Ep 25: The Habit of Happiness with Grace Stevens
Susan Riley: All right, well, welcome Grace. I’m so glad that you’re on this show today. Can you please share a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Grace Stevens: Okay, well I am delighted to be here. Thanks for having me. So I’m Grace Stevens and I was a classroom teacher for 20 years until just last year. I was, in fact, a second career teacher.
I already had a, a big career in the corporate world, vp, the whole catastrophe, I would say at this point. And I made this choice all of a sudden to become a public school teacher and. It was the best decision I ever made. I loved it, but I said I would do it for 20 years which I did. And then I decided to go full-time into helping teachers have a more positive experience.
So during the time that I was in the classroom, I was writing books and doing other things to help support teachers, but now I focus on doing PD and courses and other staff to, like I said, help teachers have a more positive teaching experience.
Susan Riley: That’s amazing. You have such a journey already. I mean, like you’re on your third career.
Grace Stevens: I am on my third act, exactly. I am on my third act, so yes. Well, you know, I was a corporate person and then I was a public servant, and then I had always decided at some point in my life I wanted to work for myself. And so. I’m a really good boss. I enjoy working for myself. So , that’s my third act.
Susan Riley: That’s half the battle, right?
Grace Stevens: That is half the battle. Yeah.
Susan Riley: So Grace, you’ve written this incredible book called Positive Mindset Habits for Teachers. What did you discover about mindset that has you wanting to write this book and why did you write this book?
Grace Stevens: That is such a great question. So, I actually wrote a book over a decade ago called The Happy Habit, and it wasn’t geared towards teachers.
And the reason I wrote it was actually, I’m gonna be honest, it was, it was kind of for myself. So I quit this corporate career because I was very stressed, overwhelmed, traveling with young kids at home, you know, all the things. And I began teaching. And to me, I felt like, excuse me, I had won the jackpot. Like I found it.
I found it easy. I mean, then great. And I, it just made me happy. It came easily to me. I felt it had purpose, which was what I was looking for, and it, it was just a wonderful thing. But pretty soon, a few years in all the same issues that I’d had at my corporate career, start coming back anxiety, stress, overwhelm and, you know, I didn’t have another career change. Like, I can’t change careers again. I love this career. I need you to change me.
And so I went on this voyage for myself of self-discovery about like, what makes me tick, how is it that I create my own experience that, you know, I’m having, like I have the same kids, the same class, the same grade, the same things that I had two years ago, and I was super happy with it then, so what happened?
So I just studied. I started studying positive psychology and neurolinguistic programming. I studied that for like 10 years, right? How am I creating these things and these experiences and these emotions? And the more I, I dove into it, the more empowered I felt like I learned so many things that I had just, you know, never learned in school.
And I came up with these kind of habits for myself. And then, People would ask me, like, you always seem so upbeat, and which is, you know, most days I am, I mean, there are days the lemonade stand is closed, don’t get me wrong. But as a general raw, I’m kind of like optimistic and, and willing to assume the best of people.
And I had to explain to people, no, I had to train myself to do that. I come from a strong, a strong background of poor mental health in my family. And learning the science that that doesn’t determine necessarily how your life is gonna play out was very empowering. So I wrote the book – have it right here, because I still love the cover.
The little guy with the toast bit now, happy. And then so that was quite, that was like I said, over a decade ago and then it occurred to me about five years ago, like, I should turn this for teachers. How did these habits play out in the classroom? First I made a journal that supported the habits and then I wrote so that’s kind of how that came about. And since then I have written other books, but this is, that was kind of like the starting point for me about actually writing about teachers’ experiences.
Susan Riley: Yeah. And so, and what I love about your story is that you turned inward. That it wasn’t when you struggled in the classroom, it wasn’t, you weren’t blaming anything that was going on.
It was, although we very well can. Right. Obviously lots, there’s a lot of problems. Right. But I love that you turned inward and thought, you know, this might be something that a cycle for me and I need to address that myself. And that’s, that’s why when I read the, the Positive Mindset Habits for Teachers, that’s one of the things that I actually really enjoyed, is that it allows, it empowers us to take control over what we can control.
And focus on ourselves and our minds and how the brain is just such an amazing organ and that it, it really can direct a lot of what we’re trying to do in a more meaningful way if we tap into it. So in the book, when you talk about the neuroscience that’s involved in the effect of happiness on the brain… can you share a little bit about what the science says in terms of the effect that happiness has on the brain?
Grace Stevens: Sure, okay. So it goes two ways. So I first wanna acknowledge that when I wrote the original book like I said, it, it is been a really long time. It was a less well received idea. It was considered a little woo.
I’m not in a… I mean, I, I like to describe myself as woowoo adjacent. Like, I’m kind of open to lots of ideas, but I like to stick with the science. But since you know Angela Duckworth, then you say, not Angela Duckworth. I apologize since the growth mindset work, right. People, I think, are more open to the idea, just as your intelligence isn’t fixed, neither is your happiness set.
So like everybody has a natural happiness set point that is hereditary, but it only counts for like 50%. Your life circumstances only count for 10%. So that’s 40% of what your kind of basic overall happiness quotient is, is based on intentional habits. And so that’s the part that I focus on. So a, a, a more happy, positively focused brain is more productive.
It is more creative and it just makes for a life experience for you and conversely everybody around you. And so I looked at the science, the different things, you know, the people on the hedonic kind of treadmill thinking, oh, I’ll be happy when, or overestimating how happy you think, you know, a new pair of shoes is gonna make you, or the ideal grade assignment is gonna make you, or you know, a new school is gonna make you, and very soon that kind of wears off, right?
So, It’s looking at things that can ground us in being happy right now, and positively just training the brain to be more positively focused, which you can actually do. And so all of that, the different things that I had looked at, and I guess I’d practice with myself and kind of integrated into my life as, as far as habits.
I broke it down into a framework and I call it the Echo framework. So E C H O It was like, ooh, you know, what you put out comes back like the sound. But the first premise, which is, excuse me, everywhere through the book it, the e is your energy teaches more than your lesson plans, right?
So how you show up, you know, why should you be happy? Won’t you want a better experience too? Because it delivers a better experience for students and they learn more. So we know that if we think about our favorite teacher, when we were growing up, it was not a teacher who was frustrated and overwhelmed and resentful and we knew, hated the curriculum and didn’t have positive relations with other teachers.
Like, like your energy teachers, more like how you show up. How you are willing to be, you know, calm and consistent with classroom management. Cheerful, willing to assume the best for students. See their, you know, their behavior as you know, really cries for help and want to assist them as opposed to being frustrated by them.
Like all of that, that vibe that you have. is more important than what curriculum you have or what war day call you have, or you know what tech you have even even though those things are as important, the most important thing for me, I felt was your energy. So that was the E part. The C is, you know, you can choose what you control, right? So that’s just as we had discussed, like the third, the H is happiness could be synthesized. So that is the one of the big premises in the book. And then the O in echo is other teachers’ experiences does not need to be your experience. And I feel that. now. Rightly so, there is a very negative narrative about education right now.
And it’s not that there aren’t problems, there are many, many problems, but your experience doesn’t need to be the same as everybody else’s. I could have the same group of kids that the teacher did last year, every time I walked past them in the hall, would say, oh, wait to get those kids. Oh my gosh, they’re the worst.
And I have a totally different experience with them , like, so it really so those are like the four foundational things that are repeated through, through my work. Mm-hmm. and my teaching. It’s, it’s really that framework. But yes, this particular book was based on an introduction to that and it really is about controlling you, your vibe, your energy, your mindset, and that’s how it came to be. Yeah.
Susan Riley: So, and I think the, the part others experience does not have to be your experience. I think that is so powerful, particularly right now. Yeah. I think it was, it was hard, especially during the pandemic when we were all remote.
The only way that we could reach out and be with each other was through this online learning area. And so you were watching people, some of them were, were doing great, some of them were struggling, and people just kind of naturally gravitated towards, you know, what they saw. But that, yeah. Now that we’re out of that and we’re moving to a different experience in total that those others experiences that’s so important does not have to be your own.
I think that is a hugely powerful message for all of us. Yeah. You had said that happiness can be synthesized, can you expand on that a little bit? What does that mean?
Grace Stevens: Sure, so what that means is, like I had mentioned before that you, there’s a hereditary component, right? Mm-hmm, and that’s the part that her concern… coming from a family that had, you know, mental health struggles and then seeing myself suffering with depression and anxiety and other things, you know, was, am I, you know, predetermined, is that gonna be now my life? I mean, on the same way I, I have most people in my immediate family are diabetic, so I am not. Right? There are lifestyle changes that can not type one diabetes, but type two, right? You, they’re a lifetime change. It doesn’t mean you’re more predetermined to have it, but you’re not, it’s not a foregone conclusion. And so it’s the same with your happiness quotient. Like, like your ability to like just kind of be optimistic is 50%.
Yes, you are born with, you know, did you win the lottery and have the happy gene or didn’t you? Right. And then 10%, only 10% is your circumstances, which seems crazy, but there is, you know, research to back that. So that other 14%, that’s where you can synthesize happiness. You can create your own kind of positive vision for how the day’s gonna go and practices, the habits that you have help you have a more positive experience of life. So that’s what I mean when it can be synthesized. Like you can hack your brain. You can make new pathways just because, you know, on average day, we think, you know, between, they estimate between 60 and 80,000 thoughts a day.
I don’t know, you know, people with big budgets figure that out. Not me. I don’t know how you would figure that out, but, but you know, apparently 90% of those thoughts, and unless you make an intentional effort, are negatively focused. I mean, we, you know, we studied, yeah. Psychology 1 0 1, right?
Negativity bias, right. Or whatever. So you can, there are intentional habits that you can do in, the word there is intentional, intentionally, like it takes, excuse me, intention to turn them into habits. And then that can help you be more positively focused. And so I look at… Go ahead. So I had just really like, looked at the research. There was a lot of research that came out of Harvard. There was a lot of Ted talks, like I said about, you know, 12 years or 10, 12 years ago. It was a little bit more of a woowoo idea. But now, you know, I, I mean Harvard has awesome happiness.
It’s like their most attended class. So now it’s a much more prevalent conversation.
Susan Riley: Yeah. So when you talk about habits that we can develop for happiness, can you, can you share like one or two of your favorites that you feel are the most powerful or the most beneficial?
Grace Stevens: So I think well there was 10 in the book I think the first one is, you know, intentionality. So just, just decide, right? You gotta decide, you gotta decide like, I’m not gonna be a victim. And I do want to say it’s not toxic positivity. I think, you know, we should probably, I’m just gonna bring that up.
Susan Riley: Yes.
Grace Stevens: Just talk about that. Let’s tell me what’s, yeah, okay.
For sure. And then I’ll tell you some of the habits because otherwise I don’t want people to think like, oh, this lady’s just gonna give us a pep rally. Right. It’s, that’s not what it is. Okay. So toxic positivity, which is definitely now a big buzzword. And, and, you know, naming a problem that is real and very subtle and has been in education for a long time. And that idea is though toxic positivity is a kind of, you know, gaslighting, I’d say it’s making people think the questionnaire reality, oh, it isn’t that bad. And it’s the kind of messaging that is very prevalent in some campuses that is like really not wanting to acknowledge the problem.
And saying, but you know, we’re in it for the kids. And you know, even when I say how you show up matters, your energy teaches more than your lesson plans. Like that could be construed poorly. That, you know, those, those memes that say positive vibes only. I mean, you can’t, you can’t discredit people’s feelings.
Like there are a lot of issues in education. Okay. So, and I would liken toxic positivity to this is if you go to your admin and you, you know, you’ve got an overcrowded classroom, behavior issues, you know all the things, right? All the things. And then there , you go and you say like, your tank is on empty.
Like, I’m driving this car, it’s on empty, and then your admin’s like, it’ll be okay. Just do your best. That’s the equivalent of putting like a smiley face sticker on your empty gas tank. Like, that’s not gonna do anything. Right? Just like you’ve gotta fix some problems. So toxic positivity is like not validating people’s concerns.
It’s like pretending that there are no issues, and this is very, this is… people need to recognize, you know, it’s not it’s not binary. Emotions aren’t binary. It’s not that you either love education or hate education. Like you can love teaching and know that that is everything that you were supposed to do and be frustrated at the…. You could love students and want them to be successful and be burnt out by how dysregulated a lot of them are right now. Right? And so toxic positivity will be just to, you know, like I said, put a smiley face on it and just say, oh, just do your best. We’re family. It’s for the kids. Like a rah pep rally.
This isn’t that. This is saying, listen, no one’s coming to save you. Right. If you want to have a more positive experience, you are gonna have to figure it out because the issues in education are real. There are no quick, easy fixes, or we would’ve done it already. And given that, what can you take control over to make sure that your experience is as positive as.
You know, we, it’s not, like I said, I, I wanted to work for myself. That’s very different than being a public servant. You have control over so little. And so the part that you can control, which is your mindset, your habits, what you intentionally do to make sure you, yourself are taking care of yourself and having the best experience for yourself, because that bleeds out to everybody else.
So that’s what that is, some of my favorite habits would be really starting the day with intention. I always made sure I got to school a little bit early and really kind of set my radar to look for things that, to focus on things that I wanted, not on things that I didn’t. So, for example, let’s say that, you know, you have a class of 30 kids and on any given day, you know, three, five of them are competing for class clown, right?
Just the way it’s, you know, and, and next year when those students are no longer in your class, you’re gonna find their antics very funny. But while you’re dealing with them, it’s frustrating. Okay. So there’s five, there are 25 other kids in that room who are doing a really good job…. so you can wear yourself out.
You need to control the situation. You need to manage it. You’re not a victim of that. Get the skills. If you are lacking some classroom management skills or you need some support, take responsibility to do that. But then don’t let all your mental and emotional energy get consumed with those students, right?
When you go in the staff room, how today, ugh. And you just complain about them and you’re dragging them around. I remember one time I got home from work and I was sitting at the dinner table and I was, you know, just complaining, complaining, complaining about this parent who was so unreasonable and all these things.
And my husband said to me, gosh, it seems like that person really bothered you. And I said, they do. And he said, well, why did you bring them to dinner? Okay, that’s good. So one of the habits that I really like and why I created the journal was, it has a series of prompts and one of them is to develop this closing ritual at the end of the day, which is to write down the three best parts of your day.
And so that does a couple of things. One, it helps, like I said, I’m big on on your linguistic programming. It’s a pattern interrupt. It’s telling yourself, you know, I would put, you know, my journal by my keys. The last thing I would do before I would clean up, you know, my desk, and I would write, what were the three best parts about my day.
So one, it kind of told my, my, my brain, I’m separating. Now I’m done with my day two. It meant when I went home and somebody asked me, how was your day? Those would be top of mind. The three things that went great. Something funny a kid said, or am I, I got, or that moment when a kid goes, “oh, I got it.”
That moment we live for. And the other thing it would do is all day my radar would be set. Is that it? Is that gonna make the top three? Hmm? Is that it? Is that gonna make the top three? Like, it just helped me be more positively focused and set my radar for things that I wanted. So that was one of my favorite habits.
And also, you know, incorporating it with my students. We had a joy jar. If something was going great or something you were real happy about in class, there was little stickies there and you’d write it in, you’d put it in. And sometimes when the vibe in the room wasn’t great and I’d be like, “Hey, who wants to check out a happy memory?”
And your kid will be excited. “Oh, remember when this happened?” Like, so teaching kids, sometimes an exit ticket would be you know, a compliment or something they were grateful for. Instead of three things you learned today, like yeah, what was something you were proud of today. So those types of habits were amongst my favorite and the other more subtle habit, and I think more important now than ever is just to be really aware of our mental diet.
Like we passively consume, and I’m guilty of it too. I, I really, I have to sleep with my phone outside of my room, which a decade ago I would go after myself. Why would your phone be in… But you just, yeah, you know, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.
Right. And that I think is being aware, we’re so conscious of what we put in our bodies. Like we wouldn’t eat junk food all day and expect to feel great. Yeah. Okay. You can have a treat once in a while. Love me. A glass of wine, a piece of chocolate, don’t get me wrong. But not all day, every day eating junk food.
I wouldn’t expect to function well. Well, it’s the same with your brain. If you passively consume what is thrown at you, media. Media, which is very negatively focused. Of course. Yeah. Cause that’s what sells. That’s right. How are you going to expect to. Have a healthy brain, to have a healthy mindset.
Dr. Daniel Aon, who has done a lot, and I’m sure you know of his, his work, but he likens it to, you know, when people just turn on the news or what, you know, what you call doom scrolling all day. He likens it to drinking trauma from a fire hose. Yeah. Like our brain and our nervous system is not capable of doing.
So a lot of this is based on nervous system work, about being, you know, dysregulated about it being in constant fight or flight or freeze or foreign mode because we’re all people pleasers. That’s a lot of the things that we do as teachers. Right? Lack of boundaries. Yeah. And it is just, you know, back in the day when our nervous system was meant to just worry about our local.
Community. That’s what it was built on. We lived in little communities and we had to worry about, you know, the, the tiger that was outside or, you know, , whatever the, the immediate concerns were. Our nervous system was never or not yet, hasn’t caught up to worrying about every bad thing that’s happening in every place of the world right now on a constant news cycle until something worse happens, right?
Yeah. And so that really is an intentional habit, is to watch your mental diet what are you consuming because it absolutely, it really affects your mindset and your nervousness. Yeah. And then, you know, they’re all the mind body, they. We know that they’re all connected.
Susan Riley: They’re all connected. Yeah.
Well, and I like this because I, you talk about it in terms of what are you, what are you looking for? Your radar? Yeah. I always think of it like a, almost like a radio station dial, because if you wanna listen, if you wanna listen for negative, you can tune into a negative station. If you wanna listen to positive, you can always turn it to a more positive station.
And so it’s where you’re tuning and what station you wanna land on. And, I like that there’s, there is some sense of control there. You don’t have to partake in the negative. You can turn, turn the, the frequency to a different channel if you want to. And also the, the three things that you are most grateful for.
I love this habit. because, and I also like to do it right at night before I go to sleep. Yes. Because, yes. Based on the research that I’ve read, 95% if not more, of what we do and, and like what we do throughout the day, who we are as people, 95% of it, percent of it is based in our subconscious, yes.
Rather than our conscious pilot. And. So if you can, if you can program your subconscious with three things that you were grateful for that day, or three things you’re looking forward to in the day ahead. That’s what I’ll often do before I go to sleep. I’m, I keep thinking, I’m programming my subconscious to look now for positive so that it can run on autopilot.
And that way I don’t have to try, which is why I love this about the idea of. One of the books that I’ve, that I really love about habit making and habit form. Just on a, on a regular basis is called Atomic Habits from James Clear.
Grace Stevens: Oh, awesome.
Susan Riley: And he talks about the idea of habits stacking. Yeah. Which I use on a, a, a regular basis in a lot of different ways, not just for habits, but for actual kinda work that we can layer.
Do you feel like habit stacking can also be beneficial when we’re looking at happiness habits like the ones that you described?
Grace Stevens: Absolutely. So this the first book I wrote, the Happy Habits was a part of a series of books I wrote called One New Habit. And it was based on that micro habits.
I called them Micro Habits. He calls ’em Atomic Habits. Yeah. I love his book. I saw him speak at a conference last year and it was, Gosh, he’s had so many insightful things. Like I took so many notes, but yeah, so habit stacking is the idea of you take a habit that you already have, right? And you, that is already, you know, you do without thinking.
That’s why I say all these habits are intentional. Like, you gotta, right, you gotta bypass your subconscious planning. And so let’s say that in the morning you always have a cup of coffee. and you make the coffee maker before you go to bed, right? So in the morning you just gotta push the button.
Well, if one of your goals for the new year new habit is to drink more water, then put your water bottle on top of the coffee maker, right? Yeah. Because you’re gonna go to the coffee maker anywhere there’s the water bottle. Now you incorporate the habit. So yeah, a lot of these habits can be stacked.
And so I’m gonna say, let’s give an example. How about if you’re working with the students. Like I said, if you are incorporating the three best parts of your day mm-hmm, having them, when you’re filling out, when you think, oh, later on I need to, you know, write my journal, have a habit with the kids. A quick brain break.
Right. Hey, quick grab piece of paper. Here’s one I like to do. That isn’t in the book because it takes some time. Sometimes kids really need to refocus and I would break the kids, let’s say. Awesome. If there were, you know, cut the class into groups at five or six if they’re already at the table sitting there.
And say, you know, you’re gonna take A through D, you’re gonna take E through G and you’re gonna write down everything. That makes you happy, starting with that letter, right? So if somebody has a, they’re gonna write, I don’t know, apple pie or Applebee’s or whatever. Just something to, it makes me think of Julie Andrews singing.
These are a few of my favorite things. So, yeah, think of your favorite things, right? And so just to help kids do that too, it’s a brain break for you too, right? Or another one. When I think of things that one of the big. . One of the things that struck me when I studied, you know, the research, the literature, and one of the reasons that really made me pivot the original book into teaching was when you look at the research and the kind of like the building blocks for happiness.
How many of them are already intrinsic in teaching? So some of the building blocks, the happiness are, you know
Having purpose, right? Teaching , right? Connections, right? Social connections. Less so now, but certainly when I started occupational self-direction. So like being creative and having fun, right? Flow state being completely focused now that those are already built into teaching, right? If you are, you know, that moment when you’re just all in your zone and you’re all learning and you know, that is flow state.
I remember there were times obviously in my life, like anybody who’s lived to, you know, my age, that, you know, bad things have happened, parents have died, or you know, whatever… it was always amazing to me that no matter what I was dealing with when I got to school for six hours, it was almost like a meditation.
Like you didn’t have a chance to think about anything else, right? You were just busy in it with the kids, like in a flow state, and so there are so many, like I said, when I looked at it like that, teachers should be happier if you really look at the science, I mean purpose. Connection. So many connections.
So thinking about those habits, if you’re thinking about being grateful, and one of the strategies I suggest is, When you get your emails in the morning and you go through, just pick one person to say, “Hey, I appreciate you,” or “Thank you.” Whatever. So you’re being grateful and at the same time you are sharing it, you’re making a connection.
So that’s the perfect way to, to stack a habit. Yeah. Or in the journal that I have, one of the prompts for the week is, who can I champion this week? Right. That was inspired by, you know, Rita Pearson’s, you know, amazing Ted Talk about every child needs a champion, and so the idea is at the beginning of the week, you think about a kid who maybe doesn’t get all the, you know, awards and accolades, but is doing a really good job.
How can I champion all week without them knowing. And then when you notice something great that they’re doing, that you’re building them up for, take that moment to email their parents a quick text. If you have a classroom management app, like it’s, it used to be back in the day, you’d have to call a person and then you’re like, “oh, I might get stuck on the phone.”
Right. Like, but a little copy and paste. Like, “Hey, just wanna let you know. I’m so proud of how they’re working. You know, I love having them in class.” Like that spreads it. You multiply your gratitude really by sharing it. That’s and so those are easy habits that you can stack for sure.
Susan Riley: For sure. So like what you appreciate appreciates, right?
Grace Stevens: Exactly. Exactly.
Susan Riley: Yeah. Oh, well I could talk about this all day long because that’s a fascinating topic, but we gotta wrap up. So before I do, can you let people know how they can stay in touch with you, where they can find you so that they can learn? .
Grace Stevens: Yeah, sure. So I have a website. Happyclassrooms.com. But if you go there, you can get a free six week version of the Journal. So even if you haven’t read the book, if you start going through the little, the little journal and the little prompts in that, they’re all based on the science and that’ll help you. So you can find me there.
You can also find me at gracestevens.com and it’s Stevens with a v and right now what I am really passionate about getting out into the world is a new book I’ve almost finished and it’s about balance and boundaries. Oh, wonderful. I really see, oh my gosh, teachers that since there was always a struggle to separate school and home.
Yeah. But. Since the pandemic where we were all, you know, in each other’s kitchens and bedrooms and living rooms, like those lines used to get blurred. Now they were obliterated, right? And I see teachers really struggling to reinstate those boundaries. And so if you go to grace stevens.com/boundaries I actually have a video masterclass that’s free on setting appropriate boundaries.
And I would love for people to to watch that.
Susan Riley: Absolutely, we are gonna link that in the show notes for sure. Perfect. So, but in the meantime, thank you so much for your time today, Grace. It’s wonderful speaking with you.
Grace Stevens: Really My pleasure. And I love your podcast. I do listen and I love your mission and like I say, my message just to teachers is there is still so much joy to be found in.
But you have to look and no one’s gonna save you. You can do it. Take control yourself. It doesn’t mean it’s gonna be easy. There is no magic solution. But it can help you feel empowered. So for sure. Thank you.
Susan Riley: Well, thank you, Grace. You’re welcome.