To what extent is positive education in classroom settings successful in enhancing students happiness?
To what extent is positive education in classroom settings successful in enhancing students’ happiness?
Session: May 2013
Name: Kasper Djernæs
Candidate number: 000040-072
Psychology Extended essay
Word Count: 3998
Introduction…………………………………………………………… page 4
Defining and understanding happiness…………………………....page 4-5
The Penn Resilience program (PRP)…………………………………………..page 6-7
The Geelong Grammar School Project (GGS)……………………………..page 7-8
Positive education put into practice…………………………………………..page 8-9
Summary of evaluation point’s……………………………………………………page 9
Abraham Maslow ended his book Motivation and personality with the chapter Towards a Positive Psychology in which he argues that psychology to a higher extent should be focusing on the sides of life, which makes it worth living. Approximately 50 years later psychology had moved in this direction, but positive psychology first really came alive when Martin Seligman, at that time new elected president of the American Psychological Association, together with his colleague Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1998 decided to pick up the ball. “The aim of positive psychology is to begin to catalyse a change in the focus of psychology from preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building positive qualities” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
After positive psychology was shaped it got broken down to several branches, such as neuroscience, health and psychotherapy. This investigation will be focusing on positive education, which is defined as education for both traditional skills and happiness. The reason why this topic is important to investigate is, that the prevalence of depression among teenagers is much higher than ever before, by the end of school nearly 20% of the youth experience clinical depression (Lewinsohn et al., 1993) Studies also suggests that the age at which people get depressed is decreasing (Weissman, 1987; Lewinsohn et al., 1993). Further more, young people in developed countries are experiencing only a small rise in life satisfaction compared to the economic growth, better health care and easier access to education. Positive education could not only increase the well-being of the human population, but also save governments millions of dollars, as much research have found that this type of education reduces the likely hood of depression significantly. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) depression is the most costly disease in the world.
Most research regarding positive education have been carried out by Seligman and his research team led by Reivich and Gillham, which let to the development of two different school programs: the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP), and the Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum, which The Geelong Grammar School Project follows. This essay will be focusing on the findings of these two programs to answer the question to what extent is positive education in classroom settings successful in enhancing students’ happiness?
If these two curriculums, which follows the philosophy of positive education is found to improve these three skills it can be postulated that it is indeed successful in enhancing students´ happiness. Rather or not these findings can be generalized to all students will also be discussed.
Defining and understanding happiness
Before this question can be answered it´s necessary to break down the term happiness into more measurable substances. Today happiness is to broad of a word and used to describe to many things. Positive psychology breaks it down into three different sub-matters, which all are quantifiable and skill-based and therefore can be taught. The first step to happiness is positive emotion, which consists of aspects like joy and love. If you live your life around these traits it´s called a “pleasant life”. The second part is based on Csikzentmihalyi’s theory of flow, a loss of self-consciousness where you only think about the present and forget both past and future. While there are easy ways to achieve positive emotion, such as having sex, watching television or eating your favorite food, there are no short cuts to the state of flow. This can only be achieved by using your main competences to over come challenging experiences – even though one says afterwards “that was fun” (Delle Fave & Massimini 2005). Flow can come from many different things, from rock climbing to working at a production line. If you have a lot of flow experiences in your daily life it is said to be an engaged life. The last component of happiness is concentrated around creating meaning in your life. This can be done by helping others, achieving goals or through interactions with others. From a positive psychology perspective, meaning consists in knowing what your highest character strengths are, and then using them to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self (Seligman 2002). It is important to remember that a happy life cannot be achieved by pursuing only one of these components. A volunteering doctor saving children in Africa can have a huge amount of meaning in his life, but no positive emotion in terms of for example love, free time and socializing with friends. So by focusing on only one of these “life styles” you cannot achieve a happy and fulfilling life.
An important fact to remember is that positive psychology and its definition of happiness is based on observations and experiments. The use of triangulation in investigating positive education highly improves its reliability and credibility, as several different methodologies have been used to conducted studies to support the theory behind positive education. For example Peterson et al., (2005) carried out a study where he aimed to investigate how the correlation between how much pleasure, engagement and meaning people felt they had in their lives, would influence their life satisfaction. This was done through a survey, which 845 volunteering adults completed over the Internet. One of their findings was that all three of these orientations are distinguishable and can be practiced at the same time and that each of them is associated with life satisfaction. They also found that meaning and engagement plays a bigger role than pleasure when it comes to pursuing life satisfaction. It is important to consider the reliability of this data. First of all the findings were discovered through a survey, which may not reflect reality completely, as it only shows the participants feelings at the time the survey was completed. Individuals also need access to a computer, be able to use it and have the interest to actually complete the survey. This means that the findings cannot be generalized to the whole world or less developed countries, but only to the target population and the people who actually completed the survey
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Another study, which seems to be agreeing with the findings and postulations of positive education, was carried out by Giltay et al. (2004). The objective of this study was to investigate if there is any significant correlation between happiness and lifespan. 999 men and women from the Netherlands in the age group 65 to 85 years completed a survey with 5 main categories: Health, self-respect, morale, optimism, and contrast. They then measured the amount of deaths doing a 9.1 years follow up period. There were 397 deaths. By comparing subjects with a high level of pessimism, with people showing a high level of optimism, they found that happy people are less likely to die of heart attack. To make the results more reliable participants were also compared in terms of age, sex, chronic disease, education, smoking, alcohol consumption, history of cardiovascular disease or hypertension, body mass index, and total cholesterol level. It is important to bear in mind that when longitudinal studies are conducted there are several long time variables, which cannot be controlled. Furthermore the study only showed a correlation between happiness and lifespan, but not the cause and effect. This means that it did not show how character strengths influenced happiness, but it only found a correlation between these to factors. To think that it did, would be to commit the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc.
These are only two examples of how happiness and positivity can influence normal peoples lives in a positive direction, optimize life satisfaction and making life more worth living. This essay will now go on to talk about how these findings and techniques have been used to develop two school curriculums and how these systems influence student’s behavior.
An attempt to enhance students’ happiness in class-room setting, The Penn Resilience program (PRP)
An introduction and an evaluation of studies conducted on the effectiveness of (PRP)
This curriculum is developed for late elementary and middle school students. It focuses on teaching children social problem-solving and cognitive-behavioral skills to cope with everyday problems and how to avoid unnecessary negative emotions. It´s build upon cognitive-behavioral theories of depression developed by Ellis, Beck, and Seligman (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; Beck, 1967, 1976; Ellis, 1962). More than 2000 students ranging from the age of 8 to 15 have been used in several studies to evaluate the PRP. One of the main strengths of this program is that it has been tested in several different countries across continents, such as United States, China, Australia and the UK and therefore has a really diverse sample. Most of the PRP studies focused on Depression symptoms and effectiveness of minimize depressions in younger students.
(Jane E. Gillham, Karen J. Reivich, Lisa H. Jaycox, and Martin E.P. Seligman 1995) investigated whether or not teaching fifth and sixth graders cognitive and social-problem-solving would be able to prevent depression symptoms. They used a sample of 69 students and investigated the effect over a 2-year period. The results were afterwards compared with 49 students in a matched no-treatment control group. They found that children who had gone through the prevention program were much less depressed compared to the control group and that this effect grew over time. Further more moderate and to severe depression symptoms were decreased by 50%. However the study does not show clearly that the difference in depressions symptoms was a result of the positive education. Since the control group was from a different school the findings could have been influenced by participants variables, which might have had an effect on the results.
(Brunwasser & Gillham, 2008) evaluated whether PRP is effective in targeting depression symptoms in youth. This was done by a meta-analysis of 17 studies. They found that students who have been following the Penn Resiliency Program reported significant lower depression symptom in comparison to youths who haven’t experienced any intervention. Even though the effect is modest ranging from 0.11 to 0.21 this still supports the belief that PRP is successful in reducing depression symptoms. As most of these studies was conducted online, it is considered less reliable due to the greater possibility that participants might have altered their results because of demand characteristics (as they may have believed that researchers wanted them to become happier) On the other hand these results were found by taking into account 17 studies, which makes the data more reliable.
Cardemil, Reivich, and Seligman () published findings regarding the effect of PRP on fifth to eight grade Latino and African American children. They found that the program were successful in lowering depression symptoms, increasing self esteem and exacerbate cognitive and hopeless thoughts. Two years follow up data showed that the positive effect of PRP was maintained by the Latin American children (Cardemil, Reivich, Beevers, Seligman, & James, 2007). However there were no clear signs that PRP had any effect on the African American children. This study suggests that the PRP might not be successful in all cultures and minority groups.
Conversely Yu and Seligman () demonstrated that PRP is effective outside the borders of the US. They found that PRP managed to decrease depression symptoms in classroom interventions in a sample of adolescent in China. Another study carried out in Germany by (Pössel, Horn, Groen, & Hautzinger, 2004) also supports the idea that PRP works outside the US. A 10-week program had a preventive effect on students. Participants had few or subsyndromal levels of depression symptoms compared to the control group.
(Brunwasser & Gillham, 2008) Also found in their Meta-analysis that there was no variation in PRP’s effect across different cultures and races. This cross-cultural study suggested that the theory of positive psychology is an etic, as this behavior seems to apply to most cultures around the world.
In 2009 Martin Seligman’s research team carried out a randomized controlled evaluation of the school curriculum. A sample of 347 grade 9 students was divided into two groups one, which followed the positive psychology curriculum and a group that didn’t (control group). Before the school started both students and parents completed a survey, which focused on the students character strengths such as self-discipline, social skills and curiosity. Surveys were also completed at the end of school year and through a two-year follow up period. Based on both mother’s and teacher’s reports they found that the curriculum seemed to improve social skills, such as self-control and cooperation in students following the course.
The Penn Resilience Program seems to suggest that positive psychology is able to enhance student’s happiness in classroom settings.
The Geelong Grammar School Project (GGS)
An investigation in how positive education effects students’ happiness.
In 2008 The Geelong Grammar school, located in Australia, asked Seligman if he was willing to implements his theories regarding education to the whole school. The Geelong Grammar School project follows the Strath Haven positive psychology curriculum, which has been developed to provide students and teachers with skills through specific lessons in the grade 7 and the grade 10 (Reivich & Gillham, 2008). Students are being taught the role of negative bias, Beck and Ellis’s ABC Model, the skill of generating alternatives, the role of evidence and real-time resilience. An important part of the curriculum is the Values In Action (VIA). Students can identity their character strengths by completing a survey called VIA Survey of character strengths, which is developed by Martin Seligman and his research team.
The values in action (VIA)
As PRP, The Geelong Grammar School Project (GGSP) also focuses on enhancing student’s happiness along with their academic skills. Many of the same techniques are used in both school systems. However GGSP have a higher focus on building/finding your character strengths and how to use these in your everyday life. In terms of positive psychology character strengths are defined as a ubiquitously recognized subset of personality traits that are morally valued. In addition to being valuable in their own right, character strengths are proposed to have important benefits for wellbeing and to contribute to success in important life domains (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
The Values in Action (VIA) project was presented by Peterson & Seligman in 2004. It is a framework of 24 character strengths that define six encompassing qualities, wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, transcendence. (See appendix 1 for full list) Research has found that these 24 strengths are perceived as positive personal skills on an international scale. Biswas –Diener (2006) conducted a study, which evaluated VIA across cultures. Among 519 university of Illinois students, 123 members of the Kenyan Maasai and 71 Inuit in Northern Greenland, they found strong evidence for the premise that these 24 character strengths exists are desired and developed across many cultures. Despite significant similarities between the cultures some character strengths were less important and pursued differently depending on gender. Shimai et al, (2006) found similar results in a study conducted in Japan.
Much research has been done to evaluate the effectiveness of using your strengths more in your daily life. Govindji and Linley (2007) carried out a study to test whether using your main strengths leads to beneficial outcomes and increased well-being over time. 227 English participants filled out a survey in the start of the experiment and additionally completed the well-being measure at three and six months. They found that people, who used their character strengths more frequently, also reported higher level of well-being over time, particularly at the follow up assessments. The results also showed that the use of character strengths was interconnected with greater self-esteem, vitality and positive affect. These findings supports Peterson and Seligman’s research, which grants the GGSP more credibility as external studies have found the same results. On the other hand it is important to remember that this study was only carried out on British people and some basic education was required. This means that the findings cannot be generalized to the greater population) nor to uneducated people. Further more the results are best interpreted as perceived strengths use, as a survey cannot measure if these strengths are actually used.
The link between character strengths identification itself and wellbeing deserves attention (Park & Peterson, 2009). Linley (2008) notes that identifying strengths have a sense of justification and appreciation of your self. Evidently it is a positive experience to find your main strengths and improves self-esteem, which might add to wellbeing. Nonetheless research suggests that, this is not fully responsible; hobbies, relationship and the jobs individuals finds most joyful are those which requires their signature strengths, which where at the time unidentified (Peterson & Seligman, 2004)
Another point to make is that the process of building good character strengths is a highly difficult task and in the end people’s perception of well being is highly subjective (Park 2004) and as stated above it is not completely clear how character strengths work as a defense mechanism against problems and well-being.
Positive education put into practice
In both the PRP and GGS curriculum, students are taught how to identity and developed their main strengths and virtues and how to use them in their everyday life. Here are two examples of exercises used in positive psychology to enhance individual’s happiness.
(1) Three-good-things exercise (Seligman 2002)
Every day for a week students are told to write down three good things that have happened to them. It can be anything, both small and big things. For example “ I got a good score on my math test” or a big thing like “Today I qualified for the national championship in my favorite sport” Next to each event students were told to evaluate the following: “why this good thing happen?”, “What does this mean to you?”, “ How can you have more of this good things in the future?”
This exercise is used to help students focus on the positive things in their lives instead of the bad once. Human beings in general tent to focus on the negative aspects of life. Through the eyes of an evolutionist this makes perfect sense. We are driven by nature to focus on the things, which are bad in our lives to have a higher chance of survival (Mihály Csíkszentmihályi 2008) by doing this exercise individuals should be better at finding positive things in their lives and also know how to maximize these experiences.
(2) Adversity-Belief-Consequence (ABC) (Ellis 2001)
This is a cognitive tool, which can help you avoid or decrease negative brain activity, derived from Albert Ellis’ rational-emotive behavior therapy (REPT). Students learn how to interpret negative emotion as being due primarily to their distorted beliefs regarding adversity rather than the adverse event itself and how to change these beliefs. The A is the adverse event, what actually happens. B is the belief how you interpreted the event. The C is the consequence emotion, the feeling you are left with as a result of your belief.
Students are taught to evaluate their belief. To ask them self if they really represent reality. People often tend to expect things to be much worse than they are.
Dr. Keith Ablow has criticized this cognitive technique in a fox news article (See bibliography) He argues that this approach only teaches humans to deny stress and trauma, but not actually to resolve any of these problems. People might feel forced to think positively about situations where sadness and grief would be more appropriate.
Summary of Evaluation points
It is important to remember that most studies carried out to investigate the effectiveness of positive psychology in classroom settings were developed by the same people who came up with the theory. This could result in researcher bias as they might see the results that they want to see. Further more many of the methods to measuring the effect on students have been developed by Seligman and his research team. This could create doubt about the reliability of the results.
All of the above studies followed all ethical guidelines, as conformed consent was obtained in all cases, participants had the possibility to withdraw at any time through the studies. Further more all formalities regarding confidentiality were for filled and protection of participants was followed. However in many of the studies sensitive personal information was given to the researcher, which if leaked could have a huge impact on the participant’s life. For example if information regarding an individual’s high chance of getting a depression was leaked, the participant might have problems getting a job. Thus confidentiality is extremely important in these types of studies.
Another limitations of these studies are that there is a high risk of demand characteristics. If participants completed the same survey through out the study they might feel obligated to rank them self happier, as they know this is what the researcher wants. Furthermore it could also just be a result of the fact that there is a higher focus on student’s well-being (more attention from parents, teachers, friends) instead of the postulation that it is a product of the positive education.
Much criticism of positive psychology seems to arise from the hypothesis that if there is a positive psychology, then the rest of psychology must be negative psychology. However other psychologists have argued against this assumption. It is because psychology (which is mostly neutral, but with more negative than positive topics) has been so extraordinarily successful that the in-balance, the lack of progress on positive topics, has become so obvious (Gable S. L, Haidt J. 2005)
It must be considered that positive education is a new field and still under development. Limited amount of research have been conducted and mostly by the same people who came up with the theory. Despite this, most of the studies seem to be both reliable and valid. Both gender and cultural issues have been discussed and the positive education has been tested and found successful on an international scale. On the other hand it is important to remember that implicating positive education into a school can be costly. It is time consuming and it requires that the teachers have been taught how to use positive education in classes.
Through out this essay the research question “to what extent is positive psychology in classroom settings successful in enhancing students’ happiness?” has been answered. Positive education has been, to a great extent, found to be successful in enhancing students’ happiness. In both the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) and The Geelong Grammar School Project (GGS) positive education did result in an overall increase in well-being and happiness, both with a short and long term perspective.
Depression symptoms have been found to decrease significantly, as a result of the positive education. Further more in many of the studies both parents and students assess themselves, as more happy after the positive intervention than before. Through the evaluation of several international experiments, positive education was also found to be successful on a global scale and not only in America. This means that the findings can be generalized to more than just the students following the two programs.
A new enhanced understanding of happiness has been given and research which lead to the theory of positive education have been presented. The extent to which positive education is successful have been established and research for and against it have been introduced, evaluated and validated. Two educational programs have been investigated, along with two exercises used in positive education.
The findings of this essay suggest that further research into the field of positive education can be done. In some of the studies used to evaluated the success of positive education the participants only showed a slightly increase in happiness. This indicates that this approach could still be optimized and made better. Ways of merging positive education with other educational theories could be investigated to create a more holistic and effective way of increasing students’ happiness. Another unresolved question such as, how the use of character strengths actually enhance wellbeing could be investigated, as by now only correlational studies have been conducted.
How positive education could be used in other fields of psychology would also be worth looking at. It might also be successful in increasing employees’ happiness within a company and influence political decisions regarding education. In conclusion positive education is a promising field, which could be used in a variety of other areas of psychology.
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1. wisdom and knowledge.
• creativity: thinking of novel and productive ways to do things
• curiosity: taking an interest in all of ongoing experience
• open-mindedness: thinking things through and examining them from all sides
• love of learning: mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge
• perspective: being able to provide wise counsel to others
• honesty: speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a genuine way
• bravery: not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain
• persistence: finishing what one starts
• zest: approaching life with excitement and energy
• kindness: doing favors and good deeds for others
• love: valuing close relations with others
• social intelligence: being aware of the motives and feelings of self and others
• fairness: treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice
• leadership: organizing group activities and seeing that they happen
• teamwork: working well as member of a group or team
• forgiveness: forgiving those who have done wrong
• modesty: letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves
• prudence: being careful about one’s choices; not saying or doing things that
might later be regretted
• self-regulation: Regulating what one feels and does
• appreciation of beauty and excellence: noticing and appreciating beauty,
excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life
• gratitude: being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen
• hope: expecting the best and working to achieve it
• humor: liking to laugh and joke; bringing smiles to other people
• religiousness: having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of