The Happiness Advantage: Promoting Positivity in Schools

Guest post by Bart Peery

In January 2014, while shopping in our local Walmart, I received a voice mail from the county sheriff’s office. Assuming that it had to do with our school, I went to the school to call them back. When I returned the call, my life was forever changed. The officer told me that one of my students had taken her life. I remember sitting alone in my office sobbing, not knowing what to do next. 

The next few days and weeks were tough. Our entire school struggled to make sense of the tragedy and had difficulty coping with our shock and grief. As principal, I struggled too on how to lead our entire school community through this challenging time. Though we offered students and staff grief counseling and strived to continue with our normal routines, there seemed to be a persistent cloud of sadness over our school.

I gathered our leadership team and we discussed what we could do to improve the overall well-being of our school. One of my teachers reminded me of Shawn Achor’s TED Talk, “The Happy Secret to Better Work” and encouraged me to watch it again.

In his talk, Achor discusses the importance of being positive. According to his research, when we are positive, we are 31 percent more productive and 40 percent more likely to receive a promotion. Being positive, he says, triples our creativity and even helps us live longer, with 39 percent of us more likely to live until 94. So, what is the secret to gaining a more positive outlook on life? Achor suggests that we do five things every day:

  1. Write down three things for which you are grateful.
  2. Write down a positive experience from the past 24 hours.
  3. Exercise.
  4. Meditate.
  5. Perform one conscientious act of kindness.

What struck me about Achor’s advice was how simple and easy it was. His TED Talk was the inspiration I needed to start a positivity revolution in our school. Our administrative team first met with our teachers and discussed what we could do to create a culture of positivity by integrating Achor’s tips into our daily school routine. Next, we talked with our students about our goal and asked for their input. What these discussions led to is dedicated time every day—what we call Positive in the Present—for students and staff to cultivate a positive outlook. We modified our master schedule and added five minutes to our first period class in order to start each day with a Positive-in-the-Present activity.

The format of Positive in the Present is simple. Over the intercom, a staff member welcomes students to school and shares a positive thought. Then, the classroom teacher helps the students complete a short activity that helps them reflect on the positive, such as writing a quick note or text to someone to thank the person for making a difference in their lives or choosing a word to guide them for the new year.

I am a firm believer in the Positive-in-the-Present philosophy. I started my personal commitment to it on February 13, 2014. I haven’t missed a day since. It has helped me see the positive all around us, and I am much happier now.

We have found that the students who need this the most are generally the ones most resistant to the idea. Every time I get an email like the one below, I am encouraged and believe that it works for everyone willing to try it:

“I’ve had a lot of amazing experiences, but I’d be lying if I said that it’s been really easy. Especially being in a foreign country and learning a new language. I’ve had to learn to be really patient with myself. But I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve thought back on all that I’ve learned from you about being positive in the present, and how much it has helped me here. I’ve learned more than anything that we can always choose how we react to situations and how we think. All I have to do in hard times is count my blessings and I’m always reminded at just how blessed I am. I’ve learned there’s always a reason to be happy and to share that happiness with other people.”

I encourage all principals and leaders to turn their attention to promoting positivity in their schools and lives. So many of us—staff and students alike—struggle to see the good. A simple five-minute activity like Positive in the Present can shift our negative attitudes by reflecting on the positive all around us and cultivating gratitude, kindness, and empathy. If you commit to doing it daily, I promise that you will see a real change in your outlook.

Please check out our session, “The Happiness Advantage: How Five Minutes a Day Can Change Your World,” at the 2018 National Principals Conference in July to learn more.

How do you promote positivity in your schools?

Bart Peery is the principal at Salem Hills High School in Salem, UT. He has been in education for 34 years, serving as an administrator for 16 years. He was the 2017 Utah Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @bpeery11.

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