This is a guest post by Sam McNerney.
Everything in the United States is better since the end of the World War Two. Purchasing power, average income and the GDP have increased. Technology, healthcare and education have improved. Social rights including those of women, minorities and homosexuals have been ameliorated. And, moreover, we aren’t losing hundreds of soldiers a day to a global war.
Everything is better except, paradoxically, the average well-being of Americans.
The famous Easterlin paradox highlighted this several decades ago. It found that, “at a point in time both among and within nations, happiness varies directly with income, but over time, happiness does not increase when a country’s income increases.” In other words, while the United States GDP has more than quadrupled since the 1950s, reports of subjective happiness haven’t budged.
Now, positive psychology is stepping in. Positive psychology is a young branch of psychology that seeks to “[make] the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling.” In contrast to psychology of the 20th century, which focused on “curing mental illness,” positive psychology tries to improve well-being by understanding what makes the happiest people, happy.
After about a decade of research psychologists have some answers. They now know what most contributes to well-being and have developed some legitimate strategies to increase well-being. The question is if and how positive psychology findings should inform public policy. Some nations have already taken the first step. Bhutan, for example, replaced GDP with GDH – Gross Domestic Happiness – a few decades ago. More recently, France [pdf] and the United Kingdom issued initiatives to measure and improve the well-being of its citizens. There are skeptics and believers, but with positive psychology research flourishing and nation morale low I think it would be wise for the United States to take similar steps.
One way to do this is through education. I recently spoke with Mark Linkins, who is the curriculum director at the Strath Haven School in the Wallingford-Swarthmore school district (just outside of Philadelphia), about this. Linkins has an interesting background. Several years ago, the father of positive psychology Martin Seligman approached the Wallingford-Swarthmore school district about an experiment he wanted to run on 9th graders. With a few millions dollars from the United States Department of Education in hand, as well as experience with the Penn Resiliency Project (PRP), Seligman, along with Linkins who was a 9th grade teacher at the time, integrated positive psychology lessons into the language arts curriculum [pdf]. All in all, they managed “approximately 20-25 80-minute sessions” delivered over a school year.
The lessons focused on three areas that Seligman believes contribute to well-being: The Good Life, The Pleasant Life and The Meaningful Life (Seligman has since added two more components, accomplishment and relationships, to his formula). For the meaningful life, which Seligman describes as “knowing your strengths and using them in the service of something larger than you,” students read excerpts from a Life magazine issue on the meaning of life. Then, they used a journal to write back and forth with their parents about what they liked and disliked and why. The activity took a couple of weeks and each student wrote five entries. In the end, the students analyzed their entries to identify reoccurring themes, most of which centered around making a difference, making connections with others and having compassion. The important part of the exercise, as Linkins told me, was that “we were not spoon-feeding the students about what positive psychology says about the meaning of life, rather, he trusted that they would figure it out through the experience.”
Similar exercises were done to teach the principles of The Pleasant Life and The Good Life. In the end, they found that the “positive psychology programme increased students’ reports of enjoyment and engagement in school… improved social skills (e.g., empathy, cooperation assertiveness, self-control)… but did not improve other outcomes measured, such as students’ reports of their depression and anxiety symptoms, character strengths, and participation in extra-curricular activities.” Their conclusion was optimistic; as Seligman explains, “based on this research, we [believe] that well-being should be taught and that it can be taught in school.”
After the experiment at Strath Haven, Seligman, along with Linkins and others went overseas to the Geelong Grammar School in Australia to expand the original project. Unlike Strath Haven, Geelong implemented positive psychology education (or, positive education) across the entire school. According to their 2009 paper [pdf], they do not have any “systematic data” to report the results, but the anecdotal feedback is positive.
So, should the United States consider integrating a positive education into its public schools?
Of course, there are critics. Administrators would probably be reluctant to implement positive education (and I imagine parents could put up a good fight) and academics I’ve spoken with question positive psychology on certain points. But I’m a believer, and in a time when the morale of the nation is low and the education system is in need of a fix, something needs to be done.
At the federal level, policy makers should also pay attention to what positive psychology has to offer. I think they are too concerned about GDP and economic growth. Money is important, but it’s time to follow Bhutan, France and the UK and also consider well-being. As Robert Kennedy pointed out nearly four decades ago:
“The Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage… yet [it] does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages… it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
I’m not so sure how positive psychology could inform public policy, but implementing it in the classroom is a good start.
Sam McNerney recently graduated from the greatest school on Earth, Hamilton College, where he earned a bachelors in Philosophy. However, after reading too much Descartes and Nietzsche, he realized that his true passion is reading and writing about the psychology and the neuroscience. Now, he is trying to find a career as a science journalist who writes about philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. His blog, WhyWeReason.com tries to figure out how humans understand the world. He spends his free time listening to Lady Gaga, dreaming about writing bestsellers, and tweeting @WhyWeReason.