The bell at Waterview campus rang at 11:30 a.m., signaling the end of Amy Blankson’s presentation, which elicited an audible groan of disappointment from the assembled students in grades 8-12. They wanted her to keep speaking.
Blankson, a happiness researcher and expert who holds degrees from Harvard and Yale, laughed and thanked the students for being attentive listeners. Several lined up to get a word in with her before scurrying off to class. Blankson’s talk had been profoundly influential, and its effectiveness as part of Dallas International School’s “Be Happy” campaign was clear.
DIS recently has focused on helping its students at the Waterview campus develop a happier lifestyle and a culture of positivity in and out of the classroom. Thus, the “Be Happy” campaign was developed and implemented, with several components making up the initiative, including:
- Values-based activities to reinforce the DIS Core Values: Empathy, Integrity, Resilience, Respect and Responsibility with projects led by the student council and the House system leaders.
- Understanding the concept behind being happy, its benefits and how to get there.
- Introduction to meditation for Waterview students, led by DIS parent Nawal Bendefa. (We wrote about this initiative in a previous article that you can read here.)
Blankson’s presentation addressed the second of these three points, and while the students perhaps thought they were in for a run-of-the-mill assembly when they filed into the MPR on Wednesday, they were treated to so much more.
“Over the last 200 years, the use of the word ‘happy’ in our vocabulary has been going down,” Blankson said. “We’ve studied it so much, and what we began to find is that no matter where you were in the world, happiness is something that we aspire to, but we had forgotten how to get there.”
Blankson then outlined the process that most of us follow in our lives: “moving the goalposts” after each life achievement to some loftier goal that is always a little out of reach, thereby denying ourselves happiness and satisfaction all along the way.
“We keep pushing happiness over the cognitive horizon,” she said. “If you reverse the formula for success, if you pursue happiness first, it will make you successful. If you have a more positive brain, your brain performs better.”
The rest of the presentation focused on Blankson’s three main findings in her research, which she challenged the students to implement in their daily lives: happiness is a choice, happiness is a habit and happiness spreads. Some impressive figures helped back up her research.
“If we figure out how to be more positive in our brains, we become three times more creative, 31% more productive, 10% faster on tests, 10% more accurate on tests and 23% less tired,” she said.
Blankson’s assertion that happiness is a choice is borne not only out of her research, but also her personal life experiences. She lost her house in Hurricane Katrina while living in Biloxi, Mississippi.
“I didn’t know if I would be able to feel happy again,” she said. “But 90% of happiness has to do with the way you perceive the world around you. We all have things that happen. The way we deal with them determines how we view the future and deal with other things in our lives.”
To illustrate the concept of happiness being a habit, Blankson asked the students to work on one of the five points that make up her favorite phrase, J-GAME: journaling, gratitude, acts of kindness, meditation and exercise. Each student in attendance committed to working on one of the five recommendations to create a new habit of happiness and enrich their personal lives.
Finally, Blankson asked the students to pair up so that she could show that happiness indeed spreads. Each student took a turn acting serious, while the other student was tasked with making his or her partner laugh, but only by using their eyes. Predictably, everyone was in stitches within a few seconds.
This fed into Blankson’s point of making sure that DIS students support each other and contribute to each other’s happiness.
“People that provide social support are 40% more likely to receive it in return,” she said. “The best way to make yourself feel better is to do something nice for someone else.”
Blankson explained why learning these strategies for happiness is so crucial at this time in the students' lives.
"I wish I had learned the principles of positive psychology at an early age," she said. "While some of the principles seem like common knowledge, for instance, gratitude is good for you, they are not always common action. My goal is to help students understand why these practices are so important, so that they can begin to develop lifelong positive habits."
"I want students to walk away knowing that happiness is a choice that is in their control," she said. "Yes, genes and environment play a role in our perception of the world, but these factors do not define us. We get to choose how we perceive the world and that choice makes all the difference."
DIS’ “Be Happy” campaign will continue throughout the school year. Considering the meditation that has already been implemented on campus and the dynamic nature of Blankson’s talk, it’s off to a great start.