It doesn’t particularly matter which piece of psychological research you read, in regards to relationships, there are two very consistent themes emerging. First, the quality of our relationships has a huge impact on our wellbeing. Second, positive relationships are the result of many accumulated micro-moments of positive interaction that occur over time.
These micro-moments contribute to what University of Washington relationship researcher, John Gottman, calls an emotional bank account. It is a foundational resource when things are going well and a protective investment to draw upon in more difficult times. When a stockpile of positive experience exists in a relationship, we are much more willing to make allowances in disagreements or when we feel wronged.
And that’s why, whenever there is an opportunity to acknowledge even the smallest positive interaction, it is so important, as Gottman writes, that we ‘turn towards’ it – not just to savour the experience but to bank it for later.
“Drop by drop is the water pot filled.” Buddha.
Forgiving is hard. Especially when we’ve been really wronged, hurt, or betrayed. And even more so when the hurt is inflicted by someone close to us.
But the only alternative to forgiveness is holding a grudge. And that’s a choice we can make. But holding a grudge consumes a lot of emotional energy. Anger and resentment are negative emotions that require constant fuelling. And 30 years of forgiveness science has identified a range of harmful long-term physiological and psychological effects that all of this negative emotional exertion can have.
When we forgive, we do not forget.
But when we are able to forgive, we unstick ourselves from the past; we release ourselves from anger and create room inside for peace.
The way we are living our high-tech, hyper-connected, stimulus-rich lives can be very exciting, meaningful, rewarding… and stressful.
Ongoing exposure to highly stimulating environments can take a significant toll on our nervous system, endocrine (hormonal) system, and immune system.
But we do have a very powerful antidote. Nature.
Research over the last 30 years has demonstrated that connectedness and exposure to nature is linked to a range of mental and physical health benefits including:
- increased positive emotion, vitality, and life satisfaction;
- reduced pain and faster hospital recovery;
- stronger feelings of connectedness with others, greater sense of community, lower levels of violence and aggression, and a better capacity to cope with life’s demands.
But how much nature do we need?
A new study from researchers at the University of Michigan has helped to answer this question. They found that taking a “nature-pill” involving spending 20 minutes in a “place that brings a sense of contact with nature” was enough to significantly reduce stress hormones in saliva samples.
There are many things we can do to enhance our wellbeing and help protect us against stress and illbeing. But ultimately, there may be nothing more more broadly effective, efficient, and powerful than a short daily stroll through the park.
In general, the growing emphasis on ‘measurement’ of different educational outcomes is a good thing. This is especially the case with wellbeing in schools. As the data-collection tools for wellbeing have become more sophisticated and prioritised, first by schools and now governments, it has attracted more attention, energy, and resources. As a result, we have higher quality data, better materials, and refined practices.
Because wellbeing researchers and schools are trying to harness the scientific method, they rely heavily on the process of quantification. Quantification allows us to take inherently ‘uncountable’ and intangible human experience and turn it into numerical data. For example, the feeling of trust that a student has for their teacher can be quantified into a number using a rating scale. This is helpful because it allows for statistical analysis and more meaningful discussions that are less hindered by subjective language.
But quantification is not the same as measurement.
Measurement is counting the quantity of a unit of material via an agreed standard.
Quantification is turning something that cannot be counted or measured directly into a number via subjective opinion.
So when I use a scale to measure my weight and I’ve gone up from 76kg last month to 78kg this month, that’s because I am heavier. We can measure weight directly.
But when a student’s self-reported ‘trust score’ goes up from ‘3’ last month to ‘4’ this month that does not mean that they trust me more. It might mean that. But it might instead be because it’s the student’s birthday today or because their football team won on the weekend or because they now trust their other teachers less and so, relatively, they feel more trusting of me. Or maybe it’s because scoring something as complex and nuanced as trust on a numerical scale of 1 to 5 is a very crude method. We don’t actually know. And that’s because we cannot measure trust directly.
And all of this is fine. As long as we don’t try to chase the score or place too much value on the score or data.
Ultimately, we must be focussed on optimising the wellbeing of our students, not the wellbeing data. Those two things are not the same.
If you work in education and haven’t been living under a rock for the past ten years, chances are you’re familiar with Dr Carol Dweck’s work on mindset. For decades, Dweck has been studying the effects that our beliefs about ability have on learning behaviours and our future success.
If you believe that ability is mostly the result of practice and hard work, you tend to work harder, practice more, accept more feedback and tackle more challenging problems. And guess what happens…you get better at whatever you are working on. Dweck calls this a growth mindset.
If you believe that ability is mostly the result of predetermined genetic factors or inherent ‘talent’, you don’t practice as diligently, are resistant to feedback and tackle less challenging problems. (After all, there’s no point practicing if ability is genetic.) And guess what happens…you don’t get better at whatever ability it is you think is ‘talent’ based. She calls this a fixed mindset.
Despite some vocal critics of Dweck’s work, there are significant benefits associated with nurturing a growth mindset in children. But like all psychological theories, we need to be careful not to skim the headlines of research and, consequently, develop blunt, broad-spectrum, low-resolution approaches.
Here are just a few of the situations in which Dweck herself, a staunch proponent of growth mindset, has explained that a fixed mindset is healthier and beneficial:
- When faced with certain acute mental or physical health conditions, those who believe they will be able to work their own way through it or ‘get over it’ may be less likely to seek professional or medical help and therefore increase the risk of harm.
- When faced with issues associated with sexual orientation, those who accept that this is who they are and this is who they’re meant to be seem to respond more effectively and adjust more healthily than people who think they should be resisting or trying to change something about themselves.
- When faced with the realisation of aging, graceful acceptance of the inevitability of physical change is often associated with more healthy adaptation of behaviour. In Dweck’s words, we are less likely to “run around nipping and tucking”.
As educators, we should be consuming high-quality research findings. But when we do, it’s important to read the headlines and the ‘fine print’.
The 2019 World Happiness Report has just been released. This is the 7th annual edition of the report – based on data from the Gallup World Poll.
This year, the top 10 happiest countries are, in order: Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria. Australia ranks 11th, the UK 15th, USA 19th, the UAE 21st, and China 93rd.
Interestingly, the six key variables used in the report to explain differences in average life evaluations are:
- GDP per capita;
- social support;
- healthy life expectancy;
- absence of corruption.
These variables have been found in the overall research literature to be important in contributing to general differences in evaluations of happiness. All of this makes sense at a population level, but I wonder what the equivalent six key variables would be for student happiness in schools?
Here’s my list:
- safety (Do I feel safe at school?)
- belongingness (Do I feel like I belong?)
- hope (Do I see a bright future and have the ‘will’ and know the ‘way’ to get there?)
- autonomy (Do I feel a sense of volition and control over my schooling?)
- purposefulness (Do I feel that my learning make sense and that it matters?)
- trust (Do I feel that I can trust my peers and teachers, and do I feel trusted?)
There is no World Student Happiness Report. (The PISA Students’ Wellbeing Report is the closest research we have.) But if there was, the above six factors would contribute significantly. These factors are the foundation of a child’s school experience. Nothing matters more.
In the 1950s, B. F. Skinner developed an approach to understanding behaviour that became known as ‘behaviourism’. Skinner theorised that human behaviour is the result of the consequence of previous behaviour. If a behaviour leads to punishment or a negative outcome, we are unlikely to repeat it. If a behaviour is rewarded, we are likely to repeat it. Thus, human and animal behaviour, can be controlled and shaped via reward and punishment.
60 years later, some schools are continuing to adopt behaviourist approaches to managing student behaviour. Programs such as PBIS attempt to selectively reward ‘positive’ actions in an attempt to extrinsically reinforce certain behaviours. And, not surprisingly, research shows that they work…if your goal is to coerce certain observable behaviours. Feeding a dog a bone when it fetches a ball will cause a dog to fetch another ball.
The main problem with approaches that focus on observable behaviour is that they force people to focus overly on observable behaviour! Behaviourism is all about what can be seen and measured and it disregards underlying motives, values and character. Unfortunately, countless studies have shown that wellbeing, happiness, community cohesion and long-term prosocial behaviour are directly linked to motives, values and character.
And to make matters worse, dozens of studies have found that intrinsic motivation is undermined and eroded by extrinsic reward. When we ‘pay’ students to be kind or forgiving or courageous, they are actually less likely to be so in the future – especially if the payment is no longer offered.
This is why Positive Education takes a different route. It’s a harder, longer route that focusses on nurturing character, engagement, relationships, meaning, and caring – not because there is some extrinsic reward waiting, but for their own sake. When these virtues become embedded in the hearts and minds of our students, you don’t need carrots and sticks so much anymore.
In a recent conversation discussing some of the limitations of wellbeing data, a trusted colleague mentioned to me that he views empirical data as a form of art. It might feel odd to think of scientific data as art but it is also a beautiful concept.
The Collins Dictionary defines ‘art’ as consisting of “paintings, sculpture, and other pictures or objects which are created for people to look at and admire or think deeply about.” Data, particularly from the human sciences, is absolutely intended to create a ‘picture’ for us to think deeply about. Like art, data is not an actual snapshot of reality but rather a creative representation of reality. In fact, often the most effective data – data that moves us and affects us, is data that is represented graphically, typically crafted with much thought given to the colour, contrast, form, and dimension.
This is not true of all data. Some data is highly objective and clean – we could call this realism. Some data is quite crude and bold – impressionist. Other data attempts to quantify the inherently subjective human experience – expressionist. And, of course, like Rothko’s painting, some data is distinctively abstract.
All data, however, share the same purpose – to tell a story. These stories help put language to experience, to challenge our view of the world, to help create a sense of coherence and meaning.
When we view data from the human sciences as art, we are able to see it for what it really is; not fact or truth, but a way of harnessing human creativity and ingenuity to transcend our own small, individual lives. Like art, data allows us to view the world differently, with greater integrity. It has the power to open our eyes and capture our hearts.
This is why data matters.