The Science Behind Happiness

“Unless you consciously take in a good experience, it usually washes through your brain like water through a sieve, leaving little good behind.”  page 27, Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson.

The past several years I’ve found myself increasingly intrigued by the science behind ‘happiness’.  I was a bit surprised to learn that our brains are not wired to retain the happiness that occurs after happy experiences in our lives.  The quote that begins this blog is from an excellent book called Hardwiring Happiness, by Rick Hanson.  Rick Hanson describes how we need to consciously think about the happy things that occur in our lives; otherwise we do not retain much of the happiness from that experience.  So why is it important to retain the happiness from those good moments?  They add up.  For instance, when you feel you’ve had a good day (at work, at home, wherever), it’s usually because you can recount the happy things that happened…and the residual happy feelings of all those moments combined make you feel good.  But unfortunately, unlike the happy experiences we have, the un-happy or negative things that happen to us are imprinted quite quickly and permanently on our brains without much effort.  That realization was a bit unsettling to me.  It means that the negative experiences in our lives are naturally more prominent in our thoughts and subsequently we have to work harder to imprint the happy experiences on our brain.  Basically we have put work into re-wiring our brain in order to retain the happiness from our happy experiences.  Ugh.  (Insert *sigh* here…)

Children are the happiest people I know, which is probably why I’ve spent the entire 20 years of my educational career as a teacher, an Assistant Principal, and a Principal at the elementary school level.  It’s energizing working in an elementary school environment because there is such happiness being displayed constantly throughout the entire day.  And it’s infectious.  One happy moment with a student can change my outlook on an entire day.  It’s quite amazing when I think about it…the potential for happiness that is inherently embedded within hundreds of random moments throughout my school day.  So what I’ve decided to do over the past few years is consciously hold each of those happy moments with students in my head and my heart for a minute or two longer, letting the happy thoughts and feelings linger a bit so it imprints on my brain.  Believe me, the constant barrage of those happy moments throughout my school day start to add it up.  I’ve actually grown in my skill of retaining happiness throughout other parts of my life by simply taking an extra minute to be present as I’m feeling happy during the school day.  It’s the main reason why I walk around my school building with a smile.  My brain is being re-wired for happiness.

So the next time you have a happy moment, try sticking with it for a minute or two longer than you normally would.  Be present while in that happy moment, but also (very literally) think to yourself, “I’m feeling happy right now”.  Do that repeatedly for an entire day as happy moments occur.  As crazy as it sounds, it will actually help to build a happier outlook on life and re-wire your brain for happiness.



Peaks and Valleys

“The path out of the valley appears when you choose to see things differently.”  p.29 Peaks and Valleys, Spencer Johnson M.D.

There is an excellent book called, “Peaks and Valleys” by Spencer Johnson, M.D. that was given to me as a gift several years ago.  The book has less than 100 pages, and it’s in parable form, but I’ve found it speaks volumes about the potential control we have over the successes we create our lives.  It’s a very simple premise – your ‘peak’ times are when things are going well, you’re happy, and you’re balanced.  Your ‘valleys’ are when you have feelings of anxiety, a lack-of-confidence, and an emotional imbalance.  One of the main themes in the book is that peaks and valleys happen all the time in our lives, but we have more control than we think to make our time on the peaks longer and our time in the valleys shorter.

I often look back into the book Peaks and Valleys when I’m feeling like I’m in need of a quick dose of simplicity to bring me back-to-center.  ‘Seeing the world differently’ can mean different things to different people, depending on the situation they are in. However,  one thing for me remains constant:  ‘seeing things differently’ means challenging myself to navigate a difficult situation with emotional energy that is positive and productive.  That’s tough to do when emotional bandwidth is running low, but the payoff of this strategy always seems to be as follows:

When I choose to see the world differently…I’m more open to innovative ideas and creative thinking in my career.

When I choose to see the world differently…I find my time on the ‘peaks’ are longer and my times in the ‘valleys’ are shorter.

When I choose to see the world differently…I’m happier and more centered in my thoughts and feelings.

Challenging myself to consistently see the world differently is hard, for sure, but it’s worth the effort every time.





Finding the ‘Bright Spots’

DSox-8GVQAAOZVA In a conversation a few weeks ago with Bellevue School District Superintendent Dr. Duran, he suggested that I check out a book called Switch.  It’s an excellent book by authors Chip and Dan Heath about ways to navigate change, but I also noticed the book provided many other strategies that related to our Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS) behavior expectation reboot we started January 2nd.  As I’ve been synthesizing some of the information from the book into my daily routines, I’ve found this particular part of the book very helpful.

Finding new, positive, and innovative strategies to address behavior challenges in a school can be a complicated process.  In general, one of a school’s main goals is to provide effective and sustainable replacement behaviors for students.  The process of finding new behavior strategies traditionally involves looking at the child who is struggling with behavior, reviewing what they’ve done in the past (or the negative experiences they’ve had in the past), and creating new behavior strategies based on that information.  It’s what Dan and Chip Heath call in their book an “archaeology dig”.  It’s the process of digging in a child’s past (recent past or further back in their childhood) to “excavate the sources” of behavior.  In these situations, according to the authors, we tend to focus on what is going wrong, or has previously gone wrong, in a child’s life, and subsequently create systems/strategies of support based on that analysis.  But Dan and Chip Heath offer an alternative path to take in these situations.

What if our search for behavior strategies began with focusing on the bright spots, i.e. the times when a child feels love and a sense of belonging.  That thought process is a bit counter-intuitive to how we’ve historically addressed behavior challenges, but follow the thought process that Dan and Chip Heath propose.  In a scenario where a child is struggling with a certain behavior, we can often make our search for effective behavior strategies more fruitful by investigating what is going right for a child, rather than what is going wrong.  The authors suggest using a specific line of questioning that ensure children understand they are empowered to solve their own problems, and adults focus on the potential of a child rather than their history of behavior when developing behavior support strategies.

This philosophy will play a key role in our current PBIS behavior reboot…and beyond.  Creating positive behavior supports within a school is not just about positive-expectation-setting and reinforcement systems.  It’s also about changing our thinking so we focus on the bright spots, which I believe will make us more efficient at developing truly effective behavior strategies that support all children.

Breaking away from traditional ways in which we conduct discipline and purposefully focusing on the bright spots when looking at behavior challenges can at times take us out of our comfort zone as adults. However, in my opinion, the potential for student-empowerment and a more positive culture far out weigh the discomfort.

Your thoughts on this blog are welcomed and appreciated!

Staying Balanced on an Incline

Last March my wife and I were able to take a weekend trip to San Francisco (it was where I took the picture shown above).  Living on the east coast all my life, this was my first ever venture to California.  There were many things to be amazed at as we walked around the streets of San Francisco.  The food.  The people.  The bridges.  But I was struck most by the architecture.  But it wasn’t the shape or size of the buildings that amazed me.  Instead it was how the structures were built so balanced on the continuously inclined streets.  I imagined how much thought surrounding the laws of physics must go into building such structures where gravity is pulling so intently in one direction.  In the end, I imagined that it all comes down to understanding balance.

I learned early on in my career that being a Principal means that I’ll be on an ‘incline’ in some form or another most of the time.  It’s rare that as Principals we’re not being pulled very intently in one direction or another (like gravity pulling on the home in the picture above).  As I’m now only a couple years from my 50th birthday, ‘balance’ has taken on a more important role in my life.  I’m becoming much more aware of how my body, heart, and mind need to be balanced in order for me to be my best-self every day for the kids, staff, and parents who depend on me as a Principal.

The reasons for us as educators to stay balanced are easy to think of…kids/adults depend on us, we need to stay physically healthy, etc.  But it’s understanding the specific actions we need to take to stay in balance that’s tricky.  I took time over this past winter vacation to read a book called, “Trauma Stewardship” by Connie Burk and Laura van Dernoot Lipsky.  It shed light on so many ways in which we can, and should, as educators keep balance in our lives.  I highly recommend it for those who think they need balance and for those who think they have perfect balance in their lives.

So to all my colleagues in education, I wish you an amazing 2018 full of joy, happiness, and balance.

Your thoughts on this blog are welcomed and appreciated!