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Positive Connections


Sara: I think when we think about connection, especially when kids think about it, they're thinking of the big things. I want prom. I want a homecoming game. I want to have a football game. I want to have the dances or the things that schools have. But what Erin and I know is that it's the micro moments of connection that really fuel us.

Welcome to Redefine U. I’m Dan Baum. Join us as we continue to explore what happens when we’re challenged to change our thoughts, beliefs or even who we think we are.

How can focusing on the good help us — not only in a pandemic, but in our daily lives? While many of us feel the loss of connection, others have also noticed the increase in family time or found new ways to connect with neighbors, friends, co-workers and new communities from a distance.

In this episode, we’ll talk with Erin Baldecchi and Sara Corckran about positive psychology, how they use it to help educators and how looking through that lens can help all of us rediscover joy and gratitude, and make stronger connections to one another.

Sara: Hi, I'm Sara Corckran and I'm here with my partner, Erin Baldecchi, and we are Happy YOUniversity. We founded a company that helps to teach the tools of positive psychology to educators so that they can embrace a more positive mindset, so they can unlock more joy and so that they can have more tools to be resilient, to get through tough times with grace.

Dan: Thank you, Sara, and welcome to you and Erin.

Sara: Thank you.

Dan: Everything you just described is what we all need right now, so what a great introduction. I want to ask by how you are each holding up during this pandemic. Maybe we'll start with Erin. How are you doing?

Erin: I am doing actually really well right now. I think the beginning was much harder, but what I appreciate is the fact that I have learned all of these positive psychology tools that we teach. And I feel like they've really helped me to get through the pandemic with grace. I mean, of course I've had my moments of difficulty, but right now, especially with the sun out and turning to spring, things are looking up.

Dan: That's good to hear. How about you, Sara? How are you doing?

Sara: I'm doing well. I am aware of how I'm doing more than I would have been if I didn't know all that I know. And my focus tends to be on my family and my children and how they're doing because in my opinion, kids have taken the brunt of this.  And I find myself focused on them and trying in big and in small ways to help them. And I also think by taking the focus off how I am doing and thinking about other people, that probably is helping me to cope better than if I was more focused on myself.

Dan: That's a great perspective. And how many are in your household?

Sara: We have five in my house. My husband and I have three daughters. One is 17, one is 14, and one is seven. So, we're really a case study in how different aged children can handle the pandemic.

Dan: Yeah, clearly. How about you, Erin? How many are in your household?

Erin: We also have five. My husband, and then we have two girls and a boy. I have an 18-year-old, a 16-year-old, and a 14-year-old. And one about to go to college.

Dan: Yeah, I can relate to that. I have one about to go to college too.

Sara, you have multiple connections to AACC. Tell us a little bit about your relationship with the college.

Sara: I started teaching there right after I got my master's degree in 2002, and I have been teaching adjunct in the Education department ever since and have loved it. I've loved the strong and powerful, mostly women who are in that field, in that department. And that time there led me to coaching and also led me to positive psychology. So, I love everything about the college.

Dan: That's really great to hear. Erin, you're in a different community. Tell us a little bit about where you are.

Erin: Yes, I'm in Charlotte, North Carolina, and have only been here for about a year and a half. My husband's head of a school here.

Dan: So, the two of you started a business. How did you team up? How did you end up launching this business together?

Erin: We started off as great friends, and I began with my interest in positive psychology probably four years ago. And Sara took a class from me in the summer and she decided she loved positive psychology too, and went and did the same program that I had done. And we both just have a passion for spreading joy and helping others unlock their joy.

And so with our education backgrounds, we started off with individuals, but then really have honed in on teaching these tools to educators because also, we feel like that can have the biggest impact. Because they can then teach those tools to students. And we really hope to see a huge transformation.

Dan: Maybe we should back up a little bit and have you explain a little bit about what positive psychology is?

Sara: So, positive psychology is the study of happiness and the belief that other people matter. And when we dive further into it, it really, in my opinion, is that reminder that your relationships are one of the most important pieces in your life. And so a lot of our work focuses on how to embrace relationships, sustain relationships, flourish relationships.

But typical psychology was the study of what was wrong with you. So, people would go through tests and they would diagnose you. And they'd say, "These are the problems. And let's see if we can have you feeling better to," we would say like a neutral state, "To zero."

And positive psychology is helping individuals get to a place that's North of neutral. So, how can we be better than fine? And I always say that fine is a four-letter word. If you ever ask me how I'm doing and then I say, "Fine," that's not good. I believe that everyone has the ability to get to a place that's better than that, where you are in a place, a broadened state where you feel gratitude, where you feal joy, where you feel broadened and connected.

And when you learn the tools and you start to wear these different glasses, where you're seeing these things in your life and you're more aware of them, that you'll feel it all the time, even during a pandemic.

Dan: We hear the term toxic positivity today. I'm curious, as you're looking at the world more positively, what's your reaction to this concept of toxic positivity?

Sara: Toxic positivity, in my opinion, is not allowing yourself to feel what you're feeling. And we don't subscribe to that. I think piece of what we do is knowing where you are and being in the present moment and allowing you to feel what you're feeling. But then we would like to offer some ways to get out of it when you're ready.

So sometimes in this world we can have a downward spiral. It happens to everybody. It just seems like you're in a maze and you can't get out, and everything just seems like nothing is possible. And that's okay. And it's okay to be in that place and say, "This is where I am."

But then when you're ready to get out, how can you get out? And that's the tools that we offer. So, the difference to me is in having self-compassion for where you are, A, and then B, having tools for helping you get out of it when you're ready.

Erin: I think toxic positivity is just putting a smile on your face and pretending that everything's okay. And that is not at all what positive psychology is about or what we're about. What we're really about is teaching you tools so that when the hard times come, you know how to handle them.

Dan: We have to acknowledge that some people are in a dark place. Some have lost jobs, some have lost family. What do you tell them?

Erin: First of all, you're very right about that. And we totally acknowledge that. The tools that we teach aren't enough for some people. And really, as Sara said earlier, positive psychology is all about taking people from "fine," to living their best life.

There are services beyond what we offer that may be more appropriate for some people right now.

Sara: In the beginning stages of having it be more than just a bad day; before it's some of the larger things that affect our lives; that remembering the impermanence of every situation and the impermanence of life.  

When we can savor the great moments, and we know that they're impermanent, we're more likely to focus on, "Hey, this is where I am right now. And I'm so glad that this is the situation that I'm in." Then on the downside, "Hey, this is a dark place that I'm in, but I'm not going to be here forever."

Dan: So, what needs were you hoping to fill by launching this business? I would think launching a business at any point in time is challenging, but you launched it during COVID. So, tell me a little bit about that experience and what needs you were hoping to fill.

Erin: Yes. We actually started a little bit before COVID with individuals, and we were already online. And so when COVID hit, it really was an opportunity for us to offer these tools to people because we knew this was going to be really hard. And of course, at the time we had no idea how long it would go on. And so we started off with a little morning thrive.

It was just a free program in the morning where people could get on and learn a quick tool for the day. And we loved the connection and we loved being able to offer that. So, we wanted to basically fill the need of finding joy and getting through these hard times with grace. And I think we've done that for a lot of people and for ourselves. And it's felt pretty good.

Dan: I love the name morning thrive. I would like to start every morning by thriving. That sounds fantastic.

You mentioned positive psychology and also coaching. So, how are those two interrelated, or how does that combination work?

Sara: There's a lot of connections in my opinion. Coaching, in my mind, one of the things it brings to me is it helps me to live intentionally. So, I'm thoughtful and I'm aware of my actions, the actions of others, how I show up for things, and setting intentions for how I want things to be. And positive psychology is similar in that way. If we were to set an intention to have more gratitude today, then when we talk about gratitude and we talk about setting intention's gratitude, it can boost your level of happiness by upwards of 30%. So, when you start to have a more grateful view of the world, you'll see it in all sorts of areas of your life.

In coaching, it is similar in that we are setting intentions and that we are more aware, and we are making a practice of being more present for the things in our life. In positive psychology, we're focusing on the good things.

Dan: They sound like they go hand-in-hand.

I’m curious about the combination of coaching and the psychology component, how does that resonate with people?

Sara: People really connect to positive psychology because it's science-based. So, the tools that we're teaching are backed in science. One of them is called the happiness set point, 50% of your happiness is genetic. 40% of your happiness is in your control. And 10% of your happiness is circumstantial. So, in the situation of COVID, COVID is only making you 10% less happy than you would be otherwise. And if you want to be more happy, you've got 40% to work with. And that idea alone is fascinating that you can increase your happiness by up to 40%.

And then we start asking questions, there's the coaching part, how do I master that 40%? How do I become more proficient in using that 40%? And when we talk about the science behind it, people really gravitate to that because they want to know that there's control. People like being in the driver's seat of their life.

Dan: That is really striking. Those numbers are wow, stunning.

So you work a lot with educators, teachers, education groups. What are you hearing and seeing from them at this time? What are they wrestling with?

Erin: We have heard so much from teachers across the country. And we're hearing a lot of the same things, which is that teachers are overwhelmed and they're burned out and they’re in this profession because love connection and they love students and they love what they do. And so I think it's been particularly hard because that connection is minimized so much right now. Just like none of us can expect what we did of ourselves pre-pandemic. The expectations have to be changed a little bit because the situation has changed so drastically.

So, what we're hearing is a lot of frustration and isolation, missing their colleagues, because even if they're in school, everyone is masked, they aren't necessarily leaving their classrooms as much or gathering in different ways. And I think they're just, in general, really struggling with getting through and then also supporting their students who were feeling a lot of the same things.

Dan: And what are you hearing from them about their students? What are they experiencing and needing right now?

Erin: Well, I think students are especially feeling a decrease in motivation. It's hard to sit in front of a screen all day and stay engaged. Grades are definitely dropping and that's a trend across the country. Kids are feeling isolated. And I think teachers are really seeing that they're not having the connections or the engagement that they used to have.

Sara: Children have become more resilient and they've adapted to the situation and they, in some ways, have thrived because of it. But I would also add in that they are grieving. They are grieving the loss of their rituals. They are grieving the loss of their connections and their teams. And because of that, they have become less resilient.

For example, both of my daughters, one extremely extroverted and one more introverted, when they do have an outing with multiple kids their age, or if they're in an in-school day, they come home and they're exhausted just from the overload of spending time with people and the socialization.

And I personally am concerned about how we move forward from this. And Erin and I as Happy YOUniversity are focused on what tools do students need to have to connect? And how can we teach them and remind them of what's important about connecting and what do schools need to do to help students get reconnected? Because I think it's going to be the forefront of school's minds, even in college level too.

Dan: And the two of you, you have a focus group of three each. So, whatever you're seeing in students, you're seeing it in your household it sounds like as well.

Erin: Yes, absolutely. I have seen it with my kids too. And just I mean, up and down, but my youngest didn't see anyone for the longest time. And it's hard. Mentally, it has been difficult. But Sara's right, we need to work on helping these kids make the connections again because it might not come as naturally as it used to.

Dan: And it's not just us individually that are changing, but education as a whole has really shifted during COVID. So, what do you see as major changes in education that you feel are good and you hope are here to stay, or maybe you believe are here to stay?

Sara: That's a great question. Obviously, the focus on assessment has greatly decreased because it's really hard to assess when students are working from home. And so students are, in our house, more project-based. And so I always appreciate that. Also, cross-curricular activities, I've noticed an uptake in that.

And then I've noticed in our house that the focus on grades has decreased. The focus on the number of assignments has decreased, and the amount of work that is given to students. And I do think that that is probably in the best interest for students. And what we need to do is now level out so that students are giving a 100% on the number of projects that they have. So, raise the bar on your expectation for the project, but decrease the number of the projects.

I was also thinking that I've seen in my house that the amount of time that we spend as a family has greatly increased because the school is taking up so much less time, whether it's clubs after school or school activities after school. So because you only had a certain pot to pull from as far as your time's concerned, when school eased up a little, the family was able to grow a little bit more in the time that it had.

Dan: I was talking to a colleague yesterday who said that her kids are back in sports now, and they're just running all over the place again. And she's exhausted from that and how much she enjoyed the quality family time. And she already feels it slipping as the sports return.

Erin: I think the sports are really important for kids, don't get me wrong, but I agree with Sara that it's been so nice to have that extra family time and also that just downtime to let kids be kids.

Dan: From an education standpoint, what's been missing during COVID that you feel needs to come back and you hope doesn't carry over post-COVID.

Erin: I would say definitely in-person connection. Although I think there are a lot of great things about being able to work remotely and I think it will open up a lot of opportunities to do that on a regular basis, at least especially, I guess for high school age and younger students, I think we need the connection and we need students to be face-to-face and having those moments together every day.

Sara: I think when we think about connection, especially when kids think about it, they're thinking of the big things. I want prom. I want a homecoming game. I want to have a football game. I want to have the dances or the things that schools have. But what Erin and I know is that it's the micro moments of connection that really fuel us.

For a student, it's seeing a friend in the hallway and saying, "Hey, how are you?" And someone saying, "Hey, how are you? Like your shoes." It's just those little things. Seeing somebody in the cafeteria. That is what fuels our bodies and our souls with the connection. And I think it's common that people aren't aware of the importance of that level of connection.

And becoming aware of how that serves you and how to get more of that is going to be important as we continue to dig out of this and resume normalcy.

Dan: With that in mind, I'm curious what gifts you would like to give educators. So, I'm going to give you magical powers now, what gift do you want to give every educator?

Erin: I'd love to give the gift of really being able to see the good, to look and really see the beauty in every situation and see it first. Because that is what we teach, and it is a hard thing to do because scientifically, we're wired to see the negative. But when you can see the good in every situation, even when it's a difficult situation, it changes everything. And it changes how you view your students, it changes how you view your job, it changes how you view every day.

Sara: For me, it would be similar, but I would give teachers a pair of glasses that see their strengths and the strengths of others. Positive psychology has a list of strengths, 24 of them. And everyone has these. You’re just on some sort of continuum where you are.

And compassion is one, forgiveness is one, zest is one. And so there's a myriad of strengths. And when you're aware of your strengths and the strengths of others and you start to identify them, then those strengths can grow. You can see the strengths that you need in any given situation or during a day. You can see the strengths that you're not using enough and you'd like to shine light on those so that those strengths can grow.

I know as a parent and as a teacher, when you're working with a student, you so desperately want them to be the best that they can be that you are predisposed to seeing what's not right and how you could help them. But when we see that student or that child or that partner in terms of their strength and we can focus on that strength, then that strength will bloom and grow, and that will get that person to be wherever they're supposed to be in this world.

Dan: How has your training and knowledge helped you face our current challenges?

Erin: In every possible way, it has helped me. It has helped me see the beauty in every situation. It has helped me remember that life is impermanent and things change all the time. And no matter how hard it seems, it will be different in five minutes. Maybe not until tomorrow, but it will be different.

And that I don't need to dwell on the things that are hard. It has taught me to see others for their strengths, especially in my own house with my kids, to have patience and to not nag them for what they're not doing, but to praise them for what they are doing. And it has just definitely helped me to have an all-around brighter outlook during this whole time.

Sara: I agree with everything Erin said. The only thing that I would add for me is that I feel like in the past year, with everything that has happened politically and as far as our safety and health is concerned, it has been such a divisive time for people. And what I have learned, I have used regularly in my interactions with other people, remembering about the importance of compassion and grace, and that every person is doing the best they can in each situation. And I don't have to agree with it, but just knowing that that person is doing what they can in this moment, meeting their needs and their values, and what's important to them helps me to have a better understanding when my fairness gets triggered or my autonomy gets triggered. I call back onto that and that has really helped me.

Dan: You've shared that one of the things you provide is nuggets of wisdom. So, tell me what that is and if you have any nuggets that you'd like to leave with us.

Sara: Okay. A nugget of wisdom is your takeaway. It needs to be actionable and you need to be able to do something with it right now or tomorrow.

One of the nuggets that we'd like to share with you all today is the importance of having an act of kindness towards someone else. We spoke briefly about how gratitude can really boost your level of positive emotion, but by doing an act of kindness, you can also get a similar boost.

Erin: Just performing some random act of kindness is not only going to be uplifting for the person you're being kind to, but it's going to uplift you as well. And that's why we love it so much because it helps you get out of this dark place and into a much lighter and broader place.

Some ideas, just little ideas, maybe just thinking of someone in the neighborhood who needs something, leaving flowers on someone's doorstep, doing something nice and thoughtful for someone in your family. There are lots of ideas, but just thinking of someone who could use some uplifting and figuring out how to do that for them.

Sara: It can even be giving away the parking spot that you thought you were going to get that's close to the front door. When you switch your focus on thinking of yourself to thinking of other people, that's where the lift happens.

Dan: I love that. While I have seen moments of rage, I actually have seen during COVID a lot of what you're describing. The people seem to be a little more compassionate towards others and giving them some space. Some of the times it's necessary, you know that you need to step out of the way or what have you, but it does seem to be happening a little bit.

Erin: I've noticed that too and I love to see that.

Dan: Well, Sara, Erin, thank you for all of the help and support you're giving our educators, and in turn, their students. It's just so needed at this time. Thank you.

Erin: Thank you for having us here.

Sara: Thanks, Dan.

Erin and Sara launched a company to focus on teaching the tools of positive psychology to educators that emphasizes the strengths and good in all of us. They want teachers, students and everyone to thrive “north of neutral” and put us back in the driver’s seat of our own lives.

During this pandemic many students have felt the big losses that often mark their journeys through school – from big games to dances to celebrations. But, as Sara pointed out, it’s the “micro-moments of connection” – the smiles and compliments in the hallways – that we may be less aware of, and yet those are the moments that can fuel us. How can we regain those connections on a daily basis, especially as we work to come out of this pandemic?

As we consider the future of education, what impact could the science and philosophy behind positive psychology have on our classrooms, our families and ourselves? What could change if teachers and parents focused on the strengths of their students, instead of what needed improvement? And what might happen if we increase our micro-moments of connection through acts of kindness and gratitude?

To quote a guest from season one, “the whole world would change.”


Redefine U is a production of Anne Arundel Community College. Our executive producer and creative director is Allison Baumbusch. Our producer is Jeremiah Prevatte and our writer, Amy Carr Willard.

Others who helped with this podcast include Amanda Behrens, Angie Hamlet, Ben Pierce and Alicia Renehan.

Special thanks to Erin Baldecchi and Sara Corckran.

Find show notes, how to subscribe and other extras on our website:

I’m your host and creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.


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