Teaching happiness: the classes in wellbeing that are helping our children

Binge drinking, mental health issues, adolescent suicide: how can we solve the problems that beset so many children? The answer may lie with the new science of positive psychology.

In a classroom in South Tyneside, a small group of 11-year-olds is considering the finer points of Stoic philosophy. The teacher, Mrs Carrahar, points helpfully at the blackboard. “Come on now, kids, remember your ABC: Adversity, Belief, Consequence. Sometimes how we feel about things depends on ... what? It begins with P ... Yes, Darren?” “Perspective, miss!” says a small child. “Very good, Darren!”

The class is the latest experiment in a new movement called “positive psychology”, which is slowly but surely revolutionising the way that education is approached in the English-speaking world. It is the brainchild of Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

If there is one figure responsible for the deluge of books, articles and TV programmes on happiness with which we have been inundated over the last five years, it is Seligman. So, when I meet him in a hotel suite in London, it is a relief to discover that he is not some moronically upbeat figure, like the self-help guru played by Patrick Swayze in Donnie Darko.

In fact, he tells me, “I was a slightly depressive grump for the first 40 years of my life”. After considering a career as a professional bridge player, then turning down a Fulbright scholarship in analytical philosophy at Oxford, he eventually became a psychologist and forged a distinguished name for himself studying “learned helplessness”, or how animals (and people) learn to give up in apparently hopeless situations.

While researching the phenomenon, Seligman was struck by something: some people, and even some animals, didn't give up even in highly adverse circumstances. He began to be interested in the opposite phenomenon, “learned optimism” - why some people possess unusual powers of resilience and self-control, and whether those powers can be taught or cultivated in others.

Source - Times

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