Being Positive Takes Practice: Happiness in Higher Education

Being Positive Takes Practice

One of my favorite activities is scrolling through Facebook. I do this several times a day and believe it or not, for the most part, the process gives me joy. I realize that this may be delusion, given the number of stories like “The Anti-Social Network” from Slate in 2011. In the article, Libby Copeland writes:

If you're already inclined to compare your own decisions to those of other women and to find yours wanting, believing that others are happier with their choices than they actually are is likely to increase your own sense of inadequacy. And women may be particularly susceptible to the Facebook illusion.

I’ve been guilty of this – especially when it comes to one of my newer Facebook friends, a professor-scholar who has a similar position to mine and relocated to a university in my state. I marvel at her vita: co-editor of one of the top journals in our field, endowed chair, finalist for state teacher of the year, and author of more than two dozen peer-reviewed journal articles. All this and she defended her dissertation a year after I defended mine.

But I’ll stop there, since this blog is about me – and how our Facebook friendship could have made me feel inadequate, but didn’t. In all honesty, I did begin feeling professionally jealous when I compared her vita to mine. Then I stopped.

Why? This may seem silly to some of you, but I was inspired by a Ted Talk.

Shawn Achor’s “The Happy Secret to Better Work” has been viewed over 16 million times. He has the persona of a stand-up comedian and a message that speaks to many audiences: we can rewire our brains to be happy. Achor explains,

We're finding it's not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality. And if we can change the lens, not only can we change your happiness, we can change every single educational and business outcome at the same time.

Achor suggests that people believe if they work harder, they will be more successful. And then what is the consequence of success? Happiness. By making happiness the result of success, we tie the two together, and the result is, Achor tells us, that “…we think we have to be successful [to be] happier. But our brains work in the opposite order.” In order to be happier, we actually need to be more positive. Why? Each time we reach a level of success, we may feel happy, but it is human nature to move the bar for success to the next level. Happiness becomes temporary, and we must once again work for that happiness. What would happen if we prioritized happiness and maintained a positive outlook? Would we actually achieve success faster? Easier?

Achor believes that we can feel happier by doing some fairly simplistic things: writing down what makes us happy, journaling about a positive experience, and writing a positive email “praising or thanking somebody in [our] support network.” Calling it a “revolution,” Achor believes we can retrain our brains to be more positive. As a result, happiness and success do not rely on one another. As we move to the next level of success, we use our positive outlook and consistent happiness to live a consistently richer, fuller life.

Since we are a week into November, your Facebook feed, like mine, is probably starting to fill with those “thankful” posts. However, showing gratitude for positive experiences should be a year-long enterprise, and I have been emotionally moved and inspired by another Facebook friend, a woman in higher education whose posts, almost every day, start with “Today I’m grateful for…” As I scroll through my feed, I watch for her posts and ask myself, “How did I find happiness today?”

There are so many ways to focus on happiness in higher education. We could start our classes with questions like: “What made you happy about learning this week?” or with “What is something positive that happened to you on campus?” We can focus more on the good aspects of a student’s essay. Or, we can make it a goal to tell one person why they positively contribute to campus life.

Most importantly, perhaps, we need to surround ourselves with others who want to make higher education a happier place, and ProF does just that. I’m grateful for the opportunity to blog for ProF. I’m happy for those who have told me that my blogs resonated with them. And, most of all, I’m happy that there are so many women in higher education that care about each other’s happiness and successes. Together, we are a positive revolution.