Professional Learning

Teachers, Here Are 5 Research-Backed Ways to Feel Happy

4 Min Read

Back to school for most educators has become a struggle with uncertainty. Add to that a pandemic that’s dragged on for months with no end in sight, and happiness might seem like an impossible goal right now. But science says there are steps you can take to boost your mood and quality of life.

Tal Ben-Shahar is an expert in positive psychology whose happiness seminar was the most popular in Harvard University's history. He reminds us in a talk on the science of happiness that this feeling of well-being doesn't just happen to you. “Increasing one’s level of happiness cannot happen in a vacuum or as a result of a workshop or lecture,” he says. “It’s about creating a ritual or a new habit. Whether it’s exercise, taking time to spend with family, simplifying one’s life, or meditating, the key is action.”

Ready to take action for a happier, healthier you? Try these five simple strategies.


Take Deep Breaths

At a particularly stressful time in your life, you’ve likely heard someone say, “Just take a deep breath.” But did you know that this simple advice is actually backed by science? Deep belly breaths can slow the heartbeat and stabilize blood pressure. What's more, focusing on your breathing is a quick and easy way to help you find your balance amidst the unpredictability of the 2020-2021 school year. Start by finding a quiet place to sit or lie down. Breathe in slowly through your nose. Let your abdomen expand fully, and then breathe out slowly through your mouth. Try this exercise for at least two minutes twice a day (maybe before school begins and after it ends) or whenever you are feeling anxious.


Do Something Kind

Doing good does you good. Studies show that those who perform daily acts of kindness—lending a hand to someone in need or sending a text just to say hello—are rewarded with a significant happiness boost. What’s more, helping others appears to generate a “positive feedback loop” between kindness and happiness. In other words, doing a good deed makes you feel happy, which, in turn, makes you more likely to do yet another good deed. So share a successful lesson with a struggling teacher. Let a fellow teacher skip ahead of you in line for the printer. You get the idea. Need more ideas? Here are five ways to volunteer virtually, plus 50 simple ways to be nice every day.


Express Gratitude

Giving thanks can make you happier. In one study, a group that took time every day to write about things they were grateful for felt more optimistic about their lives than a group who wrote about things that irritate them. The grateful group also exercised more and went to the doctor less. Ready to give gratitude a try? The idea is to focus on what you have, as opposed to what you lack. Every night, write down five things in your life that you appreciate. If you don’t have time to write, make it a conversation with a loved one or close friend. You might also aim once a month to thank a student, teacher, principal, or anyone else who has propped you up when you most needed it.


Deepen Social Connections

Social connections are one of the best predictors of success and health. So make time for family, friends, and your teacher BFF, even if it just means a phone call or online chat in this time of social distancing. “People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community are happier, physically healthier and live longer than people who are less well connected,” said psychiatrist Robert Waldinger in a TED Talk. The director of a 75-year-old study on adult development advises choosing quality over quantity. Research shows that it’s not the number of friends you have, but the quality of the relationships that matter.


Take Care of Your Body

Regular physical activity not only improves heart health, it can elevate your mood, reduce your risk of depression and anxiety, and help you sleep better, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Exercise is better with a buddy. Enlist a teacher friend to try an online Zumba or yoga class with you. You’ll feel the benefits right after a session of moderate movement. Adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of moderate-intensity exercise such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity physical activity such as running or jumping rope. Here are additional ideas for staying physically active while social distancing.

You have the power to be happy. Commit to taking these simple research-backed steps, and you’ll be on your way to leading a more joyful life inside and outside the classroom.


Explore our hub of 2020 back-to-school articles and resources to prepare teachers and administrators for the new school year.

Related Reading

Reading Intervention Elementary Hero

Amber Silverman

Shaped Contributor

Teaching Writing to Elementary Students Hero

Kristen Eannetta
Instructional Coach

teacher watches student work out math problem
Melody Jacklin, a math teacher at Stevenson Middle School in Westland, Michigan, watches on as a student works out a problem. Jacklin says Math 180 allows students the time to demonstrate understanding and explain their thinking.