A Successful Life?

What exactly does it mean to live a successful life?

Many people try to imagine what society would look like if “success” was defined differently than it is today.

path to successWe live in a world that is searching for true meaning, work-life balance, stable relationships, and a sense of accomplishment that isn’t defined by our paychecks.

The key to understanding what society might look like is to look at our classrooms first. I want to show you what our classrooms can look like if success is defined differently.

According to research on how the brain works, the path to success in life should be reinvented. The current trend of working harder to be more successful, in order to ultimately be happy, isn’t working. This trend has made its way into our school systems, not just our place of work.

Using the techniques of the emerging field of positive psychology we can reinvent our image of the successful life and our understanding of how to get there.

First, we will define the principles of positive psychology and show you why it works. Then, we will report on findings from schools that have already implemented positive psychology into their curricula. Finally, we will give you the tools to transform your classroom.

Principles of Positive Psychology

Although the concept of positive psychology has early beginnings (even some ancient roots), it officially emerged as a field of study at the turn of the twenty-first century. At the helm stands Dr. Martin Seligman, who built upon the work of Dr. Abraham Maslow.

Dr. Seligman and his colleagues study what makes people flourish. He seeks to rethink the most recent trend of psychology, which tends to search for what makes people depressed or ill.

Well-being is not just the lack of depression, failure, or illness. It is an entity unto itself. It is something to strive for.

HappyPositive Psychology maintains that people desire to feel fulfilled, cultivate their strengths, and enhance all major areas of their lives. It asserts that living a fulfilled life of well-being is a choice that we can make. We are not bystanders to our circumstances.

As the field in its infancy, Dr. Seligman recently revised his original Authentic Happiness Theory, promoting the Well-Being Theory in its stead.

One notable difference is that “flourishing” can be measured by a number of objective parameters, not just subjective ones. In addition, Dr. Seligman shifted the attention away from “happiness” to focus on “well-being” and “flourishing.” Happiness is just one component of a multilayered theory.

“The goal of positive psychology in well-being theory is to measure and to build human flourishing.”

The PERMA Model

The Well-Being Theory is rooted in the PERMA model.

  • Positive Emotions (emotions of pleasure, happiness, etc.)
  • Engagement (also known as “flow” or complete absorption with the task at hand)
  • Relationships (building healthy and positive social relationships)
  • Meaning (a feeling of belonging to, and participating in, something larger than oneself)
  • Accomplishment (exercising the growth mindset to set and achieve goals)

flowThere are 24 signature strengths that support these categories. Positive psychology teaches you how to develop the specific strengths which are inherent within you, in order to reach optimal fulfillment.

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi propsed his theory of “flow” (known as engagement according to PERMA) during which people are in a state of absolute absorption with the activity at hand. He posits that this occurs due to a number of factors, one of which happens when your greatest strengths match up with your toughest challenges. Seeking out and cultivating our strengths is a major focus of positive psychology.

See the video below to watch Dr. Seligman explain the PERMA model. Approximately halfway in, he concentrates on the character traits of great teachers, as well as students who live a life of well-being.

The Science of Success

Shawn Achor, CEO and Founder of Good Think Inc., looks at what success means today and what it could mean tomorrow. “I found that most companies and schools follow a formula for success, which is this: If I work harder, I’ll be more successful. And if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier.”

While the goal is well-being, our understanding of what that means and how to get there is broken. This affects society as a whole and shows up significantly in our classrooms.

Shawn goes on to explain what the fundamental problem is with the current view of success. Once we reach our goal, we continue to move the goalpost, never feeling real fulfillment. He likes to call this “pushing happiness over the cognitive horizon.”

He argues that we have it backward. If we understood how the brain functions, then we would understand that happiness and well-being lead to success and not the other way around.

Research shows that the brain flourishes on happiness and positivity, making us more productive, and ultimately more successful. The brain performs best during a positive mood, as opposed to a stressed or neutral mood. We are 31% more productive during positive moments.

Why It Works

We know from MBE Principle #12 that learning is diminished in a threatening environment, yet it flourishes when there is a healthy amount of challenge. In order to create a life of positive emotion and engagement (flow), we need an optimal environment.

Positive psychology harnesses the power of the growth mindset and grit to teach students how to respond to obstacles. It guides students in creating a high challenge, yet low-threat emotional environment.

Furthermore, Dr. Seligman’s research shows that “zest” and “humor” are two characteristics that great teachers share. Why is that?

MeaningWell, Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which is a type of chemical used to communicate messages across the brain. This neurotransmitter activates major learning centers in the brain. Happiness and laughter stimulate the release of dopamine, which ultimately aids in learning.
Another important part of Dr. Seligman’s PERMA model is “meaning.” We need to feel a part of something greater than ourselves.

According to MBE Principle #5, we know that the search for meaning is an innate part of our nature. Turning the classroom into a place where meaning can be discovered allows our students to move toward a place of well-being and engages their natural curiosity.

Positive Education in Action

Dr. Seligman doesn’t believe that we, as teachers, are really trying to teach our students quadratic equations or how to write a thesis statement. He believes that these are just the mediums we use to teach three fundamentals:

  1. Social Navigation
  2. Rhetoric (in terms of how to express oneself and ask the right questions)
  3. Good Character

These fundamentals can be taught through exercises in positive psychology. Some schools have already begun to adopt this approach.

positive psychologyAfter surveying twelve school-based positive psychology intervention programs, Professor Lea Waters found a promising correlation between both the well-being of students and their academic achievement.

Professor Waters comes from Australia, which has been a major forerunner in the positive education movement. They have already started implementing positive psychology within their school systems.

Take Geelong Grammar School for instance. It is the first school in the world to implement positive education on a school-wide level. For approximately ten years, positive education has grown and strengthened their student population. Teachers incorporate positive psychology into the curriculum, using subject-matter as a medium to convey the values of positive psychology.

After the positive education program, students reported more engagement and enjoyment in learning. Similarly, in a blind study, teachers reported improved strengths in learning. Higher achievement in Language Arts was among the reports, as well as improved social skills.

Takeaways for Your Classroom

Leaders in the field posit that teaching positive education in schools will produce creative thinkers, engaged learners, content people, and involved citizens. By checking out these examples from Geelong Grammar School, you can see how to tailor it to your classroom.

  1. Use your subject-matter as a medium to communicate core concepts of positive psychology.
    • For instance, English teachers introduce novels and plays through the lens of signature strengths and resilience. The students then apply the concept of resilience (supported by growth mindset or grit) to characters facing challenges in Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
    • By studying the literature in this way, students are also learning what constitutes good literature and the components of building a realistic character.
  2. Give students positive psychology exercises.
    • Students work on gratitude by writing about three good things that happened to them daily. This ultimately reinforces a positive emotional state.
    • They can supplement this by writing a gratitude letter to their parents/mentor.
  3. Have students complete the VIA Signature Strengths Survey, in order to find their top five natural strengths.
    • Students are asked to create a “family tree of strengths.” This involves interviewing someone in their family about a strength that the student has not yet developed. Each latent strength is then worked on by the student individually.

Did you know that the United States Department of Education gave out a 2.8 million dollar grant for the research and implementation of a positive psychology high school curriculum? Be one of the first to engage in the dialogue and give your classroom a forward thinking spot in the future.

positive education


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