One of my colleagues, David Bott, and I recently spent a week together training a whole school faculty in Positive Education. The headmaster notably remarked:
“We may be primed, we may be inclined but we still need voices of experience to show us how to use this science.”
I love the mindset demonstrated here. It takes role modelling from leaders and teachers to help students develop the skills to manage their wellbeing.
On September 20th, 23rd and 24th, my team will be in California delivering our Introduction to Positive Education workshop.
If you think your school isn’t part of the problem, you’re wrong. If you have 20 students in a class, 5 are suffering from some type of mental health issue. Positive Education is a proactive way to equip students and staff with the skills not only to cope and manage, but to flourish
As you may know, the OECD does a lot of work studying education – especially in the area of predicting challenges to of the future of education. As Bob Snowden, founder of the Futures Project said in a recent conversation “OECD’s recent research indicates that the top priority in schools over the next 10-15 years won’t be one of the academic priorities as you might expect, but wellbeing.” Those of us working in the Positive Education space don’t find this surprising. We see first-hand the benefits of placing wellbeing at the heart of education, of flipping conventional wisdom placing the so called “soft-skills” to becoming the priority (feels like eating dessert first doesn’t it?) The level of stress, depression and anxiety that continues to climb in Canada, U.S., Australia and other countries of similar economic stability is a source of much confusion. When we don’t have a real problem like safety, getting enough food, or avoiding disease why is it that we don’t thrive? Why then is it so hard to take students from surviving to thriving?
One idea is that the goals students are setting, either on their own or with help of caring guidance teams parents and teachers are a root. PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) has done international research that showed students who are more motivated also have greater anxiety. “Motivation seems to be more closely linked to anxiety when it is imposed by others. Students who feel undue pressure to meet the expectations of their parents or teachers, or who constantly compare themselves with others, may feel tenser and more anxious. Conversely, PISA data show that when motivation is intrinsic – when it comes from a student’s own desire to be the best that he or she can be – students may feel slightly less anxious.” We need to figure out ways of ensuring that students motivation is led by their own curiosity and meaning rather than taking on the motivation of their peers (“I applied to Stanford and Harvard”) their parents (“wouldn’t medicine be a great option for you?”) or their past performance (you should keep taking History, it’s your top subject”).
Another challenge is comparison. Recently Instagram has experimented with removing an anxiety provoking feature from its platform in Canada. The social media leader has often been accused of creating a platform where teens compare the messy unedited version of their own lives to other teens’ highly edited and curated highlight reels.
Parents are quick to point our that the rise in technology use coincides with the rise in teen depression and anxiety. I believe that technology, like money, is an amplifier of who you really are. If a student is disengaged, disconnected, and distracted the removal of technology doesn’t change these traits, Of course there are appropriate developmental guidelines from a neuroscience standpoint, but we cannot blame technology for a lack of appropriate psychological attachment. As attachment theory expert Dr, Gordon Neufeld writes “Technology is a wonderful thing: it can be used in amazing ways to enhance life, but it can also create huge problems if structures are not defined around how it is going to fit into healthy development and family life, particularly with our young. “
According to Dr. Shani Robins of Stanford, wisdom skills like emotional intelligence, mindfulness, empathy & compassion, humility, gratitude and realism must be taught. These are skills that students need to avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism, comparison, overgeneralization and catastrophizing that lead to mental illbeing. Check out this fabulous video about the wellbeing continuum.
Think Differently and Your Anxiety Changes
Dr. Ellen Hendrickson has fabulous tips for people who experience debilitating levels of anxiety. She reminds us that the positive features that often accompany social anxiety like extreme empathy, inclusiveness, deep connection in relationships are all still there when anxiety is avoided. Alternately, the opposite of social anxiety is psychopathy (not confidence) so those who experience zero anxiety are not very emotionally healthy! One technique she uses that I love is to personify your inner critic. In fact, I love having kids think about what their mean inner voice might look like. Some see a monster, a dark-fanged nightmare ghoul. Mine looks more like this:
Hendrickson also recommends anxiety Madlibs, a really cool technique to get to the heart of your anxiety. By making it seem like a game it can feel less personal. Use this statement:
When I ______, it will become obvious that I _______
When I put my hand up in class, it will become obvious that I am not smart
When I walk alone in the hall, it will become obvious that I am a loser without friends
When I go to a dinner party, it will become obvious that I am a boring person.
Once you have the obvious blank filled in you can
realize it’s not true,
realize it might be true and have a strategy
ask what’s the worst thing that can happen and think about how to cope if it comes true
This week an amazing group of professionals gathered at Claremont Graduate College for the Western Positive Psychology Association’s conference delving into Evidence-Based Applications in Positive Psychology. I was lucky to present 2 sessions.
10 Years of Positive Education discussed the top 10 mistakes my team at the Institute of Positive Education sees as they reflect on our decade of delivering positive education and what successes ensued once we learned from our mistakes (a little growth mindset modelling). In Is Wellbeing Enough? I led a discussion about measurement of wellbeing and its role in organizational psychology (because what gets measured matters!). Presenting to such an engaged group of Positive Psychology experts certainly had me feeling in the flow which was another focus of the day- recognizing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi– “Father of Flow” and Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management who will be retiring at the end of the 2018-2019 academic year. Mike shared his story beginning with reflections on how his family’s displacement post WW2 led to a serendipitous meeting of Carl Jung where the seeds of his passion for psychology were planted. He also touched on his hope and perspectives for the Future of Positive Psychology. This post will delve into the science of flow and why it impacts wellbeing.
According to Csikszentmihalyi there are 8 states of engagement. We know that engaged living is a predictor of wellbeing, life satisfaction, and enjoyment at school or work.
A flow experience has nine characteristics:
What you are doing balances challenge with skill level. Like Goldilocks, the task cannot be too hard or too simple- there is a sweet spot of difficult but not too difficult that encourages flow and is just right.
The task allows for some level of direct and immediate feedback- when walking a balance beam your feedback is either falling off, staying on, or almost falling and then recovering. The feedback is part of the process.
There is a clear goal.
Action and awareness of action are merging. You are able to participate and reflect on your participation almost simultaneously.
You are absorbed in the task. There is engagement and there is not distraction.
You have a sense of personal control. You are impacting the outcome with your effort in a palpable way.
Your lose any self-consciousness. You are not thinking about how others respond to what you are doing, you are just doing.
Time seems to either stand still or pass quickly. There is a warped sense of noticing the passage of time in a positive way.
The task itself is intrinsically rewarding. You aren’t there for the medal or gold star, you are there because the activity that gets you to the medal is important.
When people talk about flow state, they often use terms like “in the zone”, “total absorption”, “feeling at one” or “peak performance”. As Csikszentmihalyi said in his book Finding Flow.
” Contrary to what we usually believe, the best movements in our lives are not the passive, receptive relaxing times…The best moments usually occur is a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is this something we make happen.”
What happens to Your Brain When You Are In a Flow State?
Transient hypofrontality– the focused thinking part of our brain gets a rest and other parts and functions of our brain to become more predominant (like creativity)
Dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex quiets– This is the part of your brain that deals with executive functions such as impulse control
Medial pre-frontal cortex becomes highly active
The neurochemistry of flow floods your body with performance enhancing chemicals like dopamine, noradrenaline, endorphins, serotonin allowing for amplified learning, motivation, and creativity.
Often thought of as a solitary experience, we now know that flow can be experienced together. In fact the flow experience is quite contagious- when we see flow happening on the soccer pitch or at a musical performance, we get a bit of the beneficial chemicals for ourselves.
Interestingly. even though most people would might prefer leisure to work, people experience flow 54% while working compared to 18% at play according to one of Csikszentmihalyi’s studies.
Want More Flow?
Seek feedback on your performance
Have clear goals
Find the sweet spot of challenge and skill
Reflect on when and where you feel flow most
Give yourself time- rushing is a flow-blocker
I’m compiling a list of activities that seem most connected to flow. Send me yours and I will add it:
dance tennis swimming horseback riding drawing singing tennis playing an instrument public speaking juggling
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books.
Dietrich, A. (2003). Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis. Consciousness and cognition, 12(2), 231-256.
Historically psychologists have dealt with mental health deficiency or mental illness.
One pioneer, Martin Seligman, recognized that the absence of metal illbeing was not the same as mental wellbeing; if you remove unhappiness you don’t get happiness. Thus began the science of positive psychology, a proactive area of mental health designed to help an individual to flourish.
What is Flourishing?
To flourish is to find fulfillment in our lives, accomplishing meaningful and worthwhile tasks, and connecting with others at a deeper level—in essence, living the “good life” (Seligman, 2011). Flourishing as an individual means feeling good and living a life that feels meaningful and impacts the community around you for the greater good. It is not the absence of emotions like fear, anxiety or jealousy that might be considered negative emotions nor is does flourishing mean you are happy all the time. When an individual is flourishing they are experiencing more positive emotions (love, joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration and awe) and shorten the rumination over negative ones.
How do you learn the skills required to Flourish?
Until recently, learning how to flourish was left to chance. Psychologists or counselors sometimes helped. Religion, yoga, or deep conversations held in salons by academics might touch on some of the topics that fall under this umbrella. The problem with leaving wellbeing to chance is there’s a greater chance that it won’t happen than it will.
Researchers now agree (for the most part) on PERMA or PERMA-H being part of the equation to optimal wellbeing.
P = positive emotions (experience more of them intentionally)
E = engagement (immersion in a task, job, or hobby you love)
R = relationships (a sense of belonging and support to and from family, peers, and friends)
M = meaning (understanding the deeper why behind your actions or why you are on this planet)
A =accomplishment (having ambition and goals)
H= health (enough sleep, exercise & nutrition)
This is where positive education plays a key role.
What Exactly is Positive Education?
Most simply put, positive education puts wellbeing at the heart of education.
It started almost ten years ago at Geelong Grammar School, just south of Melbourne (which is where I am as I write this). Best practice teaching combined with positive psychology to embed the skills of positive psychology across an entire school organization from top to bottom. The GGS model has created a common language, a culture, and way to help students, educators, and community members like parents and support staff to thrive.
Positive education is what happens when you teach the entire organization of a school to flourish.
Evidence is showing that positive education programs decrease stress while increasing self-esteem, optimism and self-efficacy. Students who are flourishing exercise resilience and are more engaged in their learning. But it’s not just about the students. Teachers have the highest reported stress levels of any career including first-responders and physicians or nurses. Positive education helps teachers too. By using the PERMA H model the whole school learns and lives differently.
Over the next few weeks I will be sharing resources (from reading lists to worksheet downloads) to help your school get started. If you want to make sure you get access to these, please join the Positive Minds International mailing list and join our growing group of people making a difference in the wellbeing of children.
It’s hard to define and even more difficult to measure. Until recently psychologists and researchers wouldn’t even use the word. Instead, terms like subjective well-being or positive emotion were substituted.
You would think that humans could agree that a basic goal of life is to experience more happiness and yet on podcasts, in the media, and in everyday conversation I regularly hear people making statements like “it’s not healthy to be happy all the time” or “creativity is born from discomfort, if I was happy I would lose my edge”.
While it may be true that some people use anger to ignite action I think many people would be surprised by how much more creative, successful, and flourishing their lives might be if they allowed themselves to prioritize positive emotions.
The science of positive psychology explores optimal human functioning [that] aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive according to Dr. Martin Seligman. When I think of thriving I include an entire spectrum of positive emotions appropriate to different situations as listed by Barbara Fredrickson in her book Positivity
Her list includes:
We know from research that approximately 50% of our potential for happiness lies in our genetics. If your parents were depressed, anxious, or tended to ruminate on the negative, you might inherit this potential. The reverse is also true; if your parents were happy-go-lucky types who see the glass as half-full, you may have a greater natural inclination toward happiness. The chemicals released by our brain when we encounter any stimulus (a large dog jumps out at you barking when you run or you smell freshly baked chocolate chip cookies) are not standardized across all people. Some brains are primed to pump out more of the happiness chemicals where others distribute these more sparingly. Some brains have an overly active fight or flight system compared to others. This is the first 50%.
A tenth of your happiness involves life circumstances like having shelter, food, and safety. This does not mean that people born into extreme poverty or living in dangerous situations cannot experience happiness. If you have ever seen children playing in the slums of India or two terminal cancer patients falling in love you know that happiness is possible even in extreme situations however there is an impact on the ease of experiencing happiness that accounts for about 10%.
What’s exciting about the research is the 40%. This bit of happiness potential is entirely up to YOU. It is impacted by the thoughts you think, the people you surround yourself with, the food you eat, and the beliefs you choose. Taking regular time to reflect, to incorporate happiness-boosting activities like gratitude, mindfulness, and even smiling more into your day can change this number.
Image from The Happiness Reset by Tamara Lechner (forthcoming)
I think of happiness as being in constant motion. It’s like a spiral. At any time yours is either spiraling upward or downward. The trick to using your 40% to it’s greatest potential is this:
Learn to recognize when you start a downward spiral.
Have a toolkit of simple things you can do at that moment to turn your spiral around.
Spend more time trending up than spiraling down.
It’s quite simple really. It takes effort that is conscious and consistent at first, but eventually, it becomes second nature like driving a car or riding a bike.
What do you do to turn your downward spiral around? Happiness increases when your share so please comment with any useful habits or tips you might offer.
For many years scientists believed that the brain stopped developing new neural pathways after the first few years of life. This meant that critical periods of development were from birth to 5 years of age and brains would only be plastic during youth. The new science of neuroplasticity has identified the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. This phenomenon explains to the brain’s ability to adjust and cope. F We’ve all heard the stories of the miraculous recovery of speech after a stroke where the speech center of the brain was entirely damaged- this is an example of neuroplasticity at work. Sometimes symptoms of disease and impairment can be entirely mitigated by the brains ability to reorganize using brain workouts or brain retraining. This is also true for anxiety. depression, and unhelpful stress. Where happiness is concerned the question of nature and nurture left us asking “how much of my happiness is up to me”? The latest positive psychology research is showing that as much as 40% of our experience of positive or negative is entirely up to our mental habits. What you focus on increases. If you are looking for negative, you will likely find it. So retraining your brain to see the positive makes sense!
Why does this matter?
Many people have limitations about themselves that they believe. Having a history of depression or mental illness in the family might previously have meant you were genetically predisposed for problems. The new research is showing that just isn’t true. If you’ve ever said or thought “I’m just not that smart” by adding the word YET and doing a little work you can maximize your brain’s capacity to learn and change and adapt. Do you need an app or screen to change your mindset or the amount of positive emotions you experience? Of course not! But at a time when technology is getting a tom of negative attention in the media, I love reminding people that technology is a tool. Like all things it can be used to help you feel worse or better. These apps all promote healthy mental growth by strengthening your mental muscle! Check out these brain changing apps:
This memory app focuses on paying attention, problem solving, and flexibility of thinking. The constantly changing games are timed and competitive. Learn more about Luminosity
The Jiyo app connects to the Apple Health App to track your habits and suggest articles, videos and information designed to promote your greatest well-being. Ranging from meditation, finance, relationships and finding meaning and purpose the content helps identify and foster your unique strengths. Learn more about Jiyo
Happify translates the science of happiness into online activities that can be completed right from your phone or computer. With the advice of a variety of happiness experts, Happify has created a platform to engage in writing activities and games designed to increase happiness. Learn more about Happify
CogniFit Brain Fitness
Designed by neuroscientists this app begins by testing memory and concentration followed by games designed specifically to boost ultimate brain function. Learn more about CogniFit
Greater Good in Action
The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has developed a platform called Greater Good in Action to help people engage in science-based practices for a meaningful life. Based on the latest positive psychology research participants use simple activities to that enhance skills like that increase mental well-being like compassion and gratitude. Learn more about GGIA
Super Better has gamified brain training for happiness. Complete quests using activities designed to build happiness-boosting skills. Designed to hook you with quick wins to ignite your curiosity and keep you on the path to greater well-being. Learn more about Super Better