Luis Gallardo

Positive Education Makes All the Difference in Happiness

Luis Gallardo
Positive Education Makes All the Difference in Happiness

“What is the purpose of government if it does not work toward the happiness of the people? It’s the duty and role of the government to create the right conditions for people to choose to be happy.”

H. E. Sheikha Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi, the UAE’s Minister of State for Happiness

They call it Positive Education, and it's a critical tool in the project aimed at driving unhappiness out of human experience.

Martin Seligman, the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Alejandro Adler, the Executive Secretary for the University of Pennsylvania provided the Global Happiness Council with direction and assistance in the war against unhappiness as it relates to education.

Their contribution to the Global Happiness Policy Report finds that schools are the primary front where happiness can be ensured via instilling the positive values of a culture. They say that it's the extent to which teachers avoid conveying pessimism, distrust, and a tragic outlook on life which most critically impacts their students’ worldview going forward.

Seligman says that a teacher's ability to transmit optimism, trust, and a hopeful sense of the future will result in better well-being and that Positive Education (PE) techniques will act as the fulcrum for producing more well-being across an entire culture.

Via scientifically rigorous ongoing evaluation, Seligman says PE can provide a “replicable set of validated interventions” to achieve happiness outcomes in later life.

He and his colleagues say that it's crucial to “decompose” the very idea of “happiness” into elements less vague than that highly ambiguous term, which measures of unhappiness (typically depression and anxiety) must be set and lastly, that benchmarks must be set for measures of academic success.

As an example, work in Bhutan provided the first solid evidence that PE increases well-being and ramps up national standardized exam performance. Bhutan, a small Himalayan country with fewer than one million inhabitants, uses the metric Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to assess national progress. That nation uses GNH to drive public policy and has organized its education system around the principles of GNH.

To that end, The Bhutanese Ministry of Education worked in collaboration with the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania to develop a GNH Curriculum aimed at targeting ten positive “life skills” for secondary school students in grades 7 through 12. The curriculum they built taught those skills via a 15-month-long, stand-alone course which was seamlessly embedded within existing academic subjects.

As part of the program, students participated in botany through organic gardens where they learned to plant, grow, and harvest vegetables and other foods. As they took on the complex process of growing different plants with their fellow students - and understanding the role of food in the larger local and national economic system – the students learned to practice critical thinking, creative thinking, decision making, and problem-solving skills.

For their part, teachers learned how to give students verbal and written feedback in a way that empowered and motivated them. It's hardly surprising, and a hopeful sign that the GNH Curriculum vastly increased adolescent well-being - and the effects remained significant one year after the intervention ended.

As a result, PE is quickly spreading throughout the rest of the world. The findings included a discovery that authoritarian discipline to achieve that academic success resulted in the loss of interest of students in studying and in conflicts between students, parents, and teachers. The former system also led to rampant depression and anxiety in students.

Seligman and his team are certain that Positive Education may serve as the correct antidote for educational unhappiness as it focuses on both individual well-being and academic advances.

One of the happiest countries in the world, the United Arab Emirates (Dubai), has decided that PE will play a critical role in helping to further improve the nation’s happiness. The Government of the UAE launched a pilot in PE during September 2017 where PE classes are taught as part of the school curriculum and parents are invited to attend regular PE sessions.

Israel has stepped up as well. Considered a “natural laboratory” for the study of traumatic and post-traumatic reactions with the nation's nearly continuous exposure to high levels of inter-group violence and hostilities, Israel is ideal for examining psychological responses to stress as well as for developing psychological interventions aimed at increasing individual’s resilience and coping skills.

In all cases, the work focuses on developing emotion regulation skills, fostering gratitude and appreciation, cultivating “flow experiences” and enjoyment while learning, fostering healthy interpersonal relationships, promoting acts of kindness, care, and compassion, utilizing character strengths and virtues in daily life, cultivating “resilience factors” and persistence skills and ultimately identifying and pursuing meaningful “self-concordant” goals.

The result? Statistically significant decreases in depression and anxiety symptoms in the intervention groups and a finding that negative psychiatric symptoms in the control group increased significantly.

The bottom line is that “moving the happiness needle” will follow from merely measuring happiness before and after interventions and by telling teachers that they are accountable for building well-being.

The Global Happiness Council believes that Positive Education will produce a generation of happier and more knowledgeable, skillful youth. What could be a more positive outcome than children and adolescents ideally equipped to create a happier world?