: make a plan of action, break down the problem one step at a time, talk with someone else about what to do, involving yourself in a pleasant activity to give your brain a release, seek emotional support from a friend, finding meaning after a traumatic event (through writing, speaking with someone else), learn to forgive (imagine forgiveness, write a letter of forgiveness, and appreciate past times when you’ve been forgiven)
Specific Teaching Ideas:
- Make realistic academic units that can be broken into pieces. The BEST book I have ever read on how to do this was called Concept Oriented Reading Instruction, by Emily Swan.
- Practice forgiveness towards coworkers, parents, or administration who have hurt your feelings in the past.
- Teach your students how to forgive each other through questions: When have you been forgiven? What did it feel like to be forgiven? Did you mean to hurt the other person or was it an accident? Then encourage them to use those ideas to other children.
- Make time for things that make you happy. While warm baths do not create lasting happiness, it can help reduce some stress in the immediate!
- Make plans to do something fun during hard times of the school year, and do not bail on yourself!
- Teach students how to break down stressful problems into chunks.
Living In The Present
What is it: Increasing the ability to be present means allowing yourself to be caught up in a good moment and taking time to enjoy a moment that is fun and stress relieving.
How to do it: direct your full attention to tasks by writing down anxieties or other chores before you start, be willing to learn new things through your whole life, take time to learn what energizes you and easily absorbs your attention, take time while talking to focus intensely on what the other person is saying, plan time during your leisure time to have meaningful activities, take pictures, create memories, write in a positive journal, talk about great memories
Specific Teaching Ideas:
- Have a classroom historian to take pictures and make a photo album for the class to review.
- Have students write down good times they had throughout the year.
- Do this same practice with teachers and then share them at the end.
- Give students time to get involved in something they enjoy learning about. This is tricky for some students, but most kids want to learn more about something.
- Keep track of successes through out the year.
- Get involved with hobbies outside of school.
- Try to teach subject areas that are most interesting to you (if your classes change).
- Continue taking classes and training to find other educational areas you are interested in.
- Teach students how to listen by practicing writing down what the other person states in their conversation.
Committing to Your Goals
What it is: Committing to goals means to finish them to the end. Completing goals gives us something to look forward to, allows us to feel good about ourselves, creates meaning, allows us to master our time, and interact with others.
How to do it: create goals that work well together, are authentic to yourself, goals that work towards something rather than avoid something, are flexible, tell yourself daily that you can do it, be passionate
Specific Teaching Ideas:
- Create one or two classroom goals that have a high likely hood of being achieved.
- Have students create a personal goal for the year. Take time to let students measure their own progress.
- Create personal academic and non academic goals for the upcoming school year. Make them attainable and create some steps to reach it.
- Write positive statements around the classroom that are related to the goals. For instance, “I can read 50 words per minute!”
- Create a space where teachers can post positive affirmations and results towards school wide goals.
- Find a friend to share your goals with. Encourage each other throughout the year.
Taking Care of Your Body and Your Soul
What it is: This area of happiness consists of practicing religion or spirituality, and taking care of your body through meditation, physical activity, and simply acting happy.
How to do it: search for meaning in life that is larger than yourself, become involved in a religious faith, take time to pray (not necessarily to a God if that feel unnatural), find things that can be deemed sacred through out your day, clear your mind to allow for quiet thoughts, exercise in a way that helps your feel good (don’t cycle if you feel terrible afterwards), creating time to smile and laugh even when insincere (fake it till you make it)
Specific Teaching Ideas:
- Have a reward in the classroom to be to watch a funny and appropriate video clip.
- Allow humor in the classroom. Practice smiling. Seriously! It makes everyone happier and more positive.
- Make time for yourself to find some spiritual or religious connection in your personal life.
- Make time to meditate as a class. Try showing a calming picture or listening to rain storm sounds. Teach students that this time is for themselves.
- Find ways to help students find ways to “unwind” after tests or even at home.
- Create spaces for teachers to have a few minutes of calm during very stressful times of year. Make this space a sacred area for a few minutes of meditation away from kids!
- Encourage exercise and start a group at school that is active together. (then you can be social and active… two birds with one stone!)
The most important thing to remember with all of these research based ways to increase happiness, is to vary it and concentrate on the areas that come naturally to you. If you’re an introvert, don’t try to increase the amount of social interaction you receive! However, focusing on a few of these areas will hopefully decrease burnout and stress through out the year!