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From the Quad

Focus on the Happiness Factor

A traditional recipe for happiness in our society is the following: if I work harder, then I will be more successful; and if I am more successful, then I will be happier. This approach defers happiness until the specific goals are achieved. A person basks in the moment of accomplishment for a brief period before setting another goal, with happiness once again on the other side.

Shawn Achor, author of the recently released book Before Happiness, explains why this traditional model is backwards. The flaw is not inherent in setting goals, but rather in constantly pushing the requirements for happiness just beyond our reach. Increasingly, research documents that having a positive outlook in the present moment brings significant rewards. Achor's research shows that our brain in a positive state is 31% more productive—more creative, quicker, more energetic—than our brain in a neutral or stressed state. In a reversal of the original model, these happy feelings then increase our opportunities for success. Seventy-five percent of job successes," Achor explains, "are predicted by optimism levels, social support, and ability to see stress as a challenge instead of a threat."

The "happiness factor" is an elusive but key component in the work that I do as an educational advisor. For most students, many schools offer the right academic environment to be successful. But, this success is most easily and thoroughly achieved in a school where the student is genuinely happy. One can argue that without a baseline level of happiness, a student will never reach his or her true academic potential. I often find that parents focus on college placement lists and graduating SAT scores when researching schools. Of course those traditional measures should not be overlooked, but according to Achor's research, they are significantly less relevant than considering, "Where will my child be happy?"

At this time of year, many families are beginning their school search. Achor's research reinforces where our priorities should be. If students seek schools where they find joy and inspiration, then they will have a positive outlook for conquering their academic studies. Autumn is also a time when other Bertram Group candidates reap the rewards of last year's hard work as they settle into their new schools of choice. For those students, the happiness research is a reminder to live in the moment, even as they pursue new goals. From true happiness, excellence will grow.

Holly McGlennon Treat specializes in helping families interested in independent junior and secondary boarding schools. She can be reached at