Positive Psychology has become the ‘buzz’ trend among educators and others who work with children. Living our best life, and helping our youth to find greater joy, purpose, contribution and meaning does sound appealing.
But is positive psychology all it’s cracked up to be? Is the evidence base solid enough for us to change entire school wellbeing programmes, argue for a new way of measuring national output (through a national wellbeing index, rather than just GDP) and push for more “happy” times?
Many believe that positive psychology is about being ‘happy’. This is not entirely true.
Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. While early research into wellbeing examined the happy stuff, positive psychology is far more nuanced than that.
For example, a life well-lived might be that of Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela. These paragons of social change unquestionably lived lives of remarkable inner strength, virtue, resilience, and contribution. They lived according to their highest values and impacted hundreds of millions around the world. But would you say they were ‘happy’? To the contrary, they experienced some of the worst and most challenging that humanity offers.
A life well-lived is about more than the typical hedonic ‘feel-good’ happiness we envision when we think of positive psychology. A life well-lived is about purpose, meaning, and contribution. It is about engagement and development. It is having the capacity to experience pain, sorrow, and difficulty in ways that grow and strengthen us.
Positive psychology acknowledges that a life well-lived is less about being ‘happy’, and more about living life according to our best and noblest values. Of course, sometimes positive psychology is about nothing more than simply feeling good. That is valuable too, and it is something too many of our teens are struggling with.
Positive Psychology and Teens
Adolescence has always traditionally been a time of challenge as teens pull away from their parents, develop and consolidate their identities, and assert their independence. But being a teen may be trickier in today’s society than ever before. It is widely accepted that our teenagers are facing unprecedented challenges with depression, stress and anxiety as society changes, technology develops and the adolescent experience evolves.
Despite these challenges, some positive psychology strategies can inoculate our youth against mental illness. Learning to apply the science of strengths, gratitude, optimism, and altruism can lead to positive outcomes in the lives of our teens. While effect sizes and long-term results from intervention studies are sometimes weak, researchers have shown that when adolescents experience and practice these psychological strategies, they experience increased levels of school and life satisfaction, and overall wellbeing. Their experiences of psychological distress and behavioural problems are reduced.
Implementing these strategies can be challenging. Some youth are resistant. Some contexts make some interactions tricky. But positive psychology research suggests that these strategies (among others) may offer hope for our teens and those who care for them as we strive to reduce their experience of depression, stress and anxiety, and increase their resilience and wellbeing.
– Justin Coulson PhD
Ph: 0413 969 091 ∙ PO Box 235 Figtree NSW 2525