Bestselling author Shawn Achor kicks off in-person FETC with message of positivity

Positive brains triple creativity and problem-solving and leader to stronger social bonds that reduce bullying and isolation, he says
Shawn Achor
Shawn Achor

Educational success starts with happiness and positivity, rather than hard work.

The latter is certainly required, but bestselling author and Future of Education Technology® Conference keynote speaker Shawn Achor, an expert on positive psychology, says students and teachers can become “positive geniuses” by choosing happiness.

“Positive brains reap an incredible advantage, raising productivity by 31%, tripling creativity, tripling problem-solving ability, improving verbal and quantitative reasoning, while deepening social bonds, raising intelligence and memory, lowering bullying and social isolation, and extending how long we live,” Achor says.

Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage and Big Potential, spent 12 years at Harvard University, where he delivered lectures on positive psychology. He has worked with many Fortune 100 companies, and with the NFL and the Pentagon. His TED Talk, “The Happy Secret to Better Work,” has been viewed more than 23 million times.

In his FETC keynote, “Rethinking the Formula for Success: The Power of Positive Education,” Achor talked about how the philosophy that says “If I work harder, then I will be successful, and then I will be happy,” is scientifically backward. When that formula is flipped, and people focus first on positivity, nearly every educational outcome improves.

Consequently, our mental pictures of reality determine our likelihood of success and our ability to harness our IQ, and emotional and social intelligence, Achor says.

To preview his keynote, Achor answered a few questions about the latest research on managing stress, how to navigate multiple realities in the workplace, and using “success accelerants to speed goal completion.

1. Please detail the steps in the process of how an educator chooses to be happy.

One of the things I found fascinating watching doctors and nurses deal with the pandemic was how they would start by focusing on improving their physical immune system before engaging with the public. They would put on their masks, get their shots, wash their hands, then help as many people as they could.

Both of my parents were educators, my mom was a public high school English teacher for 30 years. What I learned was how important it is for educators to improve their emotional immune system before trying to provide social and emotional learning. We put on seatbelts and brush our teeth, but beyond that, we have very few positive routine habits.

Building an emotional immune system starts with habits like gratitude exercises, journaling, a 15-minute brisk walk, two minutes of meditation, or a two-minute positive email. Simple actions, like putting on a seatbelt, have massive consequences and for an educator starting at positive before engaging with the difficult parts of teaching is a necessity.

2. How do we form our mental picture of reality and how can we adjust it?

We originally thought people’s mental picture of reality was based upon their genes and their environment. But if you think about it, we are largely victims of both.

We didn’t pick our parents and as 2020 showed us, we can’t even control the micro-environment. But the truth was masked in the way we were doing the research.

The average person doesn’t fight their genes and their environment. But when we study the outliers, we learned that if people changed their daily habits or how they interacted with others or how they processed information, those conscious acts could break the tyranny of genes and environment over our levels of optimism, hope and happiness.

3. How does someone become a “positive genius” and manage stress in a high-stress position such as school superintendent or principal, where new, often unanticipated challenges pop up throughout the day?

In the middle of the banking crisis, I went into a large bank to evaluate stress in a crisis.

I was joined by the great Alia Crum from Stanford and Peter Salovey from Yale. In a study we published in the top psychology journal we found that if we got bankers to 1) acknowledge their stress, 2) identify the meaning in the stress (why they care) and then 3) think about the meaning while doing the stressful activity, burnout and negative health impacts of stress dropped by 23% within three weeks.

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Embedded within every stress is meaning, but when our brains don’t perceive it, stress creates a negative impact on the body. So increase praise and recognition, scan for meaning in your work, keep a folder or wall of meaningful accomplishments—all of these highlight meaning. And when we measure the impact, we find that stress is inevitable but its effects are not.

4. How can educators spread this mindset to their staff and students, with an eye toward professional and academic success?

I believe based on the research in The Happiness Advantage and now another full decade of work with positive interventions at schools, the greatest advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain.

Through our work with Superintendent Joel Pederson at schools in the poorest county in Iowa, ACT scores improved nearly 20% and they had the highest literacy score change in the state. Working with Superintendent Andy DuRoss in Schaumberg, Illinois, we used positive psychology interventions to help improve the academic achievement scores from the 83rd to the 95th percentile while dropping depression rates by nearly 30% and cutting disciplinary actions in half.

By using two decades of research, our goal is to help highlight for parents, educators and students that if we truly want to see a student’s or educator’s potential, we need to focus on what happens when their brain is positive. Positive brains reap an incredible advantage, raising productivity by 31%, tripling creativity, tripling problem-solving ability and improving verbal and quantitative reasoning, while deepening social bonds, raising intelligence and memory, making symptoms less acute, lowering bullying and social isolation, and extending how long we live.

Happiness also raises every business outcome we’ve tested at nearly half the 100 companies. Our goals for parents and educators are the same—we want to improve the well-being and success of our students.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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