‘We all need challenges and adversity in life; being happy all the time is not psychologically healthy.’
Vi Gandhi, Head of Psychology at Trent College, argues that positive psychology and drawing on character strengths gives a young person a toolbox from which to cope appropriately with whatever comes their way.
Recent research by YouGov for The Prince’s Trust showed the number of young people experiencing mental health issues is growing.
In a report published in January, the charity found 41% of 2,215 16- to 25-year-olds polled felt more anxious than they did a year ago with self-confidence, including stress related to body image and coping with school/work. This figure was at its lowest in the eight years since their research began.
A follow up report found almost half of these young people said they had experienced a mental health problem but, due to the stigma around the issue, a quarter would not ask for help if they were suffering.
Where does that leave us, not only as educationalists but also as compassionate teachers who probably have more day-to-day contact with individual young people than any other adults at this stage in their lives? How do we reverse the growing trend in young people towards a pessimistic, depressing outlook and give them optimism and belief they can succeed and achieve both now and into their futures?
We have to give students the tools to find the positive traits in themselves and help them develop the skills to be able to use these traits to reinforce self-confidence when faced with anxiety, doubt and fear.
We all have character strengths; it is how we have survived in society. Identifying these can provide the foundation for young people in developing the grit and resilience to cope with life’s challenges.
Martin Seligman’s work on character strengths provides an excellent framework. By honestly answering a self-administered questionnaire, students can discover theirs. Seligman’s 24 strengths include humour, fairness, passion and wisdom to bravery, courage and gratitude.
The use of character strengths is about getting students to ask what is right with them, not what is wrong with them, essential to reinforcing positive, balanced mindsets. All students will have a number of the strengths they can then lean on to compensate for their own perceived weaknesses.
Getting a list of things they are good at makes them feel positive, and teenagers’ natural curiosity makes them want to find out about themselves as it helps them to shape their place in the world. It is great for parents to hear what their child is good at too, and sometimes they have not even recognised that trait in their child before.
Even by doing something as simple as picking something different to their friends for lunch, or sitting on their own in the canteen, pupils can exercise the traits of courage and bravery. Holding a door open for someone or keeping a diary of three things they are grateful for each day, are things that can make someone feel positive.
Presenting the character strengths exercise in a way that engages pupils is important too. For younger students, looking at themselves as superheroes, with their character strengths as special powers, is one fun and meaningful way.
Just as we need to exercise our bodies we need to exercise our wellbeing to make ourselves mentally healthier and happier.
Particularly with young people this cannot be a one off activity. It needs to be constantly drip-fed and encouraged by noticing, drawing attention to and developing their character strengths during their school experiences.
We all need challenges and adversity in life; being happy all the time is not psychologically healthy. Being able to draw on character strengths gives a young person a toolbox from which to cope appropriately with whatever comes their way.
Positive psychology provides a buffer to protect students against challenges that might have been a threat to their wellbeing. Only then can the stigma of mental health be lost and we will have happier students more prepared for the world.