Noticing Happiness

One of the plenary speakers at this past May’s KOTESOL National Conference was Marc Helgesen. He spoke about “Well-being 2.0”. A video of his talk is here and I highly recommend it. There’s just too much there to blog about the whole thing. This post is about the first ten minutes of it. Seriously.


Well-being has been a hot topic in Korea for some time now. Starting a few years ago, stores, restaurants, and products started advertising themselves as “well-being”. At first I assumed it meant “healthy”, but when I started seeing “well-being fried chicken” and “well-being pizza and spaghetti” I became less certain. Now I’m certain that I have no idea what “well-being” means in Korea.


But Helgesen’s idea of well-being is what I wish it meant and what I want to introduce to my classroom. There are good reasons:


“Happy students learn more. Happy students work longer at tasks. Happy students approach tasks with more enthusiasm.” Marc Helgesen


Happiness creates a positive classroom environment. It is a sign that needs are being met. Happy students are more easily motivated and more willing to take risks, try new things.


Hegelsen cited this research, from “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, which identifies eight behaviors that come up in happy people:

Happy people:

Remember good things

Take time to say thank you

Do kind things

Take time for friends and family

Forgive (others and selves)

Stay healthy

Notice good things as they happen

Deal with problems


Helgesen reminds us that, as English teachers, we already deal with a lot of this stuff: as topics (Health, Friends and Family); grammar (Remember good things, Notice good things); speech acts (Thanking, Forgiving). This should not be difficult to incorporate mindfully into our lessons.


Next, he went on to introduce the PERMA model (by Martin Seligman in Flourish), on which the rest of the talk is based.

P is for Positive Emotion, which is happiness.


Helgesen recommends a quick activity: 3 Good Things. (Please visit for copies of handouts. I just did a search on the website for “3 Good Things”.)


In this activity, students identify three good things that happened in the past 24 hours and why (why it’s a good thing or why it happened).


This activity helps them to notice good things and expand on them to increase positive emotion.

Hegelsen said that research shows that after students to do this for one week, six months of positive results follow (along with six months drop in depressive symptoms).


This leads me to another good reason this interests me. The following photo appeared in my Twitter feed last week:


My best friend posted this heartbreaking writing assignment from one of his students with a request for help. Of course, no one knew how to help. Right now, the only thing standing between this 12 year old boy and the other side is fear of death. The teen suicide rate in Korea is one of the highest in the world. I wonder if, if we teach students to notice the good things in life as they happen, if we teach the science of well-being using the materials from ELT and Happiness in our classrooms as language points, we could reduce that rate.


And so I’m going to take “3 Good Things” into my classroom and begin to help my students to notice the good things in life and why they are good. It’s not going to make the challenges they face go away, but it might help them remember, during the difficult moments, that there are good reasons to keep trying.

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  • Sophia  On June 4, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    Heartbreaking is exactly the right word for that student’s writing…and from a 12 year old? I hope he is getting some help now. It seems like an awful situation for young people in Korea 😦 But I love your idea for “3 good things” and I will be using it – in class and out…

  • @kevchanwow  On June 7, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    You know, I’m not much of an activity-collector lately, but “3-good things” is an amazing way to help students explore the idea of gratitude. Thank you for the link. And for the post in general which has me thinking about what I can do to be a part of my students happiness.

    • livinglearning  On July 11, 2012 at 5:04 pm

      Sorry I’m so late coming back to this. I really meant to.
      I’ve been using 3 good things with one of my students lately. She was just going through exams (which is a very trying time here) and arrived in my class exhausted and stressed. She tried to keep it positive, but every now and then she made comments that worried me. So I started ending each lesson with 3 good things and I could see her relax. I know it’s not really teaching, but I was happy to contribute to the well-being of my student. (She has inspired quite a few of my blog posts, especially the earlier ones when she was my only student.)

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