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How to Be Joyful: A Teacher's Guide

White male teacher smiling with book in hand and sitting in a classroom

Learning how to be joyful can make teaching more rewarding and pleasurable.

Every single teacher I know wants to learn how to be joyful right now. It's true: at times, the job can be difficult and even demoralizing. Happily, Ingrid Fetell Lee's book, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, offers many powerful ideas on how to create external environments that give rise to inner joy—in schools, in classrooms, and at home.

Further Reading: Building a Joyful Classroom: Top 10 Strategies Based on Education in Finland

Lee draws on insights from neuroscience and psychology to explain why one setting can make us feel competent and anxious, while another fosters acceptance and delight. She explains the importance of freedom, surprise, and celebration in creating happiness in our lives. Most importantly, Lee describes how we can tap into the power of our surroundings to live healthier, fuller, and truly joyful lives.

Following Lee's suggestions, here are some ways teachers can inject joyfulness in school and throughout our lives.

1. Add Color

Lee notes that "the liveliest places and objects all have one thing in common: bright, vivid colors." In fact, she says, it's almost impossible to separate color and feeling. Bright colors—citrusy yellows, greens, and oranges, with accents of turquoise and salmon pink—can help provide the energy we need to learn, be productive, and grow. In New York, for example, when the nonprofit organization Publicolor painted underserved public schools vibrant colors, students reported feeling happier.

Yellow is especially effective as a mood booster, and rainbows filled with color have been found to bring cheer to any situation. Certain shapes—circles and ellipses—can help areas feel more lively and blissful. In my 50-year-old school, the Art and Culture Clubs are using about $100 worth of grant money to transform some especially bleak concrete walls into colorful murals featuring rounded shapes and curves. They hope to make everyone a bit happier.

2. Inspire Freedom

Students don't always feel a sense of freedom and possibility in schools. According to Lee, however, joy thrives on the alleviation of constraints, and there are ways to help students feel a bit more liberated. Paintings of landscapes, for instance—grassy areas with scattered groves of trees and lots of blue sky—have been found to have a "micro-restorative effect on our minds, relieving fatigue and refreshing our ability to concentrate."

Even small patches of nature, such as herbs or succulents on a windowsill, can give us a lift. In fact, Lee notes that "just adding a few plants to a windowless room has been shown to decrease research subjects' blood pressure, improve their attention and productivity, and prompt more generous behavior towards others." It's certainly worth the price of a few posters and plants to give it a shot.

3. Invoke Surprise

"Joyful surprises bring our attention away from ourselves and back out into the world, prompting us to approach and engage," Lee writes. I see this every year when my students meet the neighborhood dogs that come to our classroom window for a treat for the first time. It's a delightful surprise that immediately changes the disposition of the room.

"Surprise also intensifies our other emotions," Lee writes. Encountering some unexpected joy feels like a little bit of luck. In the classroom, surprise doesn't have to be elaborate. It can be as simple as sporting a whimsical tie or fluorescent green striped socks. It can be a visit from a fourth-grade teacher in an eleventh-grade class or putting googly eyes on the desks in your classroom. (Trust me, I tried this one, and it had fabulous results!)

4. Create Celebration

Celebrating positive events with others increases our feeling that they will be there for us if we encounter tough times in the future. Celebrating with others boosts our own joy. People who share positive events with others are happier than those who keep their good news to themselves. Celebration broadcasts our joy far and wide so others can join in. Finding moments in the school day to have a little celebration is worth the effort.

You don't even need a reason for celebrating. One day when my students walked into my classroom, I was listening to the song "Fire" by the Ohio Players. This song has an incessant and contagious beat that makes you want to dance. The next thing I knew, my students were moving in sync with the music, and we had ourselves a 15-minute dance party. Afterward, my students did some of their best work.

I wasn't surprised to learn that simply listening to music "creates a sense of unity on a physiological level," according to Lee. On the day of their AP exam, my students walked upstairs to their exam room blasting AC/DC's "Thunderstruck." Was it a coincidence those students earned some of their best scores ever?

Further Reading: How to Cope with Teaching Anxiety

In difficult times, we can all use some good ideas about how to be joyful. Over the next few months, I plan on implementing as many of these strategies as I can. When ordinary things can help create extraordinary happiness, we each have the power to find joy, as well as change our lives and the lives of those around us in exciting and meaningful ways.

Visit Ingrid Fetell Lee's website to learn more about "Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness."