Positive psychology (sometimes referred to as the science of happiness) has evolved out of applied psychology and early mislaid efforts to understand and cure depression by studying depression. When researchers began to realize that the study of depression wasn't bringing them closer to knowledge about the source of happiness, the focus of the research shifted and positive psychology was born. In recent years, as happiness gurus and positive psychology experts have advanced their knowledge and science, the application of their findings to the effects on development of the human mind have inextricably linked effective learning to those same factors that generate happiness. Rather than being an add-on to education, positive psychology is being viewed as a fundamental aspect of whole human health, and thus learning.
In Seligman's (2018) book The Hope Circuit, the father of positive psychology describes his own rocky journey through the developing science of psychology as a dim and negative place. A place where the study of depression and other ailments was the focus of all psychological science and where Freud and Skinner reigned in a self-reinforcing belief that the mind was not a powerful agent and cognition had little role in mental health or illness. Seligman and others began to debunk these sacred theories with findings that cognitive therapies could completely change the face of modern psychology. The mind is a powerful agent in managing depression.
For years, psychology studied depression, attempting to locate joy and believing that learned helplessness was inevitable for all who experience trauma, anxiety, loneliness, and other difficulties. Learned helplessness is the set of behaviors we define as giving up hope, and the opposite might be described as grit, or the ability to persevere in the face of trauma, anxiety, and tragic life events. By identifying the triggers for learned helplessness, a set of responses that does not affect everyone equally, Seligman and his colleagues have uncovered something quite magical, The Hope Circuit. This physiologic response stimulus that Seligman calls the most important discovery in the neuroscience of emotion can be activated; when it is, the responses collectively known as learned helplessness simply don't occur. There is more to this amazing new knowledge and its potential for reducing human suffering. This discovery may signal the ability to cure depression in our lifetime. In addition to the psychological and physiological importance, the connections and implications for learning are significant and go hand-in-hand with how individuals learn and how positive psychology is a basic foundation for effective learning.
Grit as a Learning Catalyst
In her 2016 TED Talk, Duckworth talks about grit as the power of “passion and perseverance” (Duckworth, 2013). She discovered that IQ was not the differentiator between who succeeded and who struggled to learn. She revealed in her early research the predictors for success and found that motivation, passion, and stamina (grit) is the single most reliable predictor of success. Her science is undisputable, no other single factor, sociodemographic, heredity, or even talent has any ability to predict learning success. Grit has a strong intersection with positive psychology in its earliest studies on optimism (Seligman, 2018). The earliest work centered on the beliefs that pessimism was known to be a risk factor for depression, so the focus was on preventing pessimism. It became clear that the promotion of optimism, through cognitive therapy, was a more effective approach; this was further reinforced by Duckwork's findings, and she began her journey to discovering grit through analyses of self-discipline.
Duckworth is famous for her book titled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, which has evolved her perspective on the underlying attributes that advance learning. Last month at the World Positive Education Accelerator event in Fort Worth, Texas, she had this to say: “Grit is important, but character is more important than grit” (Duckworth, 2018). It has long been believed that character attributes are attributes of birth rather than ones that can be acquired or developed, she debunked that notion by saying that character is malleable and can be developed, and when it is, the evidence shows it is as important as socioeconomic status to achievement and well-being. This new idea might not be so new. Martin Luther King said this about character and education in a 1947 article: “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education” (p. 124).
Character, Education, and Well-Being
Duckworth doubled down on her beliefs about character when she established the Character Lab in 2017, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching character development (Character Lab, 2017). The attributes of character are defined as:
- Growth mindset.
- Social intelligence.
Character is defined as a set of intentions and action that benefit both the individuals and others, (Character Lab, 2017). Although the focus of this work so far has been primarily on early childhood education and K–12, the number of people representing higher education at this Positive Psychology conference was remarkable. The needs for infusing positive psychology and strengths-based learning into adult education are emerging as individuals in higher education and even in industry and corporations struggle with unengaged, unhappy, and unproductive workers and students.
What's a Professional Education Leader to Do?
There is much to consider about professional development, personal development, and well-being for leaders in professional development. We are all works in progress. Whether a focus on well-being can in fact enhance learning, the only question is how to begin. For the past 5 years, an international movement has been growing to amplify methods for development of character. Character Day is a day set aside to encourage people around the world from all sorts of organizations, including schools and businesses, to create attention and focus on building character. The organizers have developed some wonderful resources, including an Emmy Award-winning 8-minute film that introduces the idea of Character Day (Let It Ripple, 2018). The resources are abundant including discussion materials, social media groups, a global live cast with expert speakers, and a variety of other supports. The movement has grown to include 133,000 individual events last year, including participation from 150 countries.
September 26, 2018, is this year's Character Day. It is a good way to begin a commitment to organizational well-being. The resources are free, the evidence is clear, and the time is now!
- Character Lab. (2017). Character lab. Retrieved from https://www.characterlab.org
- Duckworth, A. (2013). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance [video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance
- Duckworth, A. (2018, June). Future directions in well-being education, road blocks and opportunities. World Positive Education Accelerator: 2nd Festival of Positive Education + Appreciative Inquiry Summit, Fort Worth, TX.
- King, M.L. Jr.. (1947, January–February). The purpose of education. Maroon Tiger Morehouse College Campus Newspaper, pp. 123–124. Retrieved from https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/purpose-education
- Let It Ripple. (2018). 2018 character day invitation [Video]. Retrieved from http://www.letitripple.org/character-day/
- Seligman, M.E.P. (2018). The hope circuit. New York, NY: Public Affairs.