By Sarah Eslick, Associate Director of The Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning
Optimism About Positive Psychology
What allows humans to thrive? What conditions, actions, or qualities contribute to well being? How do we help kids become resilient?
Historically, the field of psychology has focused on mental illness. Depression, schizophrenia, and other disorders of the mind carried far more intellectual gravitas than the psycho-emotional characteristics that lead to happiness. Certainly these illnesses are less subtle, easier to categorize, label, and examine. In striking contrast, the field of positive psychology studies how people do well: how we cultivate positive emotions and optimism and how we develop grit and self-regulation. It explores how we benefit from resilience and gratitude while recognizing our own strengths. The hope is that by studying the best qualities in life, we will learn to help human beings expand upon these qualities (‘Making Change Last,’ Tal Ben-Shahar, 6/25/15, IPPA Fourth World Congress on Positive Psychology).
This summer I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend the Fourth World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) for four days in June. The location was, appropriately enough, Disney World. While my personal choice for a happiness-inducing venue might have been a quiet coastal destination, other attendees seemed to embrace this locale! Among the speakers were leading researchers and educators in the field such as Barbara L. Frederickson, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Tal Ben-Shahar, Tom Rath, David Cooperrider, and Martin Seligman.
Several studies and observations from this dynamic conference – and from other readings on positive psychology- have resonated with me and advanced my thinking in this area. Among them:
- Studies show that money influences emotional well being to a certain point. Those with incomes below $40,000 experience a great deal of money-related stress. Higher income improves life satisfaction up to $75,000. However, it is daily experiences that create ‘great days.’ Having great days doesn’t require being rich or even living in a rich country.
- Making healthy choices early in the day, such as being active and prioritizing sleep, lead to progressively better days (‘Fully Charging your Work and Life,’ Tom Rath, 6/27/15, IPPA Fourth World Congress on Positive Psychology).
- In one study, researchers analyzed personal essays that had been written by a group of Catholic nuns 60 years earlier. Those nuns whose essays included more positive emotions lived up to 10 years longer than the nuns whose essays included the smallest number of positive emotions. This increased longevity is significantly larger than the benefits observed by quitting smoking (‘The Value of Positive Emotions’, Barbara L. Fredrickson, American Scientist, 2003 July-August).
- Positive emotions are essential to sustaining behavior change (‘Positivity Resonates,’ Barbara L. Frederickson, 6/28/15, IPPA Fourth World Congress on Positive Psychology).
- Expressing gratitude engenders feelings of happiness in the present, and is connected to improved well being in the future (Seligman, Flourish, p. 31).
- The elements of well-being have been described in a theory of positive psychology called PERMA – Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Achievement (Seligman, Flourish, p. 24).
There are, of course, contradictions in study results. The field of positive psychology is also critiqued for reasons such as disagreement on how to measure and define psycho-emotional qualities, and lack of rigor (‘Critiques of Positive Psychology,’ Panel Discussion, 6/27/15, IPPA Fourth World Congress on Positive Psychology). Happily, however, this growing body of knowledge is being mined to facilitate the use of positive psychology insights for individual therapy and coaching, organizational health, and- importantly- application in elementary and secondary schools across the globe.
Part of our mission at St. Mark’s School is to prepare young people for lives of leadership and service, and we aim to help each student develop into a person of strong character. Furthermore, we care very much about the well being of those in our community as shown by our health programs, counseling and nursing staff, weekly meditation, extensive advising system, community and equity outreach, the dedication of residential life staff members and the unwavering commitment of our teachers in the classroom and coaches on the athletic fields.
This year, the academic planner developed by The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at St. Mark’s also included space for reflecting on good things that happen each week, as well as short and long term goal setting. This space touches on several essential elements described in the PERMA theory. Findings in the field of positive psychology hopefully will continue to enrich our efforts and assist us in educating the whole student, empowering St. Markers to embrace their unique strengths and use them well once they have commenced their adventures beyond Southborough.
Sarah Eslick is Associate Director of The Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning and is responsible for Academic Support at St. Mark’s. She received her BA from Bucknell University and her MA in Learning Disabilities from Columbia University Teachers College. Ms. Eslick plays guitar, enjoys photography, and lives on campus with her two sons and husband, St. Mark’s English teacher Jason Eslick.