For a few years now, Simon Sinek’s notion of The Golden Circle has been popular, especially in the corporate world.

In his books and his TED Talks, Sinek points to the powerful simplicity of the idea. By understanding their what, how and why, organizations and people can maximize their potential and their well-being. Sinek uses a simple diagram of three successively smaller overlapping circles to show the relationship among what, how and why.

  1. What (outer circle) reflects the things that organizations or people do.
  2. How (middle circle) reflects how organizations or people do what they do.
  3. Why (inner circle) reflects the essential reason(s) that organizations or people do what they do.

Sinek goes on to say that most organizations and people know what they do and how they do it, but fewer know their why. Sinek points to the example of Apple as a company that not only understands its what (we make excellent computers) and its how (the computers are user-friendly and beautifully designed), but also its why (we think differently and challenge the status quo). The result of knowing your why is a powerful guiding force that can keep an organization or a person perpetually and highly motivated.

This is the third in a series of articles on this theme.

The Happiness Advantage

If knowing and acting on your “why” is a powerful guiding force that requires a very strong emotional commitment, it is unlikely you can get to it without being happy.

In “The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance,” positive psychologist Shawn Anchor similarly suggests that rather than success being the precursor of happiness — happiness in fact leads to success.

Anchor elaborates, “When we are happy — when our mindset and mood are positive — we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful. Happiness is the center, and success revolves around it.”

When our brains get stuck in a pattern that focuses on stress, negativity and failure, we set ourselves up to fail, positive psychologists such as Anchor might say. Undoing negative patterns and establishing positive patterns are key.

When our brains develop the habit of looking for the positive, we profit from not only increased feelings of happiness, but enhanced feelings of gratitude and optimism seem to be more likely. Many classic studies in psychology have shown that simply the act of being happy, grateful or optimistic, even in contrived experimental settings, leads to actual enhanced feelings of all three positive psychological experiences.

Education’s Role

Although you’re unlikely to find a formal curriculum on the topic, a fundamental purpose of school is to teach students how to be happy.
Students certainly can be happy as a reaction to curriculum content. For example, most students react positively to a favorite subject because they have an affinity for it and it brings them pleasure in and of itself.

Schools can also intentionally educate for happiness. This becomes especially important for students with long-term patterns of school-related stress, negativity and failure. Negative experiences associated with learning and schools, especially when they persist over a period of time, take their toll. These experiences undercut creativity, raise stress levels and lower motivation. Thus, helping students find their path to happiness is even more critical.

At Currey Ingram, we educate students with learning differences who may have had negative experiences in their previous school settings. Here, it is an explicit and critical component of our educational program to ensure our students are exposed to experiences that bring them real, earned happiness. We provide built-in, systematic and substantive success experiences through athletics, the arts and extracurriculars, as well as in the classrooms.

For example, in the Lower School, students are recognized at regular Success Assemblies. Middle School students are Caught with Character and recognized during regular morning announcements. In the Upper School, a strong teacher-student mentoring program and student-led conferences intentionally provide our older students with opportunities to frame their experiences and build on past successes.

The school experience, just like the human experience, is a social enterprise. There is an entire life of schools that never really appears in the stated curriculum. It is mainly within the interactions that students have with one another and with educators that they are educated towards happiness. The educator’s charge, in fact, is to establish a tone of happiness — to model a happy or grateful response even to life’s stressors and to point students toward success experiences that are real and meaningful.

If you are concerned with your children’s happiness, or your students’ happiness, I highly recommend Shawn Anchor’s book. I think it feeds nicely into the common wisdom of our day that is pointing more and more schools toward holistic practices, mindfulness and service learning. The takeaway, of course, is that when we’re happy we operate at our highest potential. We are more likely to not only know what and how, but also the ever-important why.

extra-credit-for-footerDr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school for Currey Ingram Academy. “Extra Credit” is provided each month by Currey Ingram Academy to help parents at all schools and at all stages of the parenting journey. Currey Ingram Academy is a coed, independent K-12 school in Brentwood for students with learning differences such as dyslexia and ADHD. For more information, click here.