Positive lessons can make a real difference

1st November 2002 at 00:00
Positive psychology is the scientific pursuit of the most promising routes to leading a healthy, accomplished, and satisfying life - with benefits not only for individuals, but the communities in which they live and work.

Put another way, positive psychology tries to understand the hows and whys of lives that thrive and flourish, in the hope that everyone can eventually gain from such insights.

Positive psychology is often mistaken for "positive thinking". However, while the former is an entire field of scientific inquiry, the latter is merely a thinking technique. Positive psychology studies the development of happiness, initiative, self-control, expertise, partnership and leadership.

One example of this philosophy can be seen at the Young Lives project (www.younglives. co.uk). During 1999, hundreds of highly accomplished individuals aged 16 to 70, contributed their insights about "How to achieve your goals, and how to enjoy the journey". This exploratory work abruptly lost its corporate sponsors when the dot-com bubble burst in spring 2000, though not before launching its mentoring website.

But do we really need to make formal studies of lives that work well? Yes, if our society is to replace the declining levels of one-to-one mentorship offered by family, formal education, and church in the face of ever escalating high-tech and media pressures.

We need a means of systematically and impartially harvesting and conveying "life-skills know-how" - all the wisdom that is too often only acquired though serendipity.

Good schools have always appreciated the value of close-at-hand mentors and role-models; and what I am suggesting is intended to complement that: classes to sensitise students to the underlying dynamics that shape a life. Here are three examples of how positive psychology can help inform us about lives well-led.

Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant is long-time director of an unsurpassed study of physical and mental good health that used a combination of interviews, questionnaires, and medicals to track painstakingly for some 60 years the unfurling lifepaths of 824 Americans, from teenagers through to seventy-somethings and beyond.

The Harvard study offers clear lessons about how an individual's strategies to cope, enjoy, and do good have the capacity to improve greatly throughout a lifetime. Yet, shamefully, you will not find this study referred to in any mainstream British texts on psychology or psychiatry, so it is unlikely to be found on a school bookshelf. (See Aging Well; Little, Brown amp; Co.) Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, has demonstrated that, compared to pessimists, optimists are far more likely to be higher achievers at work and on the playing field, enjoy better physical health, and suffer much less anxiety and depression.

Seligman's method of Learned Optimism (Simon amp; Schuster) has already shown itself capable of being a protective buffer that halves the onset and severity of depression among teenage school students.

Harvard Professor of Public Policy, Robert Putnam, believes the least appreciated concept for individual life-satisfaction and community well-being, is "social capital". In essence, people who have several soul mates and confidants, friendly neighbours, and supportive co-workers, are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping. High-quality intimate relationships, far more than money or fame, are prerequisites for our health and happiness. Putnam traces the steep erosion of social capital straight back to the introduction of television in the early 1960s - describing TV as a passive activity which has profoundly isolated us in our leisure time. He also blames workaholism, and the consequences of communication technology which, paradoxically, can detach us from our fellows. (See Bowling Alone; Simon amp; Schuster).

All the evidence suggests the lessons from such studies can actively be taught. So my respectful suggestion to already hard-pressed schoolteachers is this: consider running weekly classes to impart greater understanding of human strengths and virtues and of lives well lived. The results can only be positive!

Dr Nick Baylis is lecturer in positive psychology, University of Cambridge

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