Sally's Corner – Insights from Our Dean of Faculty – The Happiness Advantage…SGS Style

One of my guilty reading pleasures probably won’t surprise you: I love to peruse books on psychology, especially tomes with a proactive, positive spin…versus those dark, dour drones that tend to pathologize human nature, particularly as it presents itself in ‘teens and ‘tweens. Thus, I gravitate toward the musings of folks like Martin Seligman (considered the father of Positive Psychology), David Burns (an early guru of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), Sonja Lyubomirsky (a leading authority in current happiness research), Barbara L. Frederickson (and her body of work on positivity), Brene Brown (with her focus on vulnerability, courage and authenticity), Carol Dweck (Mindsets… which I’ve mentioned repeatedly, I know!), Dacher Keltner (founder of the “Greater Good” movement which examines compassion, happiness and altruism), Daniel Goleman (and his foundational work with social and emotional intelligence), Tal Ben-Shahar (and his research linking positive psychology and leadership) … to name only a few! Each of these highly educated, degree-studded, university-tenured giants in the field of health-focused, positive psychology has much to teach us all about life and living. What’s more, they are perfectly positioned to offer real advice and occasional solace as we grapple with the fast-paced, technology-driven, media-influenced environment in which we seek to nurture our most vulnerable generation of future women world leaders, our students – your daughters – at Seattle Girls’ School.

Recently my pursuit of happiness research has led me to a book that I’m thoroughly enjoying: The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor, an associate of Tal Ben-Shahar at Harvard University, who has spent years researching happiness, resiliency and potential. Achor begins by turning an old but thriving theory on its head: it is not success that brings us happiness, but rather it is happiness that leads to success. This brings to mind our SGS mission statement in which we unapologetically insist that our students should be encouraged to “learn joyfully.” I say “unapologetically” because I am often tasked to talk with parents who reveal that they can’t truly believe their daughter is actually learning because she’s not suffering enough! (Of course, no parent puts it that way to me, but that’s the gist of their concern as I perceive it!)

In The Happiness Advantage Achor identifies and then thoroughly explains and explores what he deems to be the seven principles of positive psychology that matter when it comes to measurable success and satisfaction. In his own words, they are:

The Happiness Advantage – Because positive brains have a biological advantage over brains that are neutral or negative, this principle teaches us how our brains capitalize on positivity and improve our productivity and performance. [This brings to mind so many of the interactions I see between students and adults at SGS, where the focus is on what the girl has done right, how she can take her progress and further it, versus a red-ink circling of each and every minute error with the misguided notion that pointing out failure somehow spawns success.]

The Fulcrum and the Lever – How we experience the world, and our ability to succeed within it, constantly changes based on our mindset. This principle teaches us how we can adjust our mindset (our fulcrum) in a way that gives us the power (the lever) to be more fulfilled and successful. [An examination of mindsets – and a full understanding of how they affect our ways of being in the world – is a robust aspect of the 6th grade curriculum at SGS. As we strive to empower our students, we focus intentionally on attitude over aptitude, in full support and encouragement of growth mindsets.]

The Tetris Effect – When our brains get stuck in a pattern that focuses on stress, negativity, and failure, we set ourselves up to fail. This principle teaches us how to retrain our brains to spot patterns of possibility, so we can see – and seize – opportunity wherever we look. [The intentional mindfulness practice that Hannah teaches in Adventure and Wellness, in addition to other mindfulness routines that grade teams employ, help our students to recognize and address stress when they experience it (versus succumbing to the urge to ignore or suppress it.) Our mindset instruction also encourages students to perceive the possibility for growth and learning to be found in setbacks and challenges. The pattern recognition aspects of our math and science instruction at SGS also help our students to note other kinds of patterns – even those elusive behavioral ones!]

Falling Up – In the midst of defeat, stress and crisis, our brains map different paths to help us cope. This principle is about finding the mental path that not only leads us up out of failure or suffering, but teaches us to be happier and more successful because of it.
[On my office door I have posted the promise: “At SGS you are allowed to make mistakes and are encouraged to learn from them!” As I’ve always told my students and especially my own children and grandchildren, our mistakes are our greatest teachers. While I’ve certainly enjoyed occasionally getting things right and even being publically recognized for it, it’s been my mistakes that have taught me the most important lessons. At SGS we acknowledge the teachable moments inherent in errors and seek to guide our students to use their mistakes as stepping-stones to their ultimate successes.]

The Zorro Circle – When challenges loom and we get overwhelmed, our rational brains can get hijacked by emotions. This principle teaches us how to regain control by focusing first on small, manageable goals, and then gradually expanding our circle to achieve bigger and bigger ones. [Explicit in an SGS education is ongoing training in organization and pacing, all the while acknowledging that such practices are not only developmental but they are practices…that is, they are perfected through time and measured application. Our myriad group-focused, project-based experiences help our students learn to break down a larger end goal into smaller, incremental objectives, which are amplified with increased responsibility over the three to four years that a student spends at SGS. I am continually in awe of the growth I witness from 5th to 8th grade!]

The 20-second rule – Sustaining lasting change often feels impossible because our willpower is limited. And when willpower fails, we fall back on our old habits and succumb to the path of least resistance. This principle shows how, by making small energy adjustments, we can reroute the path of least resistance and replace bad habits with good ones. [This principle too presents itself in our growing mindfulness practice at SGS as well as in the daily instructions our teachers provide for our students. It particularly shows up as wise and caring adults interact with students who struggle with a procedural or behavioral challenge. On a regular basis I overhear a given teacher talking to a given student about positive versus negative energy, interpersonal practices that work, and empathetic approaches to peer interactions; I’m invariably struck by the patience, care and wisdom our teachers share with your daughters, and I regularly thank them on your behalf!]

Social Investment – In the midst of challenges and stress, some people choose to hunker down and retreat within themselves. But the most successful people invest in their friends, peers and family members to propel themselves forward. This principle teaches us how to invest more in one of the greatest predictors of success and excellence – our social support network. [At SGS “working collaboratively” – group work and effective social interactions – are hallmarks of learning as well as fundamental values. We emphasize the significance of the collective and honor our inherent interdependence. These fundamental precepts find increasing support in the burgeoning research which highlights girls’ natural tendency to prefer cooperation over competition. (See JoAnn Deak’s How Girls Thrive.) Each year at our alum gathering, I am touched by how close our SGS students remain long after they’ve left our nest. Recently we had our first graduate marry, and all three of her bridesmaids were fellow SGS alums!]

All this goes to show how firmly I believe that we’re on the right track at Seattle Girls’ School. The fact that the life work and ongoing research of notable authorities in various neuropsychological fields seems to support my supposition is comforting, but not pivotal. I am impressed and convinced by my daily experience of and with your daughters as they go about the business of “thinking independently, working collaboratively, learning joyfully and championing change!” It’s a sight to behold!

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