Summer Reading 2014: Books for Well-Being

happiness books

Over the past months, as part of my mid-career self-reflection and as part of my refusal to fall prey to the rampant negativity in education, I’ve been doing a bit of reading about happiness.  I’ve always told my students that if I ever become the crabby teacher just waiting to retire, I hope I’ll just go do something else.  As I get closer to retirement (not close, just closer), I am starting to see how hard that actually might be and I have much more compassion for colleagues in that situation.  Since leaving behind a career in which I’ve invested so much is probably unrealistic and since I actually still love what I do, I want to infuse my days, my life, and my school year with as much happiness as I can get.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin is a writer with a education in law. She originally wrote books about historical figures (Winston Churchill and JFK notably) and then launched into more personal subjects.  I originally heard of this book from Talks with Teachers, as it was one of the recommended books in a 30 day challenge last spring.

I love how Gretchen writes with so much vulnerability about her life and her quest for happiness.  I like that she starts from an average place: she has a good life, a good job, a loving husband, and two sweet daughters. She is not writing from a place of depression, for instance, a place she acknowledges needs to be handled with the help of medical professionals.  Gretchen admits at the beginning of the book that she isn’t really unhappy, but she would like to see if she can be happier.

Some of the principles I remember most from this book are part of Gretchen’s “Secrets of Adulthood.”  I especially like the mantra that she keeps repeating: “Be Gretchen.”  We need to pay attention to ourselves and what we truly enjoy.  What makes other people happy doesn’t necessarily make me happy; what is fun for others isn’t always fun for me.  After reading this, I felt empowered somehow to be more myself, to accept myself as I am, to stop worrying that I don’t enjoy the same things as other people or have the same goals as other people. I also learned just to pay more attention to what makes me happy and that might not make everyone else happy.

Another important principle that runs throughout the book and that made an impact on me is “Act the way I want to feel.”  There is much research to show that feelings don’t follow actions; rather it is the other way around. If I want to feel like I’m happy, I should act happy.  The feelings will follow. If I don’t feel like I’m in a good mood, if I just act like I am, my mood improves.  It works. I promise.

The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor

Shawn Achor is a professor in Harvard’s Wharton Business School and a popular author and speaker on positive psychology in the workplace.  Achor writes about two different “effects” that influence happiness: the Tetris Effect and the Zorro Effect. The Tetris Effect principle states that we must train our brains to overcome our negativity bias. Overcoming the negativity bias requires a conscious effort to focus on positive experiences.  We have to cultivate mindfulness every day and deliberately look for all the events in our lives that are positive or beautiful or that bring us happiness.  Essentially, we are creating the habit of positive thinking.

The “Zorro Effect” is the principle that we should focus on what we can control, not what we can’t.  Achor refers to the story of Zorro’s teacher forcing Zorro to train inside a small circle, only allowing him to enlarge the circle after he had mastered his skills inside the boundary. Achor advises us to focus our mental and emotional attention on small circles where we have control, not on the large circles where we feel a lack of control.  Similarly, in The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin discusses this idea in her chapter on love and improving her marriage. She realizes that she cannot change her husband; she can only change herself.  This has always been an important component of my classroom management style, but I want to extend what I know to other areas of my life: the only person whose behavior I can actually change is myself.

The book where I first encountered this idea was The 8th Habit by Steven Covey.  He advises us to realize that there are circles of influence and circles of concern, but only in the circle of influence can we have control.  Like Zorro’s teacher enlarging his training circle, our circles of influence can enlarge as we gain control and think positively about our work.

This was a powerful idea, and I have spent much time since reading this book pondering what my own circles of influence are.  If I think about all the happenings in the world that upset me or all the problems in my job that concern me, I can become overwhelmed. And the reality is that I don’t actually have much control over these. If instead I can focus on the small areas of life where I actually do have influence, I can increase my happiness.  I can’t control what goes on the district or state or national level of education, for instance. But I can control my classroom and my own professional growth.  I can make my own sphere of influence the best that it can be.  

Finally, the principle that Achor’s book most added to my happiness rulebook is this:  you aren’t happy because you’re successful; you’re successful because you’re happy. People who approach life in a positive way have more emotional resilience and therefore more productivity at work.

This summer has been a great one, full of much renewal and self-definition.  I’m excited about where education can go in the future; I’m excited for how happy teachers can influence education in our society; and I’m ready to see where my own happiness and mindfulness can take me this year.

What are some books that have influenced your thinking about happiness?  What are some principles that help you to think positively throughout the school year?



  1. That’s so funny that you write a post about this book. My 22 year old daughter just finished reading The Happiness Project and raved about it to me. She had checked it out from the library, so I bought her a copy on Amazon so that she can have one for herself. I also bought an extra one for the family. I guess I’ll have to add it to my TBR pile. Thanks for sharing!


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