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Happier Students Are Higher Achievers

written by Sherri Fisher 21 September 2011

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

You may (mistakenly) believe that doing well in school is all about having outstanding academic skills. While skills are important, they may not be the most important abilities that separate excellent students from their less successful colleagues.

Fortunately, the abilities that do make a difference can be developed. Unlike, say, “completing the square” or conjugating verbs in the subjunctive mood, they are also skills that improve one’s well being over a lifetime. There is even research that shows that the abilities I am about to share with you are the underlying cause of success, rather than merely the outcome of it.

Why Happiness Leads to Success

In a large metastudy from 2005, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener found that happiness causes success. Confidence, optimism, and self-efficacy fuel not only the underlying behaviors needed for individual success, including effective coping with challenge and stress, as well as originality and flexibility, they also yield both likability by others, positive views of others, sociability, activity, energy, and prosocial behavior. They are also correlated with increased immunity and physical well-being.

All of these positive outcomes of chronic happiness encourage a person to pursue goals and to interact flexibly with their environment, two general categories of behaviors that adults would say they want to see exhibited in students. According to Lyubomirsky, King, and Diener, happiness leads to success because of two main factors.


  1. Happy people have built up emotional resources over time during previous pleasant moods. 

  3. People with frequent positive moods have a greater likelihood of working actively toward new goals while experiencing those moods.

So happy people are more successful in general, and their success is in large part a consequence of their both their chronic happiness and their frequent experience of positive emotions.

Let’s Bring this Message to Schools

Those of us in school settings, let’s take advantage of the ideas emerging from research into human well-being.

For example, take Barbara Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build” theory. UNC/Chapel Hill Professor Fredrickson and others have found that positive emotions broaden our receptivity toward other people and experiences, and build psychological and social resources that lead to productivity and achievement. The upward spirals of positive emotion build what Fredrickson calls “consequential resources.”  From a list of more than a dozen benefits of positive emotion, here are five benefits that educators say they want in students.

Benefits of positive emotions:

  • Broadening thinking – Essential for effective problem solving, mindful critical thinking.
  • Expanding interpersonal trust – Key for building the relationships and teams that support learning. 
  • Increasing positive coping approaches – Important for dealing with the day-to-day ups and downs we all face.
  • Expanding mindsets – Students and teachers with a growth mindset know that “smart” is not what you are: it is a set of behaviors that you do. Students who are “smart” in this way get smarter.
  • Developing resilience – Substantive for preventing depression and moving forward through challenges; other research shows that more resilient students are higher achievers as well.

In the world of positive psychology, these findings are old news. However in the world of education, most people are unaware that well-being fuels the thinking and interpersonal trust that lead to student achievement, that gold-standard result of educational pursuits. New research in huge school districts now supports social emotional learning (happiness, resilience, relationship-building) as pathways to academic as well as social growth. The Penn Resiliency Program and the Strathhaven Positive Psychology Curriculum have demonstrated the connection between teaching resilience and strengths skills and increased achievement. However, until recently, there have been few resources for schools available outside of those provided within research studies.

New Book Makes Positive Psychology Research Practical for Schools

This past June, John Yeager, David Shearon, and I published a book that makes positive psychology research practical for any school: SMART Strengths. Loaded with activities, resources and real-life examples, SMART Strengths demonstrates how to change a school system, a school athletic team, or even a family, one person at a time, so that it’s not just about bringing positive education to students; it’s also about maximizing the strengths of the adults who interact with them in every environment that fosters both character and achievement. (Review on PPND is here).

Part One of the SMART model provides scripted activities for broadening and building the positive emotion that comes from using strengths, which is one of the validated interventions from University of Pennsylvania Professor Martin Seligman and colleagues’ 2005 study which showed that using strengths in new ways is an effective way to become lastingly happier.  In Part Two, we show you how to apply resilience tools, mindsets and goal setting research, as well how to use Appreciative Inquiry approaches to support this change.

Find out how your students can become more engaged throughout the school day without giving up accountability goals. SMART Strengths helps every kind of teacher and student. The book is structured to guide the reader through the experience of the three-part workshops that we give when introducing the SMART Strengths model. There are anecdotes and exercises designed to allow adults to engage with and internalize the three stages:

  1. defining strengths,
  2. building resilience,
  3. and building relationships.

It costs little for adults to use their inherent strengths, build resilience in embracing those strengths, and recognize and respond to their students’ strengths and abilities rather than to their deficiencies. Best of all, the investment is sustainable as it broadens and builds positive emotions in both youth and adults. This is an accessible yet thorough research-based approach that has been successfully used in real schools, teams, and families. Yours could be next.

In 2006, I was the first and only learning specialist in the world to have a degree in applied positive psychology. Now there is a growing field being built on the foundation of researchers like Seligman, Lyubomirsky, and Fredrickson. If you have been using positive psychology approaches with your students or children, and especially if you have been reading and using SMART Strengths, I’d love to hear from you.


Author’s Note: At this year’s International Positive Psychology Association World Congress in July, SMART Strengths outsold every other book available there. Nearly 15% of all conference attendees, representing six continents, purchased SMART Strengths!



Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. and Schellinger, K. B. (2011), The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82: 405–432.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001) The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions American Psychologist. 56, 218–226

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. A., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affectPsychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.

Seligman, M.E.P., Ernst, R.Gillham, J., Reivich, K., Linkins, M. (2009). Positive Education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35 (3), 293-311.

Seligman, Martin E. P.; Steen, Tracy A.; Park, Nansook; Peterson, Christopher. (2005) Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, Vol 60(5), 410-421

Yeager, J., Fisher, S., Shearon, D. (2011). SMART Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. New York: Kravis.

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