Henry: A lot of decision making starts with problems. What needs to be solved. A better approach is to start by looking at what is already working and how to extend it. One thing that is not happening enough in American education is looking at good examples around the world. Canada, Australia, Estonia, Italy with early childhood education. Japan for elementary education. There are a lot of great best practices out there, but I think we just aren’t looking far enough.
Kathryn: Many people seem to be making decisions based on fear. What do you think would be a better basis for decision-making?
Peter Drucker said that an organization should have an alignment of strengths that makes weaknesses irrelevant. I work in this great school but we spend so much time talking about the problems without necessarily reviewing the many things that are working well. I spend a lot of time building relationships with students because research shows that makes a difference. I think people want to be seen. If students know that I know them and they feel like I’m on their sides, they’ll come to class on time. They’ll do the work. Of course, I’m also at a school that’s very much project-based, where the students have a lot of say. I pay attention to spreading my attention to all of them.
I think organizations and people just generally focus too much on the negative. But most of us are really looking for opportunities. You and I are both writers. I don’t get writer’s block any more because I think, “I’m just gonna put it out there. I’m gonna do my best. I may get negative feedback, but because I have a different perspective, other people might benefit from what I have to say.” I certainly like it when people ask me to read their stuff. Having an abundant connective way of everyday commerce in the world is the way we should make our decisions, not out of fear.
Kathryn: What does science teach us about the benefits of being optimistic?
Henry: We are plastic. We can learn stuff. If we change how we think about something, we can change our futures. There’s so much good out there. Yes, there are problems. But let’s focus on the solutions that are possible. For example, we have models for climate change. Look at the Montreal protocol and its effect on the ozone hole. Pollution has become so much better in many countries than it was 30-40 years ago.
There’s a lot of evidence that having an optimistic outlook has a lot of good outcomes. We tend to have better health, greater success and achievement, experience less stress, have more positive emotions, and live longer. These are pretty robust findings. The question I’m interested in is, “If we change our world view, does that also affect our well-being?” I’m not sure it has been answered yet. We have pretty strong correlational evidence. But has it been proved that if you change this, you will change that?
Kathryn: In your teaching, do you find that you have an impact on the world views, whether optimistic or pessimistic, of your students?Henry: Yes. Let me give you an example. There’s a girl in the school. Let’s call her Jill. Jill is very anxious. I found her in a depressed state one day. She said to me, “I think we are screwed with global warming.” I told her that the two big environmental problems when I was growing up were acid rain and the ozone hole. Nations got together and made them better. I think it changed her world view. She’s a scientist, and she is asking, “Are things really worse?” I’m seeing students question the bad news more.
Kathryn: How has writing this book changed you personally?
Henry: At first, I was afraid of being the optimist on stage, because I thought people would shoot me down, no matter what argument I could give them. But I’ve gotten so much positive feedback. On Sunday, I was at a house with 20 people. They were so moved by the idea that there’s so much good in the world and so many things going right. They had no idea. People have been shocked. One of my coworkers bought the book because she needs the daily basting in stories of progress. We actually do have the efficacy to solve these big problems.
Kathryn: What holds people back from a practice of daily gratitude?
Henry: I think habit. Assuming the worst is easy, but there’s a hangover. When I got sober 26 years ago, I didn’t have a gratitude habit. It was hard to build. People get habituated to the good in the world. We’re habituated now to the fact that few people smoke. But I remember moving through clouds of smoke when I was younger. When we get use to the good, we forget to be grateful for it.
Kathryn: How does your book help people address that?Henry: It provides a daily reminder of the good. June 18th is about a pioneer in the treatment of malaria. People used to get malaria here in the US, but it and most major mosquito-borne diseases have been controlled. June 19 is about the Gideon decision which gives legal representation to people who can’t pay for it. June 21 is about the GI Bill, certainly a big thing that people forget. The reason we have such high college attainment rates in the US is that the GI Bill got average people into college. Then June 22 is about the Cuyahoga River. We’ve gone from Burn on Big River to the Clean Water Act of 1972 to the Cuyahoga being named the “River of the Year” by the American River Association to celebrate its phenomenal cleanup. Story after story about human progress.
Kathryn: What’s next for you?
Henry: My mission is to co-create a better world by accentuating human goodness and human progress. I think about my own troubles as a kid. My parents did their best, but I was alone a lot, depressed, and didn’t really follow my dreams. I really want to help in a way that I wanted to be helped as a kid. So first I want help people see the good because I was not seeing it as a kid.I love Gen Z. These kids are interesting, honest, direct, funny, and they know a lot about what they want. I think I speak to them in a way that is respectful, with camaraderie and rapport. So, I want to write a book for teenagers about positive psychology because I don’t think there is such a book yet. I used Dan Lerner’s book last year for my high school class. It’s great, but it’s for college. I want to focus on mindfulness, because I think that’s such an important skill and lifestyle choice. I think a lot of the attentional problems that students have can be aided just with meditation.
I ask myself, “How do I change the world?” It is guided by my own wounds growing up, which were not really being seen and not really being helped. I want to write for high school kids in the age range 14 to 18. I want to write on mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and positive emotions. The top-level idea will be purpose as a way for them to use positive psychology to be happier. Relationships particularly with peer groups are important too. I should have a section on picking friends well, because the people you spend time with can make such a difference.
Kathryn: How would you like to sum up?
Henry: My feeling is just there’s so much goodness that we’re not seeing, not savoring. The things I talk about are real. No iron lungs any more. Look at a picture of my father’s MIT class compared to my MAPP class: his class was all men, almost entirely white while my class had lots of women, people from all over the world. We need to latch on to changes like this more.
Edwards, H. (2019). The Daily Better: 365 Reasons for Optimism. Authors Place Press.
Lerner, D. (2017). U Thrive: How to Succeed in College (and Life). Little, Brown, Spark.
Rossling, H. (2018). Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Flatiron Books.
Kindergarten children in Malaysia exercising Photo by Uwe Aranas
Save the Planet! by Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Mosquito Netting by Tjeerd Wiersma from Amsterdam, The Netherlands – Flickr
High school students Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash