Activities with a Smile 🙂

[NB 1: This article is based on a presentation I gave at the TESOL Greece Conference in 2015. The content of this article is somewhat different, but if you would prefer to skip the text and watch the presentation ‘live’ instead, just click on the video below].

[NB 2: Here are the slides for the new version of this presentation]:

Twice the juice from half the fruit:  The idea first occurred to me as I was reading the excellent ‘59 Seconds’ by Professor Wiseman. In the chapter on ‘Happiness’ he quoted numerous studies and what struck me immediately was that almost all of them had to do with language! In one of them people would be asked to share experiences, in another they were encouraged to write down their reflections, while in a third they might be asked to construct a detailed plan about achieving a future objective. From this point on, it was easy to take the next logical step. In our classes we often ask students to talk about various topics, to write summaries or to plan essays. Would it not be better if we asked them to do something which would yield the same benefits in terms of language learning, but which would also make them happier? (OK – that’s still the whole fruit, but we certainly get twice the juice! 🙂 )

The Basics: The following statement came as a shock to me the first time I encountered it: ‘Nature does not want you to be happy; it wants you to be successful!’ (Nettle 2005 – p. 14). The big question is not so much what Happiness is, but what it is for! Happiness is the incentive nature offers us in order to keep us doing things which somehow help with the ultimate evolutionary goals, survival and reproduction. Happiness is the big, fat carrot that nature holds in front of us in order to keep us moving in a certain direction (‘If you get that promotion, you’ll be eternally happy’ etc.) But of course, nature lies to us. Just watch the clip below.

And it makes sense; if upon having achieved our goal we ‘rested on our laurels’ that would do nothing to promote our genes’ agenda. For this reason, nature has pre-installed another mechanism inside us. It’s called ‘habituation’ We adapt to things. Research shows that people who win huge amounts in the lottery are ecstatic for the first few months and a year later they are back to normal. It is the same with people who have serious accidents (Ariely 2010 – p. 170).

The Moral: By focusing ahead we may forget to be happy in the present, but we can choose to go against our predispositions.

An Activity: ‘Count Your Blessings’ (adapted from Emmons & Mc Cullough 2003): Individually, students make a note of three things for which they feel they should be grateful (e.g. Health / Work / Security / Loving parents etc.). Then they work in pairs. They take it in turs to share with their partner why they feel they ought to be grateful for this particular thing (e.g. ‘Health’). Their partner has to ask them one question (e.g. ‘Have you ever had an accident?’) Then they swap roles.

The Social Dimension: As we saw above, nature wants us to be successful. For humans a precondition for being successful has always been to be part of a group. This is why we feel well when we are with others, when we socialise and spend time with family and friends. This urge to be with others is so strong that if for whatever reason we spend long periods of time alone, we become moody and lose our appetite to do all kinds of things – it’s like a vitamin deficiency. Things get even worse if we feel excluded / ignored / left out. In the ancestral environment this would have meant certain death and the pain of social exclusion is felt very keenly. Professor Lieberman has conducted research on this and he has found that this mechanism can be triggered even by seemingly insignificant incidents (Lieberman 2013 – p. 58). What is more, the pain of social exclusion is very real pain – in fact, it registers in the same centre of the brain as physical pain. In this video, Professor Liberman describes a study in which his subjects were asked to play a game called ‘Cyberball’. The game is simplicity itself – all you need to do is toss the ball to one of two other players. But after some time, they stop tossing the ball back. You never get it again. Here is Professor Lieberman talking about this study:

The Moral: Any activity which fosters stronger bonds between people is likely to make us happier.

An activity: ‘My Wonderful Classmates’ (adapted from Chaplin  & John 2007): Students are divided into groups. Each group chooses one of their classmates (not one of the group) and together they come up with a ‘plateful of praise’ – a number of reasons why they like / value / respect this particular person. Then they present this to him/her. It is incredible how much warmth this activity generates. [NB: The teacher needs to make sure that nobody is excluded].

Goal Setting: What is the thing that you dread most and you tend to put off? Is it going to the gym? Is it marking essays or tests? Well, here is the great Dan Heath with a solution:

Now think back to what he said; do you remember that bit about ‘bursts of pleasure’? Why does this happen? (And it does!) The answer that if we are to be successful, we have to pursue goals; nature keeps promising huge rewards at the end, but it also gives us a foretaste of what that ‘carrot’ is going to be like in advance so as to keep us going! This has been proved experimentally; in an amazing study, a number of seriously depressed people were divided into 4 groups: one got anti-depressants, another placebos, another got CBT (sessions with Psychologists) and a fourth was engaged in ‘Behavioural Activation’ (setting goals and striving to achieve them). Amazingly, after a few months, the last group not only did better than the third, it did just as well as the first! (Wiseman 2012 – p. 169)

The Moral: Nature rewards us for making progress towards our goals.

For best effects, it is important that the goals are:  i) small;  ii) detailed – concrete; iii) feasible and iv) to be achieved within a specific time frame (in the near future).

An activity: ‘Goal Setting’ (see Service & Gallagher 2017 – Appendix 1): Students make notes about one thing they would like to achieve (e.g. lose weight) and then set themselves a small, concrete goal (‘I’ll join a gym’) and make notes about the details (which gym, when, etc.). Then they share this with a partner. The role of the partner is to help them make the steps as concrete as possible and to anticipate problems (e.g. ‘What if it is too expensive?’) help with finding solutions / alternatives, and get the first student to make his/her commitment as firm as possible.

Helping Others: We clearly feel happy when we do something for ourselves (duh!) and we also feel happy when we help others (see the second point). But are we happier in the former or in the latter situation? There have been countless studies on this. Here is Professor Michael Norton describing one such experiment, remarkable for its elegant simplicity:

So – paradoxically perhaps, helping others makes us happier! But there is another point here. In a fantastic study, subjects were invited in the lab where they were told they would play a game where participants are invited to share some money with someone else * . Before that however, they were asked to complete a task on a computer. The computer was programmed to crash at some point. In one condition, subjects were simply told to reboot and complete the task; in another somebody actually came and helped them restart the computer, and then left. Then everybody played the sharing game. Amazingly, the group who had been helped in the first task were more generous, despite the fact that the person they were generous towards was not the person who had helped them! (DeSteno & Valdesolo 2011 – p. 161) Kindness creates a ripple effect; it spreads to others!

The Moral: Doing things for others makes us happier – and this has a knock-on effect!

An activity: ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ (see Sharot 2011 – p. 87): In pairs, students come up with as many things they can do to make others happier as possible (e.g. Call a sick friend at home / Give someone an ‘I like you’ card / Say ‘Thank you’ to someone for something they did for you in the past etc.). Another idea, would be to get students to come up with things they can do for the community (e.g. Help at a soup kitchen / Collect clothes for a particular person or group / Donate old books to a school library etc.).

The role of Laughter: Naturally we laugh or smile when we are happy, but could it also be the other way round? Could it be that smiling can make us feel happier? In famous study, some subjects were asked to do a task while holding a pencil between their teeth (forcing them to smile) while others were told to hold the pencil between their nose and upper lip (thus forcing them to frown). Amazingly, the former group then reported feeling happier than the latter! (Kahnemann 2011 – p. 54) In a curious reversal, the ‘effect’ can produce the ‘cause’! Corroborating evidence comes from India: noticing the positive effects of laughter, Dr M. Kataria got people in groups to tell each other jokes so as to exploit the beneficial effects of laughter; when he later dispensed with the jokes and asked his group to simply laugh (!) the effects persisted! (Wiseman 2012 – p. 40) And that is not all; R. Dunbar has conducted studies which show that laugher is inherently a social activity (if one laughs on their own, that can be worrying! J ). According to Dunbar, grooming (the standard way of bonding in primates) becomes impractical as teams increase in size and he suggests that laughter may well have evolved as a way of strengthening social bonds in large groups (Dunbar 2012 – pp. 43-44).

The Moral: Humour makes us happier and helps foster group cohesion.

An activity: Well, a number of activities spring to mind (sharing jokes, acting out funny sketches etc.) but for me the simplest way is to show students funny clips. There are numerous advantages in this: i) the language is authentic;  ii) students develop listening skills;  iii) students can share these with friends;  iv) if they like them, students can seek them out at home. Here is a little gem (to get a handout, + the Key, + the script, just click on the link under the clip on YouTube, or just click here).

Last words – Added Value: In today’s competitive environment, I believe we stand a much better chance of doing well if we can offer our students something else – over and above meeting their primary needs for improving their English. That something could be interesting content – from literature to general knowledge – all of which can translate into ‘social currency’ (knowledge that reflects positively on the individual – see Berger 2013, ch 1); it could be teaching them things or skills which could help them do better in their personal or professional life (click here to see an example); or it could even be teaching them ‘self-help’ methods which could for instance help them develop good habits (click here to see an example). Teaching them some (research-based) ways to make themselves happier falls into this last category. And imagine the impact on motivation if students regularly left your class thinking ‘I don’t know how, but I always feel happier after my English lesson…’ 🙂


Ariely, D. ( 2010) The Upside of Irrationality. London HarperCollins

Berger, J. (2013) Contagious. London: Simon & Schuster

Chaplin, L. N. & John D. R. (2007) “Growing up in a Material World: Age Differences in Materialism in Children and Adolescents” Journal of Consumer Research 34 [4], pp 480-494

DeSteno & Valdesolo (2011) Out of Character. New York: Three Rivers Press

Dunbar, R (2012) The Science of Love and Betrayal. London: Faber and Faber

Emmons, R. A. & Mc Cullough, M. E. (2003) Counting Blseeings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84, pp 377-389

Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Allen Lane

Lieberman, M. (2013) Social. Oxford, Oxford University Press

Nettle, D. (2005) Happiness. New York: Oxford University Press

Service, O. & Gallagher, R. (2017) Think Small. London: Michael O’Mara Books

Sharot, T. (2012) The Optimism Bias. London: Robinson

Wiseman, R. (2010) 59 Seconds. London: Pan Books

Wiseman, R. (2012). Rip it up. London: Macmillan