You are here

By Martin E. P. Seligman

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded us 2.8 million dollars to teach positive psychology in the ninth grade for the next four years and learn what works. Susan Snyder described the purpose of the grant nicely in the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 10, 2002: "[The grant is] to research whether infusing the study of positive character traits in the curriculum will help students academically and emotionally." She went on to add, "If it works, the program could become a national model to be promoted through an Education Department clearinghouse." Here's how it happened.

An opportunity for research

In late May of this year, the Department of Education sent out a call for proposals as part of their Character Education initiative. They particularly want exemplary science and at last seem to be following the route that NIMH forged about thirty years ago when it lifted research in mental, illness from near-voodoo to respectable and cumulative science. My research group saw the call, we went into high gear.

Finding students

First, we contacted Sharon Parker, the visionary superintendent of the Wallingford-Swarthmore school system outside of Philadelphia. Having read Authentic Happiness and The Optimistic Child, she eagerly agreed to work with us. So we fleshed out a design in which half the students in the ninth grade (from among the students and parents who volunteered, of course) would be randomly assigned to Language Arts plus positive psychology and the other half to Language Arts as usual. Each of the four Language Arts teachers would teach one section of Language Arts with positive psychology and one without.

Planning the curriculum

Second, we spent the whole month of June, under the leadership of Dr. Jane Gillham and Angela Duckworth, looking over the dozens of positive psychology interventions that I have been teaching to Penn undergraduates and adapting fifteen of them for ninth graders--gratitude night, fun versus philanthropy, recrafting tedious work into flow, and others. We integrated the interventions into the ninth grade curriculum, so, that, for example, when the students read Antigone, they would also learn about strong families and about the strength of loyalty. The lessons will include:

  • Introductions: Each student telling a story about their highest strength
  • Taking the VIA test for signature strengths
  • Interviewing a paragon of one of your strengths
  • Gratitude letter
  • Fun vs. altruism
  • Giving the gift of time
  • Turning boring schoolwork into flow
  • Having a magic moment
  • Using a talent to display a strength
  • Using strengths in leisure
  • Learning optimism
  • Teaching positive psychology to a seventh grader
  • Civic engagement using a signature strength
  • Gratitude night
  • Portfolio of Strengths

Measuring results

Third, our measurement wing, under the leadership of Dr. Chris Peterson put together a battery of measures, not only to see if positive psychology prevents the usual negative suspects--depression, anxiety, absenteeism, drug use, and the like--but also to see if the interventions would increase the things that make life worth living, such as happiness and life satisfaction, flow, civic engagement and community service, and more learning. And we decided that we would follow the students until the end of high school to see if the changes lasted.

Fourth, the intervention wing under Dr. Karen Reivich devised ways of measuring the "fidelity" of the interventions to positive psychology, so we could test whether increases in the skills of happiness were causing any improvement we saw.

We get the grant

By July 11th (the impossible deadline), all was ready and we sent the proposal to Washington. We were pleasantly surprised this Fall to find out that the grant was fully funded and received the highest funding in the nation.

From Susan Snyder's Philadelphia Inquirer article: "The Wallingford-Swarthmore district, of which Strath Haven is a part, received the largest grant among 39 nationwide."

She found students, parents, and teachers in favor of adding positive psychology to the curriculum:

During one class, students discussed the concept of 'a pecking order' in reading Lord of the Flies. They said the chicken second from the bottom was likely to be the most nasty. . .

Although such issues are discussed, [Language Arts teacher Ginny] Scott said, "often times we don't go the next step and say: OK, what about me?" She thought this character education program would help students take that step. . .

Ninth grader Mallory Shelter, who had just discussed the Lord of the Flies in class, said she can envision using what she learned about character traits later in life, but said she wasn't as sure about some of the literature.

"I don't know if we'll be bringing down the Lord of the Flies 50 years from now, but we'll be bringing that [character traits] down," Shelter said.

I have been seeing remarkable changes in the undergraduates in my positive psychology courses: students realizing that they got more happiness out of helping another human being than shopping; students realizing that they should recraft their education around their strengths of kindness and fairness; students eliminating shortcuts to their pleasures. But these are just anecdotes, mere case histories. We now have the first opportunity to find in a rigorous study if ninth graders can learn positive psychology, and if these students then find themselves on the road to the Pleasant Life, the Good Life, and the Meaningful Life.

© Copyright 2003 Martin E. P. Seligman. All rights reserved.