Home All Will Learning the Skills of Well-being Help Us Grow Up?

Will Learning the Skills of Well-being Help Us Grow Up?

written by Denise Quinlan 8 June 2009

Denise Quinlan, MAPP '08, is a trainer with the Penn Resiliency Program and Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum and is currently a PhD student focusing on strengths and subjective well being. She has over twenty years experience in management consulting. Helping people discover strengths and what makes life worth living is what Denise enjoys most, that and the joy of a good theory. Full bio. Denise's articles are here.

Boy with laptop

Technical Native

Carl, 14, can text with his cellphone in his pocket, keep up with friends on Facebook and create a Powerpoint with video for a homework assignment. Much to his mother’s concern however, he won’t look adults in the eye or acknowledge them even though he insists he’s ‘a man’. He refuses to help around the house or take part in their street’s community support project. She worries, “What kind of adult will he become?”



As children have become healthier and our society has become more complex, the age of puberty has fallen while the age of psychosocial maturity has risen. As a result we have a “mismatch” between our bodies and our world. Gluckman and Hanson state, “The coincidence of reproductive and psychosocial maturation which existed for most of our history has been lost.” Their advice to those working with adolescents is to stop blaming and re-think how we address biological maturity with younger adolescents and pre-teens, and consider how we can help them develop psychosocial maturity at an earlier stage.

Psychosocial Maturity
So what is psychosocial maturity? Gluckman and Hanson describe it as having ‘the skills necessary to be a successful adult.’ Doesn’t that sound a bit like positive psychology? Insights and findings from positive psychology are designed to enhance well-being. Their intention is to provide a ‘road map’ to happiness and well-being; to point to domains and practices which have enhanced well-being for many people. Maybe they also help us grow up. One could even argue that psychosocial maturity is achieved when an individual understands their own well-being needs and how to meet them, and can do that within the bounds of socially acceptable behaviour (although by that standard many people would never reach maturity).

Planting Flowers

Planting Flowers

Seligman describes research that demonstrates the importance of close relationships, the benefits of service and how using one’s strengths can enhance well-being. Volunteers who help others report increases in well-being dubbed the helper’s high. Books by Post and Neimark as well as by Diener and Biswas-Diener report that giving, in the broadest sense, can make us happier and even help us live longer. Hattie reports that feeling connected to teachers and having positive relationships with them can enhance academic performance as well as well-being.

The development of a freely chosen and enjoyed skill supports experiences of competence and autonomy and intrinsic motivation, as described by Ryan and Deci. If that development can happen within a group setting, it will also meet the need for relatedness and help develop social skills. Greater sociability is also associated with higher levels of well-being. Goal setting which is consistent with values can enhance intrinsic motivation and well-being even before goals are achieved.

Soccer Practice In practice that research might translate into encouraging adolescents to take part in a group extra-curricular activity e.g. sports, arts or games of some sort, which allows them to develop an interest and skill and work closely with their peers. They might have specific responsibilities in the home to enhance their competence and sense of contribution. We could encourage them to perform some act of service outside the home, so they do some prosocial activity and experience contributing to others. This could be helping older neighbors with household or garden chores (even if they whine initially). Encouraging goal-setting in their areas of interest and strength may boost motivation and confidence. It might also help develop self-regulation and persistence.

This recipe for adolescent well-being may have a 1950s, home spun feel to it, but this time around it’s backed by scientific evidence and not just “because I say so.”

Adolescents have demonstrated their ability to master technology; they are digital natives whot have taken easily to cell phones and touchscreens but they need more help and guidance to develop the complex skills and strengths required for relationship, belonging, and finding purpose in twenty-first century life. Positive psychology provides some useful tools to help them.



Contributions to well-being:

Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Socialization and giving:
Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.

Post S., & Neimark, J. (2007). Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving. USA: Broadway books.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. UK: Routledge.

Psychosocial and physical aging gap:

Gluckman, P. & Hanson, M. (2006). Mismatch: The Lifestyle Diseases Timebomb. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Motivation and Setting goals:

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Miller, C. A. & Frisch, M. B. (2009), Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide. New York: Sterling. (This reference added by editor.)

Vova and laptop courtesy of Eunix.
Maturity courtesy of Tajai.
Planting Flowers at Charter Oak Landing! courtesy of laura.ouimette.
Soccer Practice (cheer) courtesy of woodleywonderworks

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Angus 8 June 2009 - 4:09 pm

Wow, Denise, great ambition. Love it, don’t falter. Have you come across Robert Epstein’s work and The Case Against Adolesence? Telling stuff, I think he is right. drrobertepstein.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=10&Itemid=29
I am also struck by your references to the isolation of youth. Oeidpal or Facebook? What you are exploring – and writing – is the future world. Confusion/uncertainty a hopeful value.
I don’t think there is a point of ‘maturity’ beyond adulthood. Yet there is wisdom in older years.
Best aye


Nicholas Hall 9 June 2009 - 1:32 am

As the decade has gone by, children have more and more become, as you say, digital natives… yet they are socially naive. It takes a mature adult, or even a community of mature adults, to teach teens what their well-being needs are. This is why taking PP into the schools and teaching the teachers the tools and skills will help the students easily as much.

Louis Alloro 10 June 2009 - 10:04 am

Great article, Denise. To what extent do you think the interventions we devise ought to have technical components for these kids, or is that defeating the ‘people matter’ purpose. Is it possible to have/do both? Louis

Denise Q 24 June 2009 - 6:11 pm

apologies for the delay in replying – I’m really intersted in your comment. Yes, I’ve read Epstein and I have mixed feelings. Yes on some stuff but no on others. I think we have to help children reach maturity using a wide variety of techniques including paying attention to the roles they play and place they occupy in our communities. I cannot remember my chief concern with Epstein right now and will go and refresh my soggy brain. I’ll get back to you on that one!

re isolation – I’ve just talked to Jonathan Haidt about youth suicide in NZ, Finland and Ireland – all high rates and all countries which have experience rapid social change. He says a Durkeimian explanation [ie social isolatino and lack of meaning for suicice] makes sense to him. [always good when he thinks you’re making sense :-)]

Re older years – yes I value the wisdom they can bring and my concern is how we bring those wise grey heads into greater contact with youth. My GP husband always says that grandparents and grandchildren are made for each other in many different ways and we should think carefully about failing to nurture and support those relationships.

Thanks for that – and great to meet you face to face at IPPA,

Denise Q 24 June 2009 - 6:17 pm

Nick and Louis, thank you both for your comments and again, apologies for the delay in responding.

Nick, we’re in total agreement here!
Louis, I’m not sure what you mean by interventions having ‘technical components for these kids’. I certainly believe that our interventions for youth should be based on youth-focused research so that they are tailor-made for youth and not men’s suits cut down for boys. We need to listen to them before we begin telling. I was delighted to hear Australian researcher Jacci Norrish talk about her work which is based on interviews and focus groups with adolescents to find out what they mean by well-being and which asked them directly which types of intervention modalities and techniques they would enjoy, find engaging and meaningful. I think this is the way forward. And well done Jacci. For the record, they wanted face-to-face. Internet they saw as only a small part of an intervention. They also liked learning about strengths through peer role-modelling.

Steve 20 July 2009 - 9:48 am

Great points here. It’s very helpful to see some practical applications from research of what can help kids in terms of socialization and healthy personal growth: volunteer activities, group activities in their area of interest, enabling them to get outside of themselves, and also to develop competence and team work.


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