BSC

Building strengths and creativity: Positive psychology for learning and living

Module 1: A psychology of strengths and human potential

Table of Contents

Module Objectives..................................................................................................................... 1

Introduction............................................................................................................................... 3

Positive psychology.................................................................................................................... 5

1        Beyond happiness.................................................................................................................. 5

The architecture of well-being.................................................................................................... 8

Relationships.......................................................................................................................... 9

Flourishing............................................................................................................................ 11

A strengths-based approach..................................................................................................... 13

1        Values in Action (VIA) Classification of Strengths and Virtues.................................................. 15

Defining character strengths..................................................................................................... 17

1        Strengths vs talents............................................................................................................... 18

Signature strengths................................................................................................................... 20

Reflection............................................................................................................................. 22

Prevalence............................................................................................................................ 23

The value of strengths.............................................................................................................. 24

1        The development of strengths.............................................................................................. 25

Strengths in the classroom........................................................................................................ 28

Strengths strategies.............................................................................................................. 29

Celebrating strengths in the school........................................................................................ 31

Wisdom and knowledge............................................................................................................ 32

Courage................................................................................................................................ 33

Humanity.............................................................................................................................. 35

Justice.................................................................................................................................. 36

Temperance......................................................................................................................... 38

Transcendence..................................................................................................................... 40

References............................................................................................................................... 43

A: Module Objectives

Our objectives for this module are to:

  • Provide you with an introduction to positive psychology and how recognising our strengths can help improve well-being;
  • Examine the key elements of well-being and flourishing;
  • Explore the use of a strengths-based approach in education;
  • Describe the key principles of building strengths;
  • Explore how to recognise and cultivate signature strengths;
  • Examine each of the areas of strength in positive psychology and discuss its implications for the classroom.

Upon completion you should:

  • Have gained a comprehensive knowledge of positive psychology and a strengths-based approach to human well-being;
  • Understand each of the key elements of well-being and flourishing;
  • Know how a strengths based approach to education can assist students in achieving their best;
  • Understand the key principles involved in building strengths;
  • Have gained a knowledge of how to cultivate and develop personal signature strengths;
  • Understand each of the specific strengths areas and their implications for teaching and learning in the classroom.

In order to successfully complete this module you are expected to do the following:

  • Spend a total of five hours studying the material in this module and completing the interactive assignment, with at least one hour of this time spent online;
  • Read the module content and assigned readings;
  • Complete your interactive learning assignment by making at least one contribution to the module discussion forum. You may also respond with your own thoughts, views and critical reflections to the postings of others in your class; and,
  • Take time to prepare your reflective learning log by considering the key points from this module and relating them to your own experience.

B: Introduction

Today’s children are over stressed, over- scheduled and overwhelmed. Parents too are overwhelmed, busy, under pressure and living life at a frenetic pace. Children and young people are experiencing depression at alarmingly young ages and rates of self-harm have reached epidemic proportions. Rates of depression increased 10 fold in the past 50 years and mental illness comes second only to cardiovascular disease in the top five illnesses contributing to serious disability world-wide.

We live in a complex and rapidly changing world, involving new challenges and demands and increasing expectations and pressures on young people. Stress and adversity are an inevitable part of all our lives and we need to be able to support children and young people to cope with the challenges that will come their way. But we want more than this; we want our children to be healthy, happy, content and kind. In short, we want well-being for our children.

There is increasing recognition that well-being is more than the absence of problems and the emergence of the Positive Psychology movement has shifted the focus of scientific towards the exploration of optimal human functioning. A wealth of new knowledge has been generated as a result, and these findings are now increasingly being applied in schools and other settings.

"Positive psychology makes the basic point that removing weakness is not the same as building strengths. If you draw a line from -5 to +5 then much of education aims to move us from -5 to 0, where 0 represents OK or 'alright' or 'coping'. What it does not do is help us reach +5, the realm of flourishing” (Fox Eades, 2008, p.21). As parents and teachers, getting children to 'alright' or OK is not enough. What we really want to do is help them flourish and excel. Instead of simply focusing on remedying weakness, positive psychology urges us to find their strengths and give them ample opportunities to use those strengths to help them thrive and reach their full potential.

In this module we introduce you to the new science of positive psychology and explore its origins, insights and implications for educators. Positive psychology provides us with an empirically-based framework for understanding well-being and a growing repertoire of evidence-based practices and interventions for promoting flourishing in ourselves and our children.

One of the most important developments in the field has been the Classification of Human Strengths and Virtues (Peterson and Seligman, 2004). The value of this work is that it has identified universal human strengths and has specifically focused on how recognizing and understanding individual strengths can build and promote well-being. Seligman (2011) the father of positive psychology, makes that case that well-being is critical for effective learning - this is

because positive emotion increases and broadens our attention, boosts creativity and improves memory and problem-solving (Fredrickson, 2009).

The fundamental premise of positive psychology is that everyone has strengths and the greatest opportunity for growth and fulfilment lies in the identification, development and application of their key strengths. Crucially these positive human capacities are malleable; they can be nurtured, taught and learned. This view of strengths reflects a view of human nature which is imbued with optimism and hope and sees human beings as having an inherent tendency to develop their capacities, realize their potential and be all that they can be.

A strengths-based approach engages with what is best in us and our students and gives us powerfully motivating routes for developing and promoting social, emotional and cognitive skills (Linley, 2008). This module will enable you to identify your own strengths and those of your students, and discover new ways of exploring and developing these positive capacities to promote happiness, well-being, creativity and motivation.

C: Positive Psychology

Positive psychology

A psychology of human strengths and potential, offers insights and understanding which can benefit us all personally and professionally. It delivers new ways of responding to children’s needs, building their strengths, cognitive skills and emotional wellbeing.

Founded by Martin Seligman in 1998, it explores long neglected areas of human functioning and has focused research on human strengths, wellbeing and flourishing. Traditionally psychology had been focused on mental illness and on remedying weakness and while this was valid mission and yielded great strides in understanding and treatments, it neglected the study and application of the things that make life worth living. Psychology had become proficient in rescuing people from various mental illnesses but had virtually no scientific tools for helping people to reach their higher ground, to thrive and flourish. As Seligman highlighted in his call for reorientation of psychology’s mission:

The new science of positive psychology aims to redress this imbalance by focusing on the positive aspects of human life and on building human competencies and strengths rather than merely treating disorders and deficits. Defined as the scientific study of optimal human functioning, it aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Essentially, it is concerned with discovering what makes people happier, more productive and successful in  all the realms of their lives. As Boniwell (2012) puts it, positive psychology is still psychology, it just studies different (and often far more interesting) topics and asks

slightly different questions, such as ‘what works?’ rather than ‘what doesn’t?’ or ‘what is right with this person?’ rather than ‘what is wrong?’ By providing a different interpretive lens, it offers a new worldview which yields novel answers to questions which have been around for a long time and shines the light of scientific inquiry into previously dark and neglected corners (Linley & Harrington, 2006).

A rapidly developing field, positive psychology has legitimized the study of what is right with people, and has opened doors on topics which were previously seen as outside the remit of psychology practice and research. It has brought solid empirical research into areas such as human strengths and virtues, happiness, wisdom, creativity, flow, and the characteristics of positive groups and institutions.


Beyond Happiness

A central goal of positive psychology is to advance our knowledge about how to help people improve their well-being and create the conditions that allow people to flourish and thrive. It

focuses not just on individuals but on families, institutions and cultures too. Is it just about happiness? No, it looks beyond fleeting feelings of pleasure and well-being to the deeper reaches of human fulfillment and is fundamentally concerned with harnessing human strengths and virtues and improving the human condition through finding meaning and purpose.

Seligman (2003) explains that positive psychology has three central concerns. The first is the study of positive emotion. The second is the study of positive individual traits, chiefly human strengths and virtues, and the third is the study of positive institutions or social systems. All three are relevant to our work with children and young people and to building positive schools, healthy families and flourishing communities.

Positive emotions such as hope, trust and optimism serve us best not when life is easy, but when life is difficult. Understanding and building strengths and virtues such as the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, self-control, and wisdom can be seen as even more urgent when times are tough. And in times of trouble, understanding and supporting positive institutions such as democracy, strong families, and safe and caring schools and communities are of immediate importance (Seligman, 2003).

Positive psychology is sometimes perceived as emphasizing the positive at the expense of the negative. But this does the field a disservice. The perspective of positive psychology is that ‘the focus of scientific research and study should be on understanding the entire breadth of human experience, from loss, suffering, illness and distress through connection, fulfilment, health and wellbeing’ ((Linley & Harrington, 2006, p. 6). It strives to integrate our understanding of the positive and negative dimensions of human existence.


Positive psychology does not ignore adversity, depression or negative emotions and experiences; but it approaches these issues differently. It focuses on discovering how we can address and prevent human suffering through fostering strengths. By harnessing positive human qualities and building strengths we can prevent a wide range of difficulties within individuals, families and whole communities and enable them to flourish and thrive. A fundamental premise of positive psychology is that well-being is more than the absence of problems. ‘The good life is not the troubled life avoided or undone’ (Park and Peterson, 2009). Happiness cannot simply be induced by removing misery and studying misery or illness tells us little about happiness or health. Strengths have their own characteristic patterns and the causes and consequences of positive aspects of human experience are worthy of study in their own right.

Deep Roots

Although positive psychology was officially launched as a new field of study by Seligman in 1998, it is far from new. It has deep historical roots which can be traced right back to Aristotle, Plato and other Greek philosophers who examined the foundations of ‘the good life.’ And with its emphasis on psychological health and ethical and prosocial behavior it also has strong links and connections with eastern and western religions and philosophies, from Confucius to Aquinas and the Bhagavad-Gita.

One of the major achievements of the positive psychology movement has been to consolidate and celebrate what we already know about what makes life worth living as well as identifying areas where we need to discover more. Many psychologists have focused on positive human capacities and fulfilment, including Rogers, Maslow, Bandura and Erikson. The value of the term ‘positive psychology’ is that it united what had previously been scattered lines of theory and research into what makes life most worth living and what makes us flourish (Seligman et al., 2005).

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