When we’re thinking about happiness, it’s useful to remember that the concept is a fairly modern human construct.
Our cave-person brain doesn’t care whether we’re experiencing gut-churning anxiety or warm, fluffy relaxation; it’s far too preoccupied with keeping us safe from starvation and mountain lions.
Luckily for us, the threats we face today are more akin to spilling hot coffee all over our marking or dealing with a student who won’t stop answering back. Day-to-day, things aren’t quite so life-or-death anymore, which leads our brains to look for distractions. And that can get in the way of wellbeing.
Ask yourself some useful questions: How am I feeling right now? Am I happy? How can I become happier? Consider what happiness actually looks like to you.
Psychologist Martin Seligman breaks down the concept of a ‘happy life’ into the following three types:
The pleasant life
This is about savouring and appreciating the basic pleasures of life; food, drink, sex, nature, companionship and so on.
The life of engagement
In this life, we upgrade our appreciation of life’s pleasures, using mindfulness to truly experience them in the present moment and taking our feelings to a whole new level. Either that, or we’re so absorbed in the flow state that we feel nothing at all.
The meaningful life
Here, we also consider our strengths and virtues, using them to enhance our own life and that of our fellow humans.
Seligman’s research showed the happiest and most fulfilled people were those who experienced a life of meaning, followed by engagement, followed by pleasure-seeking.
Pleasure-seeking on its own had little effect on overall life satisfaction, though combined with engagement and meaning, it became the ‘cherry on the whipped cream’.
As teachers, we’re at a disadvantage here. Excessive workload and accountability measures have caused many to consciously or unconsciously disengage, feeling that their life lacks pleasure or meaning.
But we also have an advantage, in that using our skills to enhance the lives of others – Seligman’s definition of a meaningful life – is pretty much our job description.
As such, we can find ways to create more pleasure, engagement and meaning in our working lives, by asking yourself the following questions:
1. What kind of happy life am I currently living?
A little bit of honest reflection goes a long way. Are you hell-bent on hedonism or going with the flow? Are you truly present for those moments which might provide meaning and job fulfilment? Whatever the answer: is it working for you?
2. Can I upgrade my experiences of happiness and pleasure?
Using mindfulness can significantly enhance your experience of life, managing the brain’s natural lean towards negativity and emphasising the positive along with our appreciation of the things that count.
Perhaps this means listening to your breath more often than your thoughts, savouring the taste of your lunch and turning your phone over instead of mindlessly scrolling.
And whatever activity it is that puts you into a flow state? Do more of that.
3. What are my five key strengths?
Once you’re clear on this, decide whether your job role is allowing you to really utilise these skills.
Are you a charismatic people-person, miserably working through data targets; or a lesson-loving creative, forced into behaviour management? Could you alter your perspective or approach here to further match your skills, or is a change of role or schools on the cards?