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by David Hoffman

Did you know that “40% of our positivity is determined by our thoughts and actions,” or that “the overwhelming conclusion from [recent] research is that positivity or happiness leads to success” and not the other way around (Cabrera, 2012)? A lot of research has been conducted in the past two decades relating to the effects of our attitude on our performance at work and at school. While some studies show mixed results, it is nevertheless clear that the power of positivity is significant as we try to learn or improve our abilities in any arena. 

In her 2004 article, Barbara Lee Fredrickson shows that as people are more joyful, they play more. As they play more, they gain more interest in their subject because their natural curiosity urges them to explore. With this exploration, a greater sense of contentment begins to set in, which allows learners to sit back and integrate new information into their worldview. In a relaxed state, the brain more easily integrates new information, and learning has been shown to be at its maximum when learners are in a positive mindset. The question, then, is how to make learners or workers more joyful at their tasks.


Rowe (2008) suggests that (in the workplace, at least) joy can be increased through what she calls “micro-affirmations.” These are “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening. Micro-affirmations lie in the practice of generosity, in consistently giving credit to others – in providing comfort and support when others are in distress … [and] include the myriad details of fair, specific, timely, consistent and clear feedback that help a person build on strength and correct weakness.” In essence, as employers can help to build up employees by showing kindness and generosity, so, too, can we as educators or learners help ourselves and others to better performance through kindness and generosity to ourselves and others.

Practicing kindness, focusing on the positive aspects of our environment, and generally trying to maximize the 40% of our positivity which we control can lead to an increase in our abilities to learn and perform what we have learned. 

Bring Positivity to the Classroom

In my classes, for example, I give writing topics that ask students to focus on positive aspects of their life: a favorite memory from childhood, their happiest moment of the last year, the best part of their culture, their biggest hope for the future. In discussions, we try to find the positive in any situation, especially as the news is full of dire warnings and terrible occurrences from around the world. With news like this, we try to find solutions that we can enact today or brainstorm more generally how society should respond positively. Additionally, as a teacher, I make a point to learn about my students’ lives and ask them how they are doing, what their interests are, and what they like about our school or our city. Even a small focus on positivity can change attitudes in class and create a better atmosphere overall.

What do you do to increase your own positivity prior to going to class or to work? What can you do to help others be more positive at school or work? If you believe in the recent research, anything you do to become more positive will help not only you, but others, to reach goals more quickly and effectively.

What do you think? Have you tried any explicit positivity-building exercises? Please comment below to let us know and share your ideas.


Cabrera, E.F. (2012). The six essentials of workplace positivity. People & Strategy, 35(1), 50-57, 60

Fredrickson, B.L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. The Royal Publishing Society.

Rowe, M. (2008). Micro-affirmations & micro-inequities. Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, 1(1),  1-9