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February 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Four Activities to Increase Your Happiness at Work

Duncan Foord is a Coach and Mentor for ELT. He is the Director of OxfordTEFL, Barcelona. He has 35 years’ experience in language teaching, teacher training and school leadership and management. He is the author of “From English Teacher to Learner Coach” (with Dan Barber, The Round 2014) The Developing Teacher (Delta Publishing, 2009). He is lead trainer on the OxfordTEFL Leadership in ELT course. Email:



According to John Lennon “Happiness is a warm gun” (that was the title of a Beatles song on the Double White Album of 1969). Perhaps not what most of us would think of when asked about happiness, especially when he continues with “…bang bang, shoot shoot.” Lana del Rey on the other hand, fifty years later says “Happiness is a butterfly; we should catch it while dancing… “. (Norman F***ing Rockwell, 2019) Boomers and millennials in a nutshell, you are probably thinking, but the point I am making is that happiness, whatever that may be, is likely to mean quite different things to different people.

Happiness may not be a warm gun, but it may also not be a week in the Caribbean sipping cocktails by the pool, it all depends, and not just on who you are, but on the balance with other factors in your life. By the way, if you are not sure who you are or what is likely to make you happy, a good place to start is completing a personality test such as the 16-personality test ( based on Jungian typologies. Regardless of what you feel about the reliability or accuracy of these kinds of self-diagnostic test, they are a great way to start you thinking.

Wellbeing, job satisfaction and enjoyment have sometimes been oversimplified, or even caricatured in recent times. I am thinking of what we might call the “wellbeing movement,” which has often headed in the direction of advising individuals to eat well, drink lots of water, exercise, slow down, be mindful, meditate, detox, and ditch their smart phone. It has urged institutions to create worker playtime, dress down days, provide fresh fruit in the staffroom and of course send out questionnaires about wellbeing. That is not to say that awareness of habits and lifestyle choices and how they affect us won’t help some of the people some of the time to feel what we might call “happier”, but I can’t help feeling that this approach misses the “warm gun”, the magic and mystery in happiness. By this I mean more abstract features of happiness such as meaningfulness, social connection and challenge, areas which I focus on in the four “happiness” activities in this article.

I am not alone of course in thinking this. In this article I will draw on insights from Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs and Mercer and Gregerson’s excellent book “Teacher Wellbeing” (2020 OUP). I will describe four activities you can do on your own, with colleagues, or even with your friends, which will help you to focus on key areas which can contribute to happiness.


Activity One: Happiness vocabulary check


Happiness takes work. Where to begin? A good place to start is to define and distinguish terms like happiness, wellbeing, satisfaction, or enjoyment and think about how you experience them. The activity will help you better understand your own happiness and therefore help set personal goals.



Alone or in pairs think about/discuss the following questions. Make notes if necessary:

  • What do the abstract nouns happiness, wellbeing, satisfaction, motivation, and enjoyment mean to you?
  • What are some examples of when you have experienced them in a concrete way (in your working life and outside it)?
  • How did those situations come about and who was responsible?
  • In what way, if any, are they connected?


Activity Two: Maslow in ELT


The Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs in his 1943 paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation”. Below is an adaptation of that model for ELT.

One thing that makes the model so interesting is that it is open to discussion. Although he makes no specific link to happiness, one interpretation of the model might be that we can achieve happiness by attending to all five areas. Another might be that the first two describe “existence” and that “happiness” only starts at stage three. Maslow implied that the five stages were incremental by referring to his model as a “hierarchy,” in other words that you cannot achieve esteem and self-actualization, if your physiological and safety needs are not met. You may argue on the other hand that the five elements of the hierarchy are more like a network of factors. Can a starving poet (or teacher!) achieve self-actualization?



Discuss with yourself (or someone else) Maslow’s adapted hierarchy.

  • What light does the adaptation for teachers shed on your understanding of happiness?
  • Can you think of some examples from your current and previous professional situations that you can map on to the model?
  • Can you see a connection between Maslow’s motivation and what you think of as happiness?
  • How do you feel you are you faring in terms of the five sections of the model


Activity Three: Unhappiness - a cold gun and a moth


The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (1990), proposed three types of state related to stress. “Flow” is the optimal place where the challenge in an activity meets your abilities, also known as “eustress” (the good stress) The other two states are not so good. “distress” occurs when the challenge is too high and “boredom” when it is too low.

I am aware that many of us find it easier to talk about unhappiness than happiness (especially if we are British), so the next activity explores happiness by looking at the opposite.



Read the unhappiness statements below.

  • Which do you identify with?
  • Choose one and brainstorm ideas for alleviating the unhappiness of the speaker or even transforming it to happiness.

  1. My students don’t seem to be motivated at all. I wish they would take the class more seriously!
  2. I’m fed up with the insecurity. My hours vary so much I don’t know how much I am going to earn.
  3. I hate all the meetings and workshops, why don’t they just let me teach my classes?
  4. Why are our teachers always complaining about pay? We pay the going rate.
  5. She only talks to me when there is a problem with the computer. Otherwise, she just ignores me when she walks into the school.,
  6. Why did I decide to become an English Teacher? Maybe I should have done something more stable.
  7. The Director of Studies has observed me twice this term. She must think I am a really bad teacher.
  8. I don’t like the negative vibe in our staff room. That Chris never stops moaning!
  9. It seems to take me ages to prepare my lessons and I always seem to be rushing. I get really stressed!
  10. Why do they give us all this admin to do? It really makes me angry. I mean what is the (insert expletive) point? I’m not being paid to do this!
  11. I’ve been teaching for 8 years now and it’s just the same every year. I don’t seem to be getting anywhere.
  12. I get positive feedback from my students, but my boss doesn’t seem to care. She never says anything to me.


Activity Four: Six Steps to happiness


My fourth and final activity , the Six Steps to Happiness, I recommend for use in teacher groups and schools as a route into raising our awareness of what happiness might be for each of us (not necessarily for everyone, though you may find a lot of common ground.) and more importantly a route into creating a plan of action to increase your happiness, however crazy and ambitious that may sound. I am indebted to Sarah Mercer and Tammy Gregerson’s excellent book, mentioned above, which inspired me to not only think more clearly about wellbeing but also do something about it! The six steps are areas which are likely to affect our happiness, and which can all be worked on, as they are elements we can influence.



  1. Give yourself a score out of ten for each of the six steps to happiness. In other words, decide to what extent it is an area you feel strong in or an area you need to work in. For example, in the category “Connection” you may feel you have positive communication with most of your students, but there are one or two individuals or groups where it could be better. You may feel you have good connections with colleagues, but not your Director of Studies. If you feel it could be beneficial to strengthen those connections, then maybe give yourself an eight for “connection.”
  2. Decide one area you want to improve your score in and what you will do to improve it. Tell somebody about your intention and write it down somewhere where you will see it in the future so that you can check your progress.

Six Steps to Happiness


Score out of 10


Cup half full? Positive and realistic about solving problems. Sense of responsibility




Focus on tasks, not too distracted, prioritizing, balancing different areas of your life.




Positive communication with students, colleagues, management. identifying with the organization you work for/with



You and others identifying and recognizing things you have accomplished.





Feeling that you are in charge, you have sufficient control of your work.



Managing Emotions


Being assertive, feeling empathy, realistic self-love, expressing negative emotions appropriately




A Happy Ending

Happiness can be elusive, like a butterfly, but maybe it’s not as mysterious as we think and certainly worth a bit of a chase. Whether you work from home or in an office, alone or in teams, and whatever your role in ELT is, I think these activities can help us work on our own happiness and help our colleagues do the same. They can also be useful to do with students as they link happiness with motivation. The six steps in the last activity for example can represent obstacles and opportunities to your students in achieving their goals with English. As their teacher you are in a good position to support them in all six areas through the activities you do in class and how you manage and coach your students to reach their goals. One way to measure your happiness might be to count how much of it you create for other people!



Maslow, A. H. 1943. A theory of human motivationPsychological Review, 50 (4), 370-96.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper & amp.

Sarah Mercer, Tammy Gregersen 2020. Teacher Wellbeing [Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers]


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