The Pursuit of Happiness: Intentional Focus

Posted by Scott Allenby


As the sun rose over the east side of campus on this final day of 2018, the simple joy of another day on this earth settled upon us. The peacefulness of quiet pathways, empty classrooms, and traces of late November snow storms clinging to shade cast on the north side of buildings is lovely, but leaves campus feeling incomplete. On Wednesday evening students and faculty will return from a two week break, filling the void we feel right now as we all dive into a new year. On this final day of 2018, we offer our New Year’s resolution for 2019: Pursue Happiness.


Time seems to stand still during this final week of the year leaving plenty of opportunities to reflect on our role as educators in a complicated world. In our quest to develop the most dynamic educational model for our students, we risk over-complicating our work. When we start to peel back the layers to Proctor’s programs, to the academic support we provide students through our Learning Skills Program, to the athletic and art programs that help define so many students’ lives, not to mention the classes and off-campus programs that drive our teachers to continually dream up new ways to engage and challenge our students, we realize at the heart of our mission is the simple goal of creating an environment where our students are engaged and happy. When we witness these traits in our students, we are confident learning is happening, we know growth is occurring, we see ‘aha’ moments spark discovery, and we, collectively, move forward in our journey as a learning community.


During an icy run to nearby Bradley Lake on Saturday morning, I cued up an old Ted Radio Hour podcast from 2014 titled Simply Happy. Throughout the episode, Guy Raz explored the age old question of whether or not there is a secret to happiness. Of the six speakers featured during the hour, Matt Killingsworth's talk on finding happiness in the moment sparked a flood of thoughts on how Proctor’s educational model is perfectly suited to develop happy, engaged students. Take time to listen to Killingesworth talk HERE.


Through extensive research at Harvard University, Killingsworth found people are often happiest when they are lost in the moment. While it may seem counterintuitive, even if that moment involves an activity you dislike, when you are fully engaged, you are happiest. We have all had those moments of intense focus where we lose track of time and became fully immersed in the activity before us. Regardless of whether our focus is on fixing a faucet, competing athletically, navigating a 135 foot schooner through a storm, or creating a piece of art, happiness and engagement are inextricably tied.


Moments requiring intense focus abound at Proctor. So do distractions. We cannot demand our students’ attention, there are simply too many competing distractions that surround our classrooms in this era of mobile technology. Restrictions around technology use are effective in the short-term, but we know too well ourselves that the lure of that little red notification always wins. Instead of placing more and more restrictions on our students, the onus must be on us as educators to create experiences that entice our students to willingly set aside their phones and to immerse themselves in the learning opportunity before them. 


Listen to reports from Ocean Classroom students this fall and Mountain Classroom students this winter and you can see just how ready our students are to set aside their technology in order to immerse themselves in the moment. Spend time in the wood shop, metal shop, or Slocumb Hall and you will see intense focus (and happiness) as a mere byproduct of the work asked of those who enter those spaces. Travel abroad with our students to Proctor en Segovia, Proctor en Costa Rica, and European Art Classroom and you will see students operate more independently and with more maturity than thought possible. Walk through Shirley Hall or Maxwell Savage and observe classes in action, where students are moving around, engaging with each other, laughing AND learning, and you will see that adolescents are desperate for an educational experience that engages them.


Our New Year’s resolution is to pursue happiness in the Proctor community by doing what we do best: engaging students in their own learning. We will each approach this resolution in our own way - offering yoga, meditation, and fitness classes in the new Wellness space in the Farrell Field House, developing new projects and collaborations in our classes, implementing new activities for advisories and dormitories, carving out time for volunteer opportunities for our teams - but our hope is that as we create engagement opportunities, we will continue to see the smiles around campus that remind us why we believe so deeply in this school’s educational model.

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