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Building the Happiness Norm

Building the Happiness Norm

Why do we educate?  For some the answer is simple.  To help students learn and grow, you might say.  To help young citizens become critical thinkers, innovative problem solvers, and proactive global citizens, fans of buzzwords will assert.  Many hold to a vision of helping children fall in love with reading.  The calling to teach is unique to every educator.  


At its core, we teach so that children will grow to be happy.  Every morsel of information, every creative encounter and challenging tidbit from our classrooms and school gardens, every mud kitchen in our nature playscapes is in service to their future selves, a hope that all that we have shared with our students will offer them tools and resources to seek, find, and enjoy being happy.


But a careful look at happiness polls reveals a worrying failure.  Just 14% of American adults report being happy (1).  And though COVID carries some of the blame, before COVID, 2018, only 31% of American adults viewed themselves as generally happy in life (1).  To be educated and miserable is no way to be.


So this year, the teachers of young children have a grand task ahead – teach the Big Five.  In a study conducted by positive psychologists Jessie Sun, Scott Barry Kaufman, and Luke D. Smillie, five key personality traits were strongly correlated to individual happiness: 

  • enthusiasm (yesod)
  • low withdrawal (netzach)
  • industriousness (gevurah)
  • compassion (tiferet)
  • intellectual curiosity (sakranut)  


At Shirlee Green Preschool at Congregation Shaare Emeth, in St. Louis, Missouri, we teach joyfully so that children may learn joyfully. To know happiness is the start.  We then look carefully to each moment in our classrooms, creating experiences that strengthen each child’s Big Five so that they may know happiness and learn to sustain happiness in their lives.


Here’s a strategy to help get you started.  

To build compassion in young children, practice and model gratitude.  The first step is simple.  Use manners and expect manners in your classroom.  Then, make a gratitude book.

  1. Cover a 3-ring binder with beautiful fabric.  
  2. On the cover, write the title “Our Thank You Book”.
  3. Fill the binder with blank paper.
  4. At the end of each day, collect markers, crayons and oil pastels and have children sit in a circle together.  Be sure everyone can see each other to build community, trust, and togetherness.
  5. Add the date to the bottom right corner of the page.
  6. Then, ask the class “Did anyone do something that made you happy?  Did something happy that you are thankful for?”
  7. As the children share, write each thankful nomination to the day’s page in a different color.  Be sure to write the name of the child who is showing gratitude.  Ex: Noah made Addie happy when he helped her clean up her spill. 
  8. When all moments of gratitude have been shared, recite a blessing together for friends, then place the Thank You Book in a place for visitors and children to see.

It is with small, constant steps that the Big Five deepen in the soul of each child, guiding them to a life of happiness.


  1 Associated Press. (2020, June 16). Americans are the unhappiest they’ve been in 50 years, poll finds

2 Sun, Jessie; Kaufman, Scott Barry; Smillie, Luke D. (2016, December 30). Unique associations between 

big five personality aspects and multiple dimensions of well-being.



Brandi Cartwright

Director of Shirlee Green Preschool

Congregation Shaare Emeth


 September 19, 2022