As the UK government announces that all state-funded academies will now have ‘well-being’ at the heart of their curriculum, Ruth MacConville and Tina Rae, authors of the new book, Building Happiness, Resilience and Motivation in Adolescents, discuss the impact of Positive Psychology on young people.

Photos: (left to right) Ruth MacConville and Tina Rae

What makes Positive Psychology a suitable approach for using with groups of teenagers?

RM: Over the past few years there has been an increasing demand for resources and materials that practitioners can use in schools and settings to enhance young people’s well-being. This demand has been partly in response to the previous government’s Every Child Matter’s agenda, but also because over the past decade the new science of Positive Psychology has caught the public’s imagination. Part of its appeal is its accessibility and because its agenda; happiness, well-being and human flourishing relates to and enhances the day-to-day business of everyday life. Positive Psychology offers young people the tools that they will need to design their futures in an uncertain world and offers them a sense of hope and resilience. Boosting the frequency of positive emotions is like boosting the frequency of deposits to one’s bank account – it feels good and it also means that when you have an emotional low and need a resilience withdrawal, you’ve got something to draw on.

TR: Boosting resilience via the use of Positive Psychology can innoculate against depression and other mental illnesses – it can also build self-confidence and achievement. This is particularly pertinent and important for children and adolescents who are coping with immense change and encountering enormous pressures in today’s complex society. Resilient children can ‘resist adversity, cope with uncertainty and recover more successfully from traumatic events or episodes’. Psychologists have long recognised that some children develop well despite growing up in high risk environments. This capacity to cope with adversity, and even be strengthened by it, is at the heart of resilience. It is not something that people either have or don’t have – resilience is learnable and teachable and as we learn we increase the range of strategies available to us when things get difficult.

We can do this by supporting teenagers to make sense of experience, to utilise constructive self-talk, develop mastery and self-efficacy, develop emotional literacy, and ‘happiness habits’, problem solving approaches and challenging and reframing negative perceptions of self.

What kind of strengths is it intended to build?

RM: The programme focuses on the kind of skill based learning that young people will require in order to develop the skills that they need. These are life skills and ones which cannot be underestimated. The resources aim to take what psychologists have learned from the science and practice of treating mental illness and use this to create a series of resources which foster happiness, resilience and motivation.

TR: The powerful message that is conveyed throughout the programme to young people is that with practise, persistence, effective teaching and dedication, strengths can take root and flourish in all of us. Another important messages to young people is that they have choices when it comes to strengths. They can decide whether they want to have a particular strength, develop it further and use that strength. Young people learn that playing to one’s strengths is recognised as being the best way to handle challenging situations and by learning how to recognise and use one’s strengths creatively we can increase our happiness and experience joy and enthusiasm.

How do adolescents respond to the programme?

RM: Education is all about our strengths, finding out what we are good at and building our level of skill in those areas. Adolescents take varying amount of time to respond to the programme, some students quickly internalise the message that the programme is about them as individuals and as human beings, that it is not about facts or a subject area that is somewhat removed from them. Other students, inevitably, take longer to adapt to the programme with its emphasis on their real life experiences.

Although students may take varying amounts of time to respond to the programme there is invariably a consensus by the end of the sessions that it has improved their relationships, put individuals in touch with their strengths, interests and abilities and built students’ capacities to have an optimistic outlook on life and manage stress and adversity.

Tina, you have been involved in setting up the Well-being Curriculum for the Welsh National Assembly – can you tell us about this? Why do you think that interest in Positive Psychology has increased so much over the past 10 years?

TR: The concept of emotional health and well-being is integral to the seven core aims of the Welsh Assembly Government’s vision for children and young people, based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – that they:

  1. have a flying start in life;
  2. have a comprehensive range of education and learning opportunities;
  3. enjoy the best possible health and are free from abuse, victimisation and exploitation;
  4. have access to play, leisure, sporting and cultural activities;
  5. are listened to, treated with respect, and have their race and cultural identity recognised;
  6. have a safe home and a community which supports physical and emotional wellbeing; and
  7. are not disadvantaged by poverty.

This concept is an essential consideration in many current Welsh Assembly Government policies impacting on pre-school and school-aged children.

The programme makes use of a range of tools to help young people remain emotionally and physically well and these include some of the tools of Positive Psychology.

Finally, what do you think is the secret to living a happy life?

RM: For me the secret to living a happy life is about depth of involvement with family and friends, and I agree with the 17th century philosopher Francis Bacon who wrote: ‘Friendship, redoubleth joys and cutteth griefs in half.’

Happiness is also about engaging in purposeful satisfying activities. For me happiness isn’t just a hedonic, pleasurable state such as enjoying fun leisure activities. It’s a richer, more complicated and more important subject than chasing pleasures. It’s about finding ways of leading a meaningful life, even if that meaning involves times of pain and challenge. The late Irish writer and social commentator, Nuala o’Faolain, uses the analogy of athleticism to illustrate the fact that, with effort, people we can change our happiness levels:

‘If you were a runner in the starting blocks at the Olympics you wouldn’t be waiting for inspiration; you would have trained. Well, we have to train for happiness and practice every day.’

I believe that we have to train ourselves in the skills of becoming happier.

It is also important to remember that we all must own our individual happiness. Being dependent on others for our happiness is as futile as being dependent on others for our unhappiness. It is important to be able to recognise that there are things in life we can’t control, and to not let the actions or inactions of others get in the way of our happiness.

Also it is important to remember that nobody can be happy all the time. It is absolutely normal and even helpful to have periods of sadness, as this is part of a healthy, emotional existence. It is also important not to feel badly because something upsetting happens and puts you in a bad mood. The important thing is how fast you can get through that mood and get into a more positive space.

TR: I think it is essential to recognise that lasting happiness requires us to enjoy the journey towards a destination that is truly meaningful for us…it must have a purpose. Happiness isn’t about getting to the top of the mountain! As Tal Ben-Shahar says: ‘Happiness is the experience of climbing towards the peak.’

Ultimately, we make a choice to be happy! For me, it really is as simple as that. In making that choice, we choose to live in the moment or, as Robert Burns says, ‘to catch the moments as they fly’. We also need to continually value, prize and highlight all the good and positive aspects of our lives, to engage in the rituals and celebrations that affirm our existence and that of others, to cherish the relationships that nurture and engage in learning and the flow of creativity. We need to reject this fairytale notion that there is something or someone that will carry us off to a happy ever after! Again, I will quote Ben-Shahar:

‘To realize, to make real, life’s potential for the ultimate currency, we must first accept that “this is it” – that all there is to life is the day-to-day, the ordinary, the details of the mosaic. We are living a happy life when we derive pleasure and meaning while spending time with our loved ones, or learning something new, or engaging in a project at work. The more our days are filled with these experiences, the happier we become. This is all there is to it.’

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

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