St Catherine's kindergarten students is happy and showing it by making the shape of a heart with her hands
10 August 2017

The pursuit of happiness

​​What makes a happy person happy is closer to the question of what makes a high performing student succeed than you may think — they both work at it. Or so argues Lahnna Catalino and Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina. Catalino’s studies have shown that fixating on ‘being happy’ is not as effective as seeking out positive emotional experiences. If you plan to do things that make you feel happy, you are more likely to be happier than if you just try to be happy. Catalino refers to this as prioritising positivity.

In Catalino’s study over 230 people were asked how much they structure their day around positive experiences. This does not mean removing all responsibility from your life and just doing what makes you happy, but it refers to how people try to include positive experiences in their day. This may be going for a walk in the morning, listening to music on the bus and so on. The more people prioritised positivity in their daily schedule, the more positive emotion they experienced. This seems logical, but the study also showed that they had a decrease in negative emotion as a response to negative events — so they were more resilient, and they were generally more satisfied with life. The study also showed that positive emotions were increased in the long term as long as positivity continued to be prioritised.

So prioritising positivity is more effective than trying to be happy. Why’s that? When we aim to ‘be happy’ we often make mistakes about what actually makes us happy. Sometimes we think what we are doing is making us happy — checking Facebook and Instagram, watching mindless TV, but actually these activities may not be causing us to feel happier. In fact, the use of smart phones and social media is making us less social, and less happy. An article in The Atlantic stated that  Year 12s  in 2015 were going out less often than Year 8s did as recently as 2009.

Furthermore, rates of teenage depression have increased since 2011 (The Atlantic). These statistics show how important it is for us to truly know what experiences make us have more positive emotions, rather than just doing what we think makes us happy. By prioritising positivity instead of checking your ‘snapstreak’, students will feel more positive, and be happier. Whether it is going for a run, reading a book, making a delicious snack, spending time with a friend; if it makes you feel happier afterwards, they are your positive emotional experiences. It would be more useful to spend time dedicated to those activities than it would be just aim for happiness.

That all sounds pretty simple, but the fact remains that we don’t actually prioritise positivity as much as we should, because it all comes down to habit. The student who has a regular study habit does better in their studies than the student who stresses out about all the study they need to do; the person who goes running three times a week is fitter than the person who just wills themselves to be fit. Similarly, the person who etches out time in their day to prioritise positivity is happier than the person who just wants to be happy.

Once a fortnight I supervise detention for students. Some teachers ask students to write reflections on their detentions, some ask them to do homework, or some ask them to assist with preparing for school activities. I give the girls a crochet hook, wool, and a YouTube link so they can learn to crochet. Why crochet? Because learning a new skill is frustrating and requires grit. Achieving the new skill leads to a sense of accomplishment and an increase in positive emotion. Students who are happier are less likely to have detentions. Just this week two students were trying to figure out how to crochet and as one conquered the granny square, her mood had lifted, she felt better about herself, and even stayed a few more minutes to finish the round she was on.

Some members of staff at St Cath’s are prioritising positivity by forming a running club on Monday afternoons. We all vary in fitness levels, but by etching out an hour a week for exercise and socialising with colleagues, we experience more positive emotions. (Or at least I will once my legs stop aching!)

We are all busy, so something generally has to give in order to set time aside for positivity. And that is why the term Catalino refers to is ‘prioritising’, because in order to put time aside for positivity, you will end up losing time for something else. I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit behind with the laundry, but that’s ok because I prioritise reading to the kids, going for walks, and having downtime in the evenings. I try to use the time when the washing machine is spinning to do something I enjoy of an evening. Because if we don’t prioritise positivity, then what are you prioritising? There is not much point in working to the bone, being a perfectionist at home, being ‘on’ all the time at social events if you aren’t travelling towards happiness.

Ultimately being in pursuit of happiness is a delicate art, but it is achievable through small decisions that prioritise your own joy over other activities, at least some of the time...

Director of Positive Psychology Daisy Turnbull BrownMrs Daisy Turnbull Brown
Director of Positive Psychology
B Arts B Com Grad Dip Ed MA (Theology)

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