shawn achor smiles at the camera

Is it wrong to search for happiness, or even to talk about happiness, during the pandemic, when so many people are suffering? Will being happy make us lazy and stop striving to change problems and conditions in society?

No and no, answered Shawn Achor, positive psychologist and best-selling author of The Happiness Advantage. Achor was the keynote speaker at the final general session of NSBA21 on Saturday. By making a small and simple change at the system level, school leaders can raise outcomes for students and improve the lives in their communities.

Achor has worked with over a third of the Fortune 100 companies and with organizations such as the NFL, the Pentagon, and the U.S. Treasury. He has also brought this mindset to schools and school districts, where he has shown that it can raise test scores, lower behavioral problems, and decrease stress and depression among students and teachers.

A researcher and former Harvard professor, Achor peppered his presentation with research and statistics to make his case. The advent of neuro imagery, he said, allowed us to discover that every second, our brains are being bombarded with much more information than it can make sense of. “Our brain is not processing this world,” he said, “only a few snowflakes in the midst of an absolute blizzard.”

So to keep us safe, the brain scans for danger and threats first and always. It has no room left to look for things that make us grateful or that give meaning to our work and our lives. Based on this research, he said, “all we need to do is pull resources from the negative and attend to the positive.”

Students and adults can be taught to do activities that create a habit, so their brains learn how to scan for the positive. Joy triples problem-solving ability. It increases memory and intelligence. We live longer, our social bonds deepen, and stress has a different effect on our bodies.
Achor makes the distinction between happiness and pleasure. Pleasure is short-lived. Instead, he said, he is talking about “the joy you feel when you move toward your potential. You can experience joy even when life is difficult."

Instead of waiting for conditions to be right for happiness, he said, we need to flip the formula. “Schools will be more successful when we focus on happiness first,” he said. “As the brain becomes more positive, all the outcomes improve.

“Turns out, happiness creates an advantage, and it is contagious."

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the NSBA logo and text "State of the Association"

2020 State of the Association

Full of challenge and change, 2020 was like no other year. NSBA's State of the Association provides a snapshot of the association's advocacy and member services work as well as our ongoing transformation.