Some months ago, a colleague introduced me to the book ‘Building Happiness, Resilience and Motivation in Adolescents: A Positive Psychology Curriculum for Well-being‘ by Ruth MacConville and Tina Rae, which focuses on applying the VIA strengths to adolescents rather than younger, primary age children, the more common focus of strengths-based programs in schools. (See this article, See Me Beautiful: Cultivating Strengths in Young Children by Elizabeth Elizardi which has some fabulous ideas for using strengths with this younger age group).Adolescence can be a particularly challenging time, not just because young people can be cynical and rebellious about pretty much everything to do with school, teaching, learning and life generally, but also because it has been suggested that personality traits including to a certain extent character strengths are already becoming fixed by then. Building Happiness is one of the few positive psychology books which tackles the development of well-being in this older age group. The authors of Building Happiness don’t ask their student participants to complete the VIA assessment themselves and come to the program already knowing their Top 5 signature strengths. Instead they present a curriculum of 24 lessons, one for each VIA strength, for the teacher/faciliator to work through in turn with them.
It might be helpful to look at a typical lesson so you can get the gist of the authors’ approach:
Creativity – Thinking of Novel and Productive Ways to Do Things (Chapter 1)
- Activity 1: A New Challenge — Using the handout (all handouts are supplied) write down the things that you can do, the things you want to do in the future, the things you really want to do, and the things you really, really want to do. Then select one of these and consider why it might be a challenge.
- Activity 2: Changing Behaviors — Consider things you do which are currently productive and positive e.g. keeping fit. Consider what you can do to be more productive (e.g. talk to a personal trainer) and identify changes you could make to your behaviour to achieve a better outcome (e.g. meet the personal trainer). Write them down on the handout.
- Activity 3: New Goals — Think of a new goal for yourself and write down four specific steps to achieve this goal. At each step identify an alternative action and a reward that you will give yourself.
- Activity 4: Staying Productive – Avoid Blowing Up! For this activity, you’re given the following example of someone blowing things out of proportion: “I got the answer wrong, everyone laughed. They all think I’m stupid! I’ll never try again.” You’re then asked to test your own negative thoughts by finding the evidence using these four steps:
- Examine it.
- Look for the evidence.
- Stop think, and reflect.
- Check it out with others.
In every chapter following a brief introduction to the four activities, there are four hand-outs to photocopy for the class, plus at the end of every lesson some plenary questions such as (in the Creativity chapter): What have we learnt about the way in which we creatively think about ourselves and our behaviours? What prompts us to be more productive? What holds us back from being more productive? Does everyone find it easy to be creative and maintain a positive outlook on life?
Many of the activities presented in the book revolve around thinking about the character strength in question, reflecting on what it means, and writing down thoughts, rather than experiencing it in a practical way or learning about it through literature, other media, or other creative means. Having read the book cover to cover I found myself wishing there was less thinking and more doing!
Often students are asked to consider using the strength in question to overcome something negative. Here are 3 examples:
- Learning to be more assertive in order to deal with difficult situations (Chapter 7 Bravery)
- Identifying why you didn’t finish certain tasks/activities with a view to finding out what might have helped you and what you might do differently next time (Chapter 8 Persistence)
- Identifying all your bad habits, choosing one that you want to change and recording some small steps to success (Chapter 9 Zest).
Teaching young people ways of applying different character strengths to overcome adversities in life is very important, of course, and this book provides some interesting, and at times, challenging, ways for teens to do this. In fact, I think a lot of the techniques could be useful in adult life too!Let’s Have More Joy!
But (unusually for me) I actually found myself wanting more obvious joy and lightness in the activities, and fewer references to the difficulties of life. The ‘Problem Postcards’ activity in Chapter 5 on Perspective includes references to domestic violence, obesity, sexual abuse, promiscuity and bullying. The inclusion of so many real-life problem scenarios means that the teacher running this program needs to have a high degree of emotional intelligence as well as excellent coaching (and potentially counselling) skills.
I would have liked to have seen higher aspirations expressed for the adolescents taking the program. In the ‘Where Will I Be at 18?’ activity, the choices ranged from ‘having a child’ or ‘getting engaged/ married’ to ‘finding a part-time job’ and ‘moving into my own place with my mates’. Why not ‘going to university’, ‘ winning a coveted apprenticeship’, ‘starting up my own business’ or ‘travelling the world with my mates’? And including activities that explored and celebrated the character strengths for their own sakes rather than as a means to overcome negative emotions and behavior might actually lead to greater engagement with them.
Character Strengths can be Built
Importantly, the authors state that the underlying premise of the program is that character strengths are buildable. With practice “they can take root and flourish.” This makes a refreshing change from the usual message that character strengths are pretty fixed and that all we have to do to increase our well-being is identify our signature strengths and use them more.
The idea that one can try on all 24 strengths for size is a much more exciting prospect, even if making a permanent difference requires a heck of a lot of effort. I imagine that this is the reason that students are not asked to identify their own signature strengths using the VIA assessment. I liked this book and many of the activities presented, however I felt that without the VIA assessment, it needed a clearer process for students to identify which of the 24 strengths are their own signature strengths.The Real Assets
As well as 24 lessons on the VIA strengths the book usefully includes a PowerPoint presentation which the teacher can use to introduce positive psychology to other staff in their school. This is an interesting additional resource which contains the essential positive psychology concepts.
For me, this introduction to positive psychology is one of the real assets of this book. It is clear and easy to read, covers the key concepts, draws readily on the work of Ilona Boniwell, Daniel Nettle and Ian Morris (plus points, in my opinion), reminded me of some important ideas, and introduced others, such as the factors which contribute to resilience combining exponentially. Mind you, I don’t agree with everything they say. Why rename love as intimacy? Is it really the case that “being in flow depends on students using their character strengths and talents,” as the authors claim?
The book also contains some thought-provoking activities designed to engage and challenge older students and I think it succeeds in doing this. In my experience of training positive psychology theory and practice (and resilience specifically) to teachers and other child-centered professionals, Building Happiness, Resilience and Motivation in Adolescents: A Positive Psychology Curriculum for Well-being will also engage and even challenge the teacher.
The book alo makes an interesting contrast or supplement to another book I reviewed earlier this year, Ilona Boniwell and Lucy Ryan’s Personal Well-Being Lessons for Secondary Schools: Positive Psychology in Action for 11-14 Year Olds.
MacConville, R. & Rae, T. (2012). Building Happiness, Resilience and Motivation in Adolescents: A Positive Psychology Curriculum for Well-being. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Boniwell, I. & Ryan, L. (2012). Personal Well-Being Lessons for Secondary Schools: Positive Psychology in Action for 11-14 Year Olds. London: Open University Press.