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How Teachers Can Find Ways to Be Truly Happy

Cropped shot of an young woman standing with her arms outstretched against a blue background

Happiness can be more difficult to find these days, but the science of being happy suggests that there are many ways to do it.

A few years ago, I took my students on a field trip to One Day University, a program that features lectures from the best college professors from the country's finest institutions. It was there that I first heard Catherine Sanderson, professor and chair of the psychology department at Amherst College, speak on the science of happiness.

Note that I said "science"—because happiness is, indeed, a science, and there's a lot of research and data available about what makes people happy. And right now—perhaps more than ever—teachers need to know how to find happiness.

Further Reading: 5 Tips Guaranteed to Make You a Happy Teacher

What We Think Makes Us Happy—But Doesn't

Except it's maybe not that simple.

To know what actually makes us happy, Sanderson argues, we have to identify what we think brings us joy, but doesn't.

  • Money. According to Sanderson, people believe that if they'd be happier if they had more money. And sure, a lot of teachers, many of whom are grossly underpaid, would be. But many studies have shown that having lots of money doesn't correlate with increased happiness.
  • Climate. Sanderson also notes that many people think they'd be happier living in a warm, sunny environment. But research shows that's not necessarily true. In a recent WalletHubstudy, Minnesota, New Jersey, and North Dakota—states where it's not 74 degrees and sunny all the time—were among the 10 happiest states in the country.
  • Children. In the abstract, children are wonderful. But Sanderson explains that the reality of day-to-day life with children can be challenging because children can cause stress and anxiety. Parents experience more highs—but also more lows.

 

So What Makes Us Happy?

Sanderson offers the following list of activities that can help teachers—or anyone—find happiness.

  • Eating. No surprise here. Eating—especially chocolate and high-fat foods—can fill our bellies and our spirits.
  • Exercising. You'll be thrilled to know that exercising can bring you joy. The endorphin release from exercise brings a big boost. Of course, for teachers, squeezing some exercise time into an already busy schedule can be challenging.
  • Sex. Enough said.
  • Shopping. Shopping can bring pleasure, Sanderson says, but with one caveat: It's not always about buying things for yourself. Sometimes it's about finding the perfect gift for someone else.
  • Religion. People with religious beliefs may be happier—probably, Sanderson points out, because religion instills a sense of certainty. Places of worship also provide a social network and interpersonal connections.
  • Age. We tend to think that we're happier when we're younger—and that's largely true, Sanderson notes. Between 18 and 21, we're really cheerful. But then our happiness nosedives as we face the real world. When we hit 50, our happiness spikes again; when we hit 70, we're as mirthful as we were between 18 and 21. By the time we're 80, we're really content. Part of the reason for that happiness is that we're focused on quality over quantity in every aspect of life. So maybe don't wait until you're 80 to figure that out.
  • Relationships. Being around cheerful people has the same effect on us—and spending time with Debbie Downers can bring us down.
  • Nature. Spending time in nature has been scientifically proven to make you happier. It relaxes our brains, brings us calm, and helps us heal.
  • Experiences. You've heard it many times before: things don't bring us joy; experiences do.

How to Be Happy, According to Research

Sanderson provides the following science-backed strategies for increasing happiness.

  • Keep a gratitude journal and write down what you're thankful for.
  • Make a gratitude visit to someone you're grateful to have in your life.
  • Read a book that you love.
  • Smile—even if you're not feeling it. Facial expressions, Science Daily reports, can influence your emotions, and the act of smiling can make you feel slightly happier.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Savor the everyday moments. Be present!
  • Perform random acts of kindness. Volunteer, donate to a charity, or give a gift to a friend.
  • Find ways to utilize your strengths. My father, for example, was a plumber. He volunteered his skills to Habitat for Humanity. Giving back always made my dad very content.
  • Make careful comparisons. Teachers are especially driven, so it can be disconcerting when a colleague accomplishes something you've been striving toward. Too much competition, however, can make teachers defensive and unhappy, and that unhappiness can take a psychic toll. Try making a new friend group at work, spending more time with friends outside of school, or switching talk away from workplace competition.
  • Remember that experiences, not things, bring true joy. Sometimes even the anticipation or planning of an event can increase your happiness.

Further Reading: 5 Tips to Reframe Negative Thoughts As a Teacher

Happy teachers are healthier, more productive, and more helpful. Now is a great time to step back, refocus, and remember to reject the mythology of happiness. Focus on the methods, grounded in science, that are poised to bring the truest joy.