This past year has helped us see that learning, teaching, and leading are not simply cognitive activities. To be at our best as a leader, teacher, or learner requires emotional well-being. And to remain emotionally resilient when circumstances gnaw away at our well-being requires emotional intelligence, mindsets, and skills that allow us to monitor and reset our emotional health. As educators, these insights are especially important - we are charged not only with monitoring and managing our own emotional life, but also with helping students and teachers learn how to monitor and manage their personal well-being.
Research psychologist Dr. Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has spent decades investigating the question of how we can, through our own actions, thrive in life. She’s studied high-performing business teams, couples who have been happily together for long periods of time, and individuals who report a strong feeling of satisfaction with their lives. Based on a meta-analysis of an enormous amount of data, Fredrickson concludes that the secret to living our best lives lies in the ten positive emotions below and the mathematical ratio 3:1. According to Fredrickson, when we feel any of these ten emotions three times in comparison to any negative emotion, we experience what Fredrickson calls “the upward spiral” and we thrive in life.
The key, Fredrickson says, is that we get to choose our emotions. When faced with challenging circumstances, we have the ability to choose how we will respond externally with our words and actions. We can also choose how we respond internally, the mental frame we place around the life event.
This isn’t to say that we will never experience negative emotions or that we should feel a sense of shame when we feel sad or angry or depressed. Life happens and sometimes it is difficult, even traumatic. Yet, we can witness the human capacity to face and wrestle through emotional challenges in powerful role models all around us. Just this summer, Black female athletes Naomi Osaka, Sha’Carri Richardson, and Simone Biles taught us important lessons about reframing and working through difficult circumstances. Our health care workers continue to demonstrate extraordinary levels of emotional resilience. Their example lets us know that, when life requires it, we are also capable of this same emotional hardiness. Within the education community, we can each name quiet heroes who stand up to and prevail over enormously trying circumstances because of their commitment to students.
Holocaust survivor and Austrian neurologist Viktor Frankl, after enduring years of unbearable conditions in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote about how human beings find meaning in life when faced with extremely challenging circumstances. Frankl tells us that although we can’t control what happens to us in life, we do control our response to life events. He says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Learning to recognize, understand, and navigate our emotions and mindsets is a lifelong journey. We become more skilled with practice and support. The following exercises, based on the ten positive emotions, can be used to build personal routines of positivity. They can also be used to help the educators you support strengthen their own emotional resilience and grow emotional intelligence in students.
The Way to Start A Day - Set a goal. Which positive emotion will you hold close and focus on throughout your day today? Will you look at the day’s events through the lens of gratitude? Will you take a stance of interest or curiosity toward the people you interact with? Will you intentionally set aside times to find serenity amidst a day that you know will be chaotic? As your workday draws to a close, don’t forget to spend a minute reflecting on how the emotional frame you chose steadied you and helped you to be at your best for yourself and others.
How are you? - Build positivity into your routines for greeting others. When someone asks you “How are you today?,” respond by saying “I’m proud (or joyful, grateful, serene, interested, hopeful, amused, awestruck, inspired) because ___. When you greet someone, ask them to tell you something they feel joyful (or grateful, hopeful, amused, inspired) about. This simple routine empowers you with a positive mindset and also gifts the person you greet with a bit of positivity.
Notice, Label, and Celebrate - What do you notice? How can you spotlight it with a label? How will you celebrate this moment of positivity? Look for examples of the ten positive emotions occurring all around you. Perhaps you witness a child reaching out to a classmate in kindness. Or a teacher excitedly shares a new insight about how to support one of her students. As you notice these moments, pay attention to how the simple act of noticing lifts your spirit and nudges you to share these same emotions with others. Label these actions using the ten positive emotions to create a shared vocabulary of positivity. You might say “I am in awe of your perseverance!” or“Your dedication inspires me!” or “I love hearing you and your class laughing together. Shared amusement is such a powerful way to build community.” Celebrate the positive moments you witness in simple ways: statements of affirmation or quick notes of appreciation.
Coaching Questions - Ask open-ended questions to trigger positive emotions and position teachers and students as agents in their own emotional well-being. “As you begin the day, what is something you hope for? What can you do to help make this happen?” or “What gives you a feeling of serenity? When is it helpful to feel serenity at school? What are some things you can do to create a feeling of serenity for yourself and others today?”
Positive Emotions on Call - Think of a time in your life when you experienced one of the ten positive emotions. In your mind, recapture this experience as vividly as possible. Think about and re-experience the sensory details that were part of that event. By practicing and re-practicing this visualization exercise, you will be able to call up this emotion as needed when you find yourself faced with a challenging situation.
Take a Positivity Walk - Create a new daily routine to recharge your positivity batteries. Each day, commit to spending 5 minutes walking through common areas, hallways, or classrooms to look for instances of positive emotions. Don’t forget to look at non-verbal communication. You might, for instance, do a quick visual survey of the number of smiles you see during math class vs. art class or observe students’ body language as during lunch. Take quick notes about what you observe and then share this important “data” with others. At the beginning of a faculty meeting, you might say, “Let me tell you about three examples of joy that I observed this week.” Discuss why this data is important and how it can support academic learning.
As the 2021-2022 school year begins, we are again dealing with challenges that can stretch us beyond reasonable limits. To thrive and help others to thrive in this environment, we need to strategically notice, share, and celebrate the good that exists all around us. Doing so gives us personal power and positions us as resourceful and ready to tackle challenges. When positivity becomes an element of school culture, collective efficacy blossoms, and all members of the school community receive support to live as their best selves. The ten positive emotions can provide a starting point for building human capacity, strengthening our school communities, and creating a better world.
Frankl, Viktor (2006). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. Boston: Beacon Press.
Fredrickson, Barbara (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the upward spiral that will change your life. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Sue Chapman is a professional learning consultant and author of MathVentures: 33 Teacher-Coach Investigations to Grow Students as Mathematicians. Learn more about her at SueChapmanLearning.com and connect with her on Twitter at @SueChapmanLearn.