If your school has a wellbeing programme, a mindfulness corner or regular assemblies promoting the development of “character strengths and virtues”, then it is likely that you have already heard of “positive psychology”. This field of study is driving the growth in initiatives designed to make people happier.
It’s a movement that is becoming more established. Back in 2010, it influenced David Cameron, then prime minister, to set out to measure the nation’s wellbeing through the UK’s first “happiness index” survey, and it has also spawned a university course in how to be happy – “Psychology and the Good Life”, which became Yale’s most popular class ever when it launched in January this year. Meanwhile, the University of Buckingham made headlines last year by announcing its intention to use positive psychology to become Europe’s first “positive university”. And the business world has also dived into happiness interventions in a big way.
Unsurprisingly, positive psychology has also proved popular in schools, with heads buying in schemes and specialists to train pupils in everything from practising meditation and fostering positive relationships to striving to achieve a state of “flow” (being fully engaged and confident in working on a task).
However, a backlash is now in full swing and the adoption of “happiness interventions” in education is under particular scrutiny. So how much do we really know about the impact of positive psychology on learning? And what is the weight of the evidence that supports it?
Happy vs ‘non-miserable’
Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is well-placed to answer those questions. He founded the positive psychology movement in 1998.
“Positive psychology is the study of what makes life worth living and how to build the elements – and measure them – that make up a good life as opposed to a non-miserable life,” Seligman says.
Until 20 years ago, he explains, psychology was dominated by the Freudian view that “the best you could ever do in life was to not be miserable”. As a result, “the notion of interventionist psychology was to measure misery and to do a pharmacology in psychology that reduced suffering”.
However, by the time Seligman became president of the APA, he felt that psychologists were already “reasonably confident about suffering”, and that they needed to shift their focus.
“We didn’t really have a psychology of what free people who are not suffering want, and so I tried to convince my colleagues that a positive psychology would be not about what cripples life but [about] what makes life worth living,” he says.
By focusing on creating interventions that are directed towards increasing positive action and finding meaning in life, rather than towards reducing misery, Seligman – who spent much of his earlier career studying depression – claims you can actually have a preventative effect on mental illness.
“An important side effect of raising wellbeing is that it prevents and it lowers depression, anxiety and the like,” he argues. “So if all you cared about in life was being happier, positive psychology is probably good for you, but if you also care about the prevention of mental illness, positive education is probably a buffer against the development of mental illness in young people.”
That’s a significant claim, but a 2009 meta-analysis of 49 studies into the impact of positive psychology interventions (Sin and Lyubomirsky) showed that they lowered depression levels and also improved wellbeing. A second meta-analysis in 2012 (Bolier et al) also revealed positive results.
With depression and anxiety reported to be rising among young people (see bit.ly/AnxietyPupil), it’s unsurprising that positive psychology has been embraced by schools. But are the interventions that are being selected the same as those identified in the research as having a positive impact?
When Seligman first started working in this area, he posed the question: which interventions actually work and which are placebos? He found that there are between 10 and 12 “gold standard” interventions that “reliably raise wellbeing and also have the effect of lowering depression as well” (see “What works?” box, page 31).
‘Gold standard’ interventions
Seligman gives the example of writing down three things that went well every day and why. If someone does this, he says, six months later their level of life satisfaction will be going up and their level of depression will be going down. That is as true for children as it is for adults, he adds.
“After we had started in the consulting room [with] these interventions, we asked, ‘Well, instead of doing this with depressed individuals, what about if you took normal kids in classrooms?’ ” he says. “We found that when you taught these techniques to 10- to 12-year-olds, and then followed them through puberty, you markedly reduced the amount of depression and anxiety these kids felt.”
Obviously, improvements to young people’s mental health would be welcomed by teachers, but what about the effects on learning?
Seligman says: “One thing we frequently encounter with ministers of education and headmasters is, ‘We’ve got to budget – school’s a zero-sum game. You want us to spend teachers’ time and energy and money teaching life satisfaction skills? Well, am I supposed to cut out geometry or music?’
“So we began a series of studies around the world in which we asked, ‘If you brought these interventions to school, what happens to national standardised exams?’ In the most recent study in Peru, with 700 schools and 694,000 children, we found – as we did in Mexico and Bhutan – that when you teach these techniques to teachers, national standardised exams a year later go up, relative to the control [groups] who don’t learn them.”
However, these benefits do not come easy. The right training is crucial, for example. Seligman suggests that teachers need to learn to effectively apply the techniques in their own lives before passing them on to pupils.
“For that, you need fairly serious teacher training,” he says. “This isn’t quite something you can learn out of a book like Latin or geometry – it actually needs some hands-on teaching.”
Then you have the issue of where to fit the interventions into a busy school day. And there is also a question around the stage at which they should be used.
Seligman suggests that more research is needed to determine how effective the strategies really are with younger learners and that the techniques are perhaps better suited to older students.
“I’m not convinced it’s good to do these really early,” Seligman says. “Where the good documented evidence starts is in middle school, around age 9 or 10, and then through high school. So I think starting around right before adolescence and continuing through university is the right time to be learning the skills of wellbeing and finding that these are synergistic with the usual aims of school – numeracy, literacy, discipline and the like. There are people doing this from kindergarten on; I have yet to see convincing research that it works.”
At the point when the research does suggest interventions are useful, Seligman believes the impetus has to come from the top, at a policy level. That means positive psychology embedded in the curriculum. But based on discussions he has had with politicians in the UK, he fears that this is unlikely here. However, he is still hopeful the evidence will win out.
“As someone who’s spent his life teaching, it’s very entrenched and it’s hard to move – not only individual teachers but also unions, ministers of education – to do something new, even when there’s good evidence that it works,” he says. “Over the past four years, I’ve spoken at No 10 a couple of times, spoken to the leading ministers of education and the like in the UK, and really not gotten any place much.
“So I think the agendas are now political and organisational. I think the data is there and the economics are there. And so it really is a question now of people better than I bringing it into public policy.”
Helen Amass is deputy commissioning editor at Tes. Martin Seligman’s new book, The Hope Circuit: a psychologist’s journey from helplessness to optimism, was published in April
This is just a taste of the research-focussed content you get access to with a Tes magazine subscription. Subscribe now to start reading more.