In this section we’ll examine some of the institutions that exist around us to help people achieve well-being in their lives. Within the field of psychology, therapy has always been and will likely continue to be the primary focus of the field. Many people spend a lot of time in school (though there are those who are home-schooled), and then spend most of their life working for a living. Thus, school, work, and therapy are all institutions in which positive psychological principles can be helpful.
In addition, programs which help people to avoid the need for help, whether it be psychological, academic, or occupational, are by their very nature positive. Many community programs are designed for teens or the elderly, but there are also some well-known preschool programs (e.g., Head Start). Often these programs serve members of our society who most need that assistance to achieve their full potential in life.
Psychotherapy is of unique interest in the field of positive psychology. The critique that positive psychology began with, that the field of psychology has focused too much on the negative aspects of human life, is based on the fact that most psychologists are therapists and that therapy has too often focused on people’s problems. Thus, moving toward positive forms of psychotherapy was one of the original driving forces underlying the development of positive psychology.
Of course, it would be better if we could help people to avoid reaching the point where therapy is necessary, and positive psychology has helped to identify factors which serve as buffers against mental illness. For example, training in skills such as learned optimism can indeed help to preempt problems such as depression and anxiety. Actually, a wide range of positive human strengths serve as buffers against mental illness, including courage, optimism, hope, honesty, perseverance, insight, the capacity for flow, and future-mindedness. Programs (or therapies) with focus on developing these strengths, particularly the skill of “disputing,” can help people to avoid both mental illness and related problems such as substance abuse (see Seligman, 2005; Seligman & Peterson, 2003).
Seligman and Peterson (2003) have suggested that one of the reasons that psychotherapy works is that there are core positive aspects commonly used by all good therapists, even if they don’t name these techniques as positive per se. According to Carl Rogers (see below), one such factor is empathy. In terms of the strengths built upon within the client, according to Seligman & Peterson (2003), there is courage, interpersonal skill, rationality, insight, optimism, authenticity, perseverance, realism, capacity for pleasure, future-mindedness, personal responsibility, and purpose (or meaning). Although most good therapists likely work to develop these strengths, it isn’t often discussed, researched, or taught. Consider narration, the telling of one’s personal story:
We believe that telling the stories of one’s life, making sense of what otherwise seems chaotic, distilling and discovering a trajectory in one’s life, and viewing one’s life with a sense of agency rather than victimhood are all powerfully positive…Notice, however, that narration is not a primary subject of research on the therapy process, that we do not have categories of narration, that we do not train our students to facilitate narration… (Pg. 313; Seligman & Peterson, 2003)
Seligman & Peterson (2003, 2005) also distinguish between tactics and deep strategies that are common to all forms of psychotherapy when a competent therapist is involved. Tactics include such factors as attention, rapport, trust, and tricks of the trade (e.g., “Let’s pause here,” rather than “Let’s stop here”). Deep strategies include approaches such as instilling hope or building the buffering strengths listed above.
Another deep strategy that has something of a checkered past in the field of psychology is spirituality, particularly strong views on specific religions themselves (see Myers & Jeeves, 2003). Following the early and harsh critique of Sigmund Freud (1927/1961; 1930/1961), and the disregard of that which could not be studied by the radical behaviorists, the fields of psychology and psychiatry avoided religion for a long time. However, there are natural connections between spiritual therapy and positive psychology, not the least of which are a focus on ethics and values (see, e.g., Elkins, 2005; Fredrickson, 2012; Lukoff & Lu, 2005; Neff, 2012; Richards & Bergin, 2005; Shafranske & Sperry, 2005; Siegel, 2012; Sperry, 2005). Even for those therapists who are not themselves spiritual or religious, for example the renowned co-founder of cognitive therapy and atheist Albert Ellis, when the religious beliefs of the client are important and can contribute to psychological well-being, then they need to be included within the therapeutic relationship (Ellis, 2004).
Before examining some positive approaches to psychotherapy, let’s consider ways in which people try to deal with stressful challenges in life on their own. Lazarus & Folkman (1984; for additional discussion see Baumgardner & Crothers, 2009; Compton, 2005) described three basic approaches to dealing with stressful challenges: emotion-focused coping, problem-focused coping, and avoidance. Avoidance is just that, and does nothing to deal with one’s situation (not a good option in the long-term).
Emotion-focused coping refers to attempts to change or regulate the negative emotional response to some stressful event. A variety of approaches might be successful in this regard, such as reinterpreting the situation, seeking the emotional support of others, seeking pleasant stimuli to overcome the negative, exercising, meditation, or simply venting to a friend. Problem-focused coping, on the other hand, involves doing something realistic to address the problem. For example, gathering information to assess one’s options, asking others directly for help, or deciding to leave an unhealthy relationship. Problem-focused coping can involve cognitive reappraisals. If our own expectations or beliefs are the source of our stress, then realistically changing our attitude or perspective will reduce our stressful reaction (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; see also Baumgardner & Crothers, 2009; Compton, 2005).
Experiencing negative emotions, in order to process it and work through it, may be as important as seeking positive emotions to bolster one’s well-being. Larsen et al. (2003) have proposed that, especially when faced with severe stress, an optimal balance of negative and positive emotions is best. Although this may be uncomfortable in the short-term, resolution of unavoidable negative events is beneficial in the long-term. Hence the observation in a number of studies that people who used more negative words to describe their traumatic experiences were more likely to improve. Rather than avoiding reality, they are coping with it, i.e., they are taking the good with the bad (Larsen et al., 2003).
Aspinwall & Taylor (1997) have examined how some people engage in proactive coping, anticipating and acting to prevent or mute the impact of stressful events. For example, if a person has initial symptoms of a potentially serious illness, it makes sense to see a doctor and get a professional opinion and perhaps some tests, rather than ignoring the problem or hoping it will just go away. They identified five stages in successful proactive coping: resource accumulation, recognizing potential stressors, the initial appraisal, preliminary coping efforts, and eliciting and using feedback concerning those initial efforts.
If it seems like those five stages sound something like self-psychotherapy, I would have to agree. People who cope well with life’s challenges usually don’t end up needing the help of a therapist. But not everyone is so fortunate. So, now let us turn our attention to several approaches to positive psychotherapy. First, we’ll examine two classics: client-centered therapy and logotherapy. Then we’ll examine one of the earliest approaches (if not the earliest) to specifically use the term “positive psychotherapy” as well as compassionate approaches inspired by Buddhist perspectives on mindfulness.
Storytelling by people who have experienced similar challenges in life can also prove helpful. For example, cancer patients found stories by or about other cancer patients helpful, but only if those stories were positive. Unfortunately, the stories they heard were positive only about 20% of the time (Taylor et al., 1993). Positive coping as the result of hearing positive stories (stories about others who coped well) fits within social comparison theories of coping (Taylor et al., 1990).
Client-Centered and Person-Centered Therapy
Central to Carl Rogers’ view of psychotherapy is the relationship between the therapist and the client, and we must emphasize the distinction between a client and a patient. This involves shifting the emphasis in therapy from a psychologist/psychiatrist who can “fix” the patient to the client themselves, since only the client can truly understand their own experiential field. The therapist must provide a warm, safe environment in which the client feels free to express whatever attitude they experience in the same way that they perceive it. At the same time, the client experiences the therapist as someone temporarily divested of their own self, in their complete desire to understand the client. The therapist can then accurately and objectively reflect the thoughts, feelings, perceptions, confusions, ambivalences, etc., of the client back to the client. In this open, congruent, and supportive environment, the client is able to begin the process of reorganizing and reintegrating their self-structure, and living congruently within that self-structure (Rogers, 1951).
In 1957, Rogers published an article entitled The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change (Rogers, 1957/1989). The list is fairly short and straightforward:
- The client and the therapist must be in psychological contact.
- The client must be in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious.
- The therapist must be congruent in the relationship.
- The therapist must experience unconditional positive regard for the client.
- The therapist must experience empathic understanding of the client’s frame of reference and endeavor to communicate this experience to the client.
- The client must perceive, at least to a minimal degree, the therapist’s empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard.
According to Rogers, there is nothing else that is required; if these conditions are met over a period of time, there will be constructive personality change. What Rogers considered more remarkable are those factors that do not seem necessary for positive therapeutic change. For example, these conditions do not apply to one type of client, but to all clients, and they are not unique to client-centered therapy, but apply in all types of therapy. The relationship between the therapist and client is also not unique, these factors hold true in any interpersonal relationship. And most surprisingly, these conditions do not require any special training on the part of therapist, or even an accurate diagnosis of the client’s psychological problems! Any program designed for the purpose of encouraging constructive change in the personality structure and behavior of individuals, whether educational, military, correctional, or industrial, can benefit from these conditions and use them as a measure of the effectiveness of the program (Rogers, 1957/1989).
Can any one of these conditions be considered more important than the others? Although they are all necessary, Rogers came to believe that the critical factor may be the therapist’s empathic understanding of the client (Rogers, 1980). The Dalai Lama (2001) has said that empathy is an essential first step toward a compassionate heart. It brings us closer to others, and allows us to recognize the depth of their pain. According to Rogers, empathy refers to entering the private world of the client, and moving about within it without making any judgments. It is essential to set aside one’s own views and values, so that the other person’s world may be entered without prejudice. Not just anyone can accomplish this successfully:
In some sense it means that you lay aside your self; this can only be done by persons who are secure enough in themselves that they know they will not get lost in what may turn out to be the strange or bizarre world of the other, and that they can comfortably return to their own world when they wish. (pg. 143; Rogers, 1980)
Within a group therapy situation all of the factors described above hold true. Rogers, who late in his career was becoming more and more interested in the growth of all people, including those reasonably well-adjusted and mature to begin with, became particularly interested in T-groups and encounter groups. These groups were developed following the proposition by Kurt Lewin that modern society was overlooking the importance of training in human relations skills (the “T” in T-group stands for “training”). Encounter groups were quite similar to T-groups, except that there was a greater emphasis on personal growth and improved interpersonal communication through an experiential process. Each group has a leader, or facilitator, who fosters and encourages open communication. The group serves as a reflection of the congruence, or lack thereof, in the communication of whoever is currently expressing themselves. As a result, the group hopefully moves toward congruence, and the subsequent personal growth and actualization of the each individual (Rogers, 1970).
Given the usefulness of T-groups and encounter groups in a variety of settings, as well as the importance of continued personal growth and actualization for both the well-adjusted and those suffering psychological distress, Rogers shifted his focus from simply client-centered therapy to a more universal person-centered approach, which encompasses client-centered therapy, student-centered teaching, and group-centered leadership (Rogers, 1980; see also Rogers & Roethlisberger, 1952/1993). Rogers believed that all people have within them vast resources for self-understanding and for changing their self-concepts, attitudes, and behaviors. In all relationships, whether therapist-client, parent-child, teacher-student, leader-group, employer-employee, etc., there are three elements that can foster personal growth: genuineness or congruence, acceptance or caring, and empathic understanding. When these elements are fostered in any setting, “there is greater freedom to be the true, whole person.” The implications go far beyond individual relationships. We live in what seems to be an increasingly dangerous world. Globalism has brought with it global tension and conflict. However, Rogers argued that a person-centered approach would help to ease intercultural tension, by helping each of us to learn to appreciate and understand others. Whether the cultural differences are political, racial, ethnic, economic, whatever, as more leaders become person-centered there is the possibility for future growth of intercultural understanding and cooperation (Rogers, 1977).
What’s most interesting about Rogers’ necessary and sufficient conditions is that a good friend will naturally fulfill these conditions. In the Visuddhimagga (Bhikkhu Nanamoli, 1956), which was written in the year 412 and constitutes what may be the preeminent guide to Buddhist meditation (see also U Dhammaratana, 2011), Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa refers to “the Good Friend,” who is likely a spiritual teacher. He describes the good friend as one who possesses these qualities:
He is revered and dearly loved,
And one who speaks and suffers speech;
The speech he utters is profound,
He does not urge without a reason…
He is wholly solicitous of welfare and partial to progress.
(pg. 99; Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa, cited in Bhikkhu Nanamoli, 1956)
Being such a good friend is no easy task. Buddhaghosa goes on to acknowledge how Gotama Buddha spoke to his disciple Ananda about the people: “Ananda, it is owing to my being a good friend to them…” Indeed, according to Buddhaghosa, “only the Fully Enlightened One who possesses all the aspects of the Good Friend” (in Bhikku Nanamoli, 1956).
It has been suggested that when Buddhaghosa wrote the Visuddhimagga he followed the general outline of an older work known as the Vimuttimagga. The original Vimuttimagga has been lost to time, and it comes to us now via a Chinese translation of the original (further translated into English for those of us who do not read Chinese; Ehara et al., 1995). It’s authorship has been attributed to an arahant named Upatissa. Whether or not Buddhaghosa followed the outline of Upatissa Thera’s work, in the Vimuttimagga we once again find a description of the good friend:
A good friend who may be likened… to a kind good-hearted person, to a dearly loved parent… like a physician who cures diseases and removes pain… like parents who ward their children from perils and like a teacher who instructs (his pupils)… Therefore, the Blessed One declared to Ananda: “Good companionship is the whole of the holy life.” (pg. 48; Upatissa Thera in Ehara et al., 1995)
Upatissa Thera goes on to list seven qualities of a good friend: loveableness, esteemableness, venerableness, the ability to counsel well, patience (in listening), the ability to deliver deep discourses (based on understanding well, which follows in part from patient listening), and not applying oneself to useless ends. The parallels with Rogers’ understanding of what is necessary to be an effective therapist are quite remarkable.
Existentialism and Logotherapy
The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, extended existential philosophy directly into psychology, with books such as The Transcendence of the Ego (Sartre, 1937/1957) and a section entitled “Existential Psychoanalysis” in his extraordinary work Being and Nothingness (Sartre, 1943). Whereas Kierkegaard believed that man could never truly be one with God, and Heidegger trivialized God, Sartre simply stated that God does not exist. But this is not inconsequential:
The Existentialist, on the contrary, thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. (pg. 459; Sartre, 1947/1996)
Without going into the details of existential philosophy, Sartre argued that, unfortunately, many people reject their unique consciousness (pour-soi – the for-itself) and desire to be merely en-soi (the in-itself), just letting life happen around them. As the en-soi closes in around them, they begin to experience nausea, forlornness, anxiety, and despair. Herein lays the need for existential psychoanalysis:
Existential psychoanalysis is going to reveal to man the real goal of his pursuit, which is being as a synthetic fusion of the in-itself with the for-itself; existential psychoanalysis is going to acquaint man with his passion…Many men, in fact, know that the goal of their pursuit is being; and…they refrain from appropriating things for their own sake and try to realize the symbolic appropriations of their being-in-itself…existential psychoanalysis…must reveal to the moral agent that he is the being by whom values exist. It is then that his freedom will become conscious of itself… (pg. 797; Sartre, 1943)
As noted in an earlier section, Viktor Frankl extended existential philosophy into a type of therapy he called logotherapy, or “meaning” therapy. While Frankl was in medical school, he considered specializing in dermatology or obstetrics. A fellow student who was aware of Frankl’s wide-ranging interests, however, introduced Frankl to the works of Kierkegaard. This friend had been reminded of Kierkegaard’s emphasis on living an authentic life, and he urged Frankl to pursue his interest in psychiatry. While still in medical school Frankl delivered a lecture to the Academic Society for Medical Psychology, of which Frankl was the founding vice-president, and used the term logotherapy for the first time (a few years later he first used the alternative term existential analysis; Frankl, 1995/2000).
Logotherapy focuses on man’s will-to-meaning, or the search for the meaning of human existence and one’s own meaningful role within that existence. According to Frankl, the will-to-meaning is the primary source of one’s motivation in life, rather than merely a secondary rationalization of the instinctual drives. Also, meaning and values are not simply defense mechanisms. As noted earlier in the book, Frankl eloquently noted that:
…as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my “defense mechanisms,” nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my “reaction formations.” Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values! (pg. 105; Frankl, 1946/1992)
Unfortunately, one’s search for meaning can be frustrated. This existential frustration can lead to what Frankl identified as a noogenic neurosis (a neurosis of the mind or, in other words, the specifically human dimension). Frankl suggested that when neuroses arise from an individual’s inability to find meaning in their life, what they need is logotherapy, not psychotherapy. More specifically, they need help to find some meaning in their life, some reason to be. When reading Frankl’s examples of how he helps such people, and Frankl offers many of these examples in his writings, it seems so simple. But it must be remembered that it takes a great deal of experience, knowledge, and maturity, as well as an ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, in order to creatively think of how another person can find meaning in their life. It would be safe to say that many of us find it difficult to find meaning in our own lives, and research has indeed shown that the will-to-meaning is a significant concern throughout the world (Frankl, 1946/1992). In order to make sense of this problem, Frankl has suggested that we should not ask what we expect from life, but rather, we should understand that life expects something from us:
A colleague, an aged general practitioner, turned to me because he could not come to terms with the loss of his wife, who had died two years before. His marriage had been very happy, and he was now extremely depressed. I asked him quite simply: “Tell me what would have happened if you had died first and your wife had survived you?” “That would have been terrible,” he said. “How my wife would have suffered?” “Well, you see,” I answered, “your wife has been spared that, and it was you who spared her, though of course you must now pay by surviving and mourning her.” In that very moment his mourning had been given a meaning – the meaning of a sacrifice. (pg. xx; Frankl, 1946/1986)
Unfortunately, as noted by Frankl, not everyone can successfully accomplish the will-to-meaning, some people can not identify any goal that provides meaning for their future. Such individuals exist in what Frankl called an existential vacuum. We have no instincts that tell us what we have to do, fewer and fewer traditions that tell us what we should do, and we often don’t even know what we want to do. Therein lays the need for logotherapy. As for techniques, logotherapy relies primarily on paradoxical intention and dereflection (Frankl, 1946/1986, 1946/1992). Paradoxical intention is based on a simple trap in which neurotic individuals often find themselves. When a person thinks about or approaches a situation that provokes a neurotic symptom, such as fear, the person experiences anticipatory anxiety. This anticipatory anxiety takes the form of the symptom, which reinforces their anxiety. And so on… In order to help people break out of this negative cycle, Frankl recommends having them focus intently on the very thing that evokes their symptoms, even trying to exhibit their symptoms more severely than ever before! As a result, the patient is able to separate themselves from their own neurosis, and eventually the neurosis loses its potency.
Similar to anticipatory anxiety, people often experience a compulsive inclination to observe themselves, resulting in hyper-reflection. For example, people who suffer from insomnia focus on their efforts to sleep, or people who cannot enjoy a sexual relationship often focus on their physical, sexual responses. Because of this intense focus on sleep, or having an orgasm, these very things are unattainable. In dereflection, patients are taught not to pay attention to what they desire. A person who cannot sleep might read in bed, they will eventually fall asleep. A person who cannot enjoy intimate sexuality could focus on their partner, and as a result they should experience satisfaction that they did not expect. In essence, whereas paradoxical intention teaches the patient to ridicule their symptoms, dereflection teaches the patient to ignore his or her symptoms (Frankl, 1946/1986).
Existential psychotherapy is not so much a technique as it is an overall approach to understanding the nature of the human being. By asking deep questions about the nature of anxiety, loneliness, isolation, despair, etc., as well as about creativity and love, existential psychotherapists seek to avoid the “common error of distorting human beings in the very effort of trying to help them” (May & Yalom, 1995). Rollo May, America’s foremost existential psychotherapist (Reeves, 1977), believed that American psychology has had both an affinity for and an aversion to existential psychotherapy. The affinity arises from an historical place in American psychology that was very similar to existentialism: William James’ emphasis on the immediacy of experience, the importance of will, and the unity of thought and action. The aversion arises from the Western tendency to dehumanize people through strict adherence to scientific principles of research, i.e., to reform humans in the image of machines (May, 1983).
An essential aspect of existential psychotherapy is to help individuals realize their own being, their own role in choosing the form that their life will take. This is known as the “I-Am” experience. It is all too common for us to associate ourselves with external factors: I am a professor, I am a student, I work at a store, I run a business, etc. We repress our own sense of being. To use an example similar to a case described by May: I am a professor, but that is not really who I am. I am a father, but that isn’t all that I am. I am a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but that’s just a hobby for exercise and competition. What is left, or what is common in each of these statements? I am! And as May put it, if I am, I have a right to be (example cited in May & Yalom, 1995). This realization is not the solution to my problems, but it is a necessary precondition to finding the courage to pursue the rest of my life.
Once an individual finds the courage to recreate their life, the existential therapist will address a variety of issues. May placed a great deal of emphasis on anxiety. Guilt is also an important issue to be addressed, since we may feel guilty about poor ethical choices or instances when we failed to be responsible with our actions. As with anxiety, guilt can be normal (after actually doing something bad) or neurotic (when we fantasize some transgression). Another important concept in existential psychotherapy is time. Because we tend to think about ourselves spatially, as objects within our life, we tend to focus on the past. In other words, we focus on what we have become, as opposed to what we might be. Moments when we truly encounter ourselves are rare, but it is only when we grasp the moment that we truly experience life. Those moments can be positive, such as the experience of love, or negative, such as the experience of depression, but they are real nonetheless. Individuals who suffer from brain damage often cannot think in terms of abstract possibilities, they become trapped in concrete time. In order to be fully healthy, and something essential to the growth of humans, is our ability to transcend time:
If we are to understand a given person as existing, dynamic, at every moment becoming, we cannot avoid the dimension of transcendence. Existing involves a continual emerging, in the sense of emergent evolution, a transcending of one’s past and present in order to reach the future. (pg. 267; May & Yalom, 1995)
The general process of existential psychotherapy is similar to psychoanalysis. It is accepted that the client experiences anxiety, that some of this anxiety is unconscious, and that the client is relying on defense mechanisms in order to cope with the anxiety. A fundamental difference, however, is the focus of the therapy. Rather than digging into the deep, dark past, the existential psychotherapist strives to understand the meaning of the client’s current experiences, the depth of experience in the given moment. For this reason, the therapist-client relationship remains important, but the emphasis is not on transference. Rather, the emphasis is on the relationship itself as fundamentally important (May & Yalom, 1995). In that regard, we see a similarity with the client-centered therapy of Rogers.
Existential therapy is actively used today, as therapists try to address the four ultimate concerns as identified by Yalom: death, freedom, existential isolation, and meaninglessness (Yalom, 1980; Zafirides et al., 2013). Zafirides and his colleagues (2013) offer two relevant case studies involving individuals who had lost their sense of meaning and purpose in life, and needed help to restore it. One client served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and since coming home from the war he experienced depression, anxiety, and symptoms of PTSD. He was deeply conflicted regarding the deadly challenges of combat and the peace of being back at home, as well as guilt over his feelings of happiness being home despite his awareness of comrades who had died. The existential concerns regarding death and isolation (aloneness) were clearly evident. Through the existential therapy process, he realized the context of his life in the greater scheme of things, that he controlled how he reconciled the deaths of his comrades, and that he had a duty to reclaim his life and happiness in their honor. He was able to reconnect with his family and friends, and once again found meaning in his life (Zafirides et al., 2013).
Additional Perspectives on Positive Psychotherapy
The knowledge that enhancing positive mindsets can free us from inhibitions to act in positive ways is as old as the field of psychology itself. Over a century ago, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wrote:
The difference between willing and merely wishing, between having ideals that are creative and ideals that are but pinings and regrets, thus depends solely either on the amount of steam-pressure chronically driving the character in the ideal direction, or on the amount of ideal excitement transiently acquired. Given a certain amount of love, indignation, generosity, magnanimity, admiration, loyalty, or enthusiasm of self-surrender, the result is always the same. That whole raft of cowardly obstructions, which in tame persons and dull moods are sovereign impediments to action, sinks away at once. Our conventionality, our shyness, laziness, and stinginess, our demands for precedent and permission, for guarantee and surety, our small suspicions, timidities, despairs, where are they now? Severed like cobwebs, broken like bubbles in the sun… (pp. 244-245; James, 1902/1987)
If one is to utilize human strengths and/or capacities to promote positive approaches to psychotherapy, the starting point needs to be positive psychological assessment (see Lopez & Snyder, 2003a; Lopez et al., 2003c). Positive psychological assessment, including identifying and enhancing strengths, offers benefits such as improved school achievement, more meaningful and productive work, better mental health, and improved psychological practice and research. Additional important considerations in this process will be to pay careful attention to cultural differences in our increasingly diverse world (Flores & Obasi, 2003), and to build on existing combinations of positive assessment and positive psychotherapy with young adults and children (Rashid & Anjum, 2008).
In the course of the preceding discussion, Snyder et al. (2003) make a bold proposal: they suggest the addition of an Axis VI to the DSM system (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Text Revision; American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Their proposed Axis VI would have measured personal strengths and facilitators of growth. In 2003, we were still under the guidelines of the DSM-IV-TR. Since then, however, the DSM-V has been published (APA, 2013). To the great surprise of many, the multiaxial system was abandoned altogether!
In 1977, Michael Fordyce began developing a program to help students at the community college where he taught increase their personal happiness (Fordyce 1977, 1983). Based on his own research, Fordyce identified nine (the “nifty nine”) behaviors he believed would increase personal happiness:
- Spend more time socializing
- Develop an outgoing, social personality
- Become more active
- Lower expectations and aspirations
- Develop positive, optimistic thinking
- Get better organized and plan things out
- Eliminate negative problems (stop worrying)
- Become more present oriented
- Value happiness
In each of several variations, subjects who were taught ways to increase their personal happiness were able to do just that. In the final study, involving a 9-18 month follow-up, over 70% of the respondents reported continued improvement in their level of happiness, with over 50% reporting those happiness increases were a “good deal” or “extremely” happier (Fordyce, 1983). Although this was not psychotherapy per se, the same procedures could certainly be applied in a therapeutic setting.
Also in 1977, Nossrat Peseschkian published Positive Psychotherapy, which was not available in English for 10 years (Peseschkian, 1987). As suggested by James and Fordyce, as well as Adler, Rogers, and Maslow, Peseschkian’s positive psychotherapy was based quite directly on building a person’s strengths as part and parcel of the therapeutic approach:
The expression “positive” in Positive Psychotherapy should be taken to mean that the therapy is not primarily directed toward resolving an existing disturbance, but rather toward first mobilizing the available capacities and self-help potential. “Positive” means, in accordance with its original definition (“positum”), the “real,” the “given.” Real and given facts are not necessarily just conflicts and disturbance, but also capacities which every human being has within him. (pg. viii; Peseschkian, 1987)
Of particular interest to Peseschkian are a person’s relationship with their own future and the meaning of life, as well as their attitudes and expectations in the domains of trust, hope, and faith. The overall aim of this positive psychotherapy is to understand the patient in a comprehensive way, in accordance with the many different ways in which disturbances are manifested, while also being mindful of the uniqueness of each patient. To achieve this overall aim, the patient must be employed toward being their own therapist. The overall approach is eclectic, but can basically be broken down into five stages:
- Observation/distancing – the patient records the people and situations that cause both distress and pleasure; one begins learning to discriminate; the problem(s) is(are) encompassed and described
- Making an inventory – with an inventory of capacities in hand, one examines domains of behavior that are rated positively or negatively
- Situational encouragement – in order to build trusting relationships, the patient pays attention to their own negative qualities while reinforcing positive qualities in others
- Verbalization – the patient is taught communication skills, while positive and negative qualities and experiences are discussed
- Broadening of goals – “The neurotic narrowing of the field of vision is purposefully demolished. One learns not to carry the conflict over into other domains of behavior, but rather to steer toward new and as yet unexperienced aims.”
(pp. 271-273; Peseschkian, 1987)
Peseschkian (1987) provides a thorough review comparing and contrasting his positive psychotherapy to a number of other major therapeutic approaches. The two which he finds most closely related are Adler’s individual psychology and Frankl’s logotherapy. He also notes some major similarities with Rogers’ client-centered approach, which grew, in part, out of Adler’s theories. Thus, positive psychotherapeutic approaches can be seen as part of the continuing development of therapy as the fields of psychology and psychiatry continue to grow and expand.
Peseschkian also expressed the desire “to unite the wisdom and intuitive thinking of the East with the new psychotherapeutic knowledge of the West” (pg. 5; Peseschkian, 1987). One of those Eastern techniques, mindfulness (in the Buddhist context), has become an important technique for most eclectic psychotherapists, though sometimes it is referred to instead as reflection or a “quieting of the mind” (see Fulton, 2005; Henry, 2006; Siegel, 2007). As noted in an earlier section, meditation has been described as “now one of the most enduring, widespread, and researched of all psychotherapeutic methods” (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006). Given the growing wealth of information on the application of mindfulness in therapeutic settings, we’ll address it in a separate section.
Mindfulness in Psychotherapy
As noted in an earlier section, there are many in the west who have embraced a Buddhist approach to psychotherapy, particularly with an emphasis on mindfulness. However, not everyone is comfortable with the religious overtones of Buddhism (though the true essence of Buddhist teaching, the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path, is not technically a religion), so some theorists avoid using any Eastern terminology. Nonetheless, the techniques applied are essentially the same.
Mindfulness training involves learning to accept one’s emotional realities, and one of the most significant realities is that much of human life involves suffering. Starting with these basic observations, Steven Hayes and his colleagues have developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT; Hayes & Smith, 2005; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999; see also Eifert & Forsyth, 2005; Hayes, Follette, & Linehan, 2004). Hayes and his colleagues do not mean acceptance in the sense of resigning oneself to suffering, but rather in the sense of accepting life as it comes. Then, one must commit oneself to moving forward and living a values-based life, regardless of the presence of challenges:
The constant possibility of psychological pain is a challenging burden that we all need to face…This doesn’t mean that you must resign yourself to trudging through your life suffering. Pain and suffering are very different. We believe that there is a way to change your relationship to pain and to then live a good life, perhaps a great life, even though you are a human being whose memory and verbal skills keep the possibility of pain just an instant away. (pg. 12; Hayes & Smith, 2005)
Although Hayes and his colleagues make passing reference to mindfulness as a Buddhist teaching, they do not take a spiritual approach with ACT. They do, however, acknowledge that psychologists often make the mistake of ignoring spiritual practices that might prove helpful to their clients (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999). As for “acceptance” itself, Mruk & Hartzell (2003) identify it as the first of six Zen principles of therapeutic values (the others being fearlessness, truth, compassion, attachment, and impermanence).
Many people in psychology today, including Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, recognize that cognitive psychology began with the Buddha some 2,500 years ago (Ellis, 2005; Pretzer & Beck, 2005; see also Olendzki, 2005). Dr. Tara Brach, a clinical psychologist and teacher of mindfulness meditation (also known as vipassana, which means “to see clearly”), makes no qualms about following a Buddhist approach to therapy. In Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha (Brach, 2003), Brach talks about living in a trance of unworthiness. Plagued by beliefs of their own inadequacies, some individuals limit their ability to live a full life. Consequently, they cannot trust that they are lovable, and they live with an undercurrent of depression or helplessness. They then embark on a series of strategies designed to protect themselves: they attempt self-improvement projects, they hold back and play it safe, they withdraw from the present moment, they keep busy, they criticize themselves, and they focus on other’s faults. Radical Acceptance as a therapeutic approach involves both mindfulness meditation and Buddhist teachings on compassion as a basis for teaching people to accept themselves as they are:
Radical Acceptance reverses our habit of living at war with experiences that are unfamiliar, frightening or intense. It is the necessary antidote to years of neglecting ourselves, years of judging and treating ourselves harshly, years of rejecting this moment’s experience. Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our life as it is. A moment of Radical Acceptance is a moment of genuine freedom. (pg. 4; Brach, 2003)
One of the most significant applications of mindfulness training has given rise to perhaps the most thoroughly studied and effective approach to the treatment of personality disorders: dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT was developed by Marsha Linehan specifically for the treatment of borderline personality disorder and its commonly associated element of suicidal behavior (Linehan, 1987, 1993; Robins et al., 2004). DBT emphasizes the complete process of change, incorporating both the acceptance of the patient’s real suffering and the desire for change. Since a natural conflict arises between acceptance and the desire/need for change, a conflict that can arouse intense negative emotion, DBT involves teaching patients mindfulness skills necessary to “allow” experiences without the need to either suppress or avoid them. These mindfulness skills were drawn primarily from Zen principles, but are similar to and compatible with Western contemplative practices (Robins et al., 2004).
Mindfulness as a therapeutic technique has also been used by a variety of other therapists: in couple therapy (Christensen, Sevier, Simpson, & Gattis, 2004; Fruzzetti & Iverson, 2004), following traumatic experiences (Follette, Palm, & Rasmussen Hall, 2004), and for the treatment of eating disorders (Wilson, 2004) and substance abuse (Marlatt, et al., 2004). Janet Surrey, one of the founding members of the Stone Center Group, has favorably compared relational psychotherapy to mindfulness (Surrey, 2005), and Trudy Goodman, who studied child development with Jean Piaget, uses mindfulness in therapy with children (Goodman, 2005). A very popular mindfulness-based stress reduction program was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990, 1994, 2005), and a similar therapeutic technique, called Focusing, was previously developed in the late 1970s (Gendlin, 1990). Mindfulness has also been incorporated into psychotherapeutic approaches to dealing with anxiety, depression, and feelings of unworthiness and insecurity (Brach, 2003; Brantley, 2003; McQuaid & Carmona, 2004), and it has provided new perspectives on the treatment of addiction and anger issues (Aronson, 2004; Dudley-Grant, 2003).
Thus, whether in the more structured approach of ACT or Radical Acceptance, or in more informal ways in the hands of therapists familiar with mindfulness meditation, paying attention to the mind in a calm and careful way is becoming an important trend in psychotherapy. According to Steven Hayes (2004), this approach represents a third wave in behavioral-cognitive therapy, following traditional behavior therapy and then the cognitive therapies of Ellis and Beck. This third wave is also the basis for the popular and influential work of Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990, 1994, 2005; see also Germer et al., 2005) and connects behavioral and cognitive theories to the rapidly growing field of social neuroscience (the study of the interactive influences between the structure/function of the brain and social behavior; see, e.g., Begley, 2007; Cacioppo et al., 2006; Cozolino, 2002; Harmon-Jones & Winkielman, 2007; Siegel, 1999, 2007).
Why is mindfulness proving to be so successful in helping people feel better and overcome their challenges? Phillip Moffitt, author of Dancing With Life (2008), describes mindfulness in the classic sense – as one of the tools taught by the Buddha to provide us with insight into the cause(s) of our suffering:
The most life-changing benefits of mindfulness meditation are the insights, which arise spontaneously the way a ripened apple falls from the tree of its own accord. Insight is what changes your life. Through insight you realize what brings well-being to yourself and others as well as what brings stress, discomfort, and dissatisfaction into your life…Each insight is a direct knowing or “intuitive knowing” of the truth of your experience…This direct knowing is what enables mindfulness meditation to have such impact in your life – you feel the truth of your experience, instead of conceptualizing it, reacting to it, or being lost in the past or the future. (pg. 20; Moffitt, 2008)
Such insight can also lead to wisdom, and in the Buddhist perspective wisdom also leads to compassion, the desire to alleviate suffering. When considering happiness in this context, Moffitt (2008) distinguishes between three kinds of happiness. You can be happy because everything in your life is going well, or you can be happy because you are happy – regardless of how life is going overall. In each of these conditions, your happiness is dependent on something, either the conditions of your life or the condition of your mind. The third type of happiness is the unbounded joy experienced when you are free of all attachments, whether external or internal. Only by being fully present, or mindful, can one attain this final degree of happiness.
Buddhist training and psychotherapy have the same overall goals: to alleviate suffering and cultivate well-being. Mindfulness, defined as awareness of the present moment with acceptance, is the foundation for wisdom and compassion, which are inseparable. One simply cannot experience one without the other (Germer & Siegel, 2012; Siegel & Germer, 2012):
Most of us notice that when we have a multilayered understanding of a patient’s problem, our hearts open. Conversely, when we feel warmly toward a client, our minds can see many more treatment possibilities. (pg. 3; Germer & Siegel, 2012)
Tara Brach (2012) has offered both a wonderful acronym for an approach to cultivating compassion and wisdom when things are particularly difficult and a marvelous image of the process of awareness with and without mindfulness. The acronym, for cultivating wisdom and compassion during stormy weather is R.A.I.N.
R Realize what is happening.
A Allow life to be just as it is.
I Investigate inner experience with kindness.
N Nonidentification; rest in Natural awareness.
(pg. 40; Brach, 2012)
Imagine your awareness as a great wheel. At the hub of the wheel is mindful presence, and from this hub, an infinite number of spokes extend out to the rim. Your attention is conditioned to react to whatever arises – whether within you or outside you – by grasping after pleasant experience, avoiding what is unpleasant, and being inattentive if it is neutral. This means that the mind habitually leaves the hub, moves out along the spokes, and affixes itself to one part of the rim after another…While attention naturally moves in and out of presence, the problem is that it is easy to get stuck on the rim. If you are not connected to the hub, if your attention is trapped out on the rim, you are cut off from your wholeness and living in trance. You have lost contact with your physical aliveness, your feelings, and your heart. Mindfulness is a pathway home. (pp. 37-38; Brach, 2012)
Although most of the attention in psychology has been on mindfulness, Fredrickson (2012) prefers to focus on loving-kindness meditation, believing it is more likely to promote positive emotions, especially within relationships. One such positive emotion, compassion, operates as if it were empathy in the Buddhist context. In other words, when we sense the suffering of others, we naturally wish to help them be free from that suffering (Makransky, 2012). Since empathy was the most important element of therapy according to Rogers (see above), once again we see a natural connection between Buddhist principles and modern positive psychotherapy.
…I would regard a compassionate, warm, kindhearted person as healthy. If you maintain a feeling of compassion, loving kindness, then something automatically opens your inner door. Through that, you can communicate much more easily with other people. And that feeling of warmth creates a kind of openness. You’ll find that all human beings are just like you, so you’ll be able to relate to them more easily. That gives you a spirit of friendship…I think that cultivating positive mental states like kindness and compassion definitely leads to better psychological health and happiness. (pg. 40-41; Dalai Lama in Dalai Lama & Cutler, 1998)
Germer (2012) has offered a variety of ways in which compassion can be cultivated, other than maintaining a deep and lengthy meditation practice. He describes compassion as “a quality of mind that can transform the experience of pain, even making it worthwhile” (pg. 93; Germer, 2012). Of particular interest are five pathways he believes are involved in the cultivation of compassion:
- Physical – soften the body; stop tightening up
- Mental – allow thoughts to come and go; stop fighting them
- Emotional – befriend feelings; stop avoiding them
- Relational – connect safely with others; stop isolating
- Spiritual – commit to larger values; stop “selfing”
(pg. 100; Germer, 2012)
Two additional factors are also important. First, it is important to focus on good will, rather than good feelings. Anything done to avoid feeling what is authentic in the moment is a form of resistance; compassion is necessary when someone feels bad. Second, it is important to manage one’s compassion fatigue. Despite a therapist’s best intentions, this is something than can occur. Therapists can train themselves to repeat simple compassion and/or equanimity phrases (e.g., in the form of a gatha) in order to mindfully re-center themselves (Germer, 2012).
When people are young, they spend a lot of time in school. As adults, however, that time (and often much more) is spent at work. For many, the simple truth is that work is nothing more than a way to make money in order to earn a living. That would be OK, if money could buy happiness. We’ll come back to that in a minute, but first let’s consider one’s presence at work in the first place.
Many people are familiar with the problem of absenteeism. Employees who are overwhelmed by stress develop medical and psychological conditions which cause them to miss work. Among those conditions are feelings of powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, and self-estrangement. Consequently, businesses lose as much as 10% or their productivity to problems including absence, turnover, increased training costs, and disruption of other workers (see, e.g., Argyle, 1972; Arnold et al., 1991). However, having workers show up despite stress and negative psychosocial factors is not necessarily a good thing.
Presenteeism can refer to two conditions. First, some workers will come to work when they are sick. In a medical setting, this can create unreasonable risks, not only for other employees but also for patients. More relevant to our discussion of positive psychology, however, is that some employees come to work each day but they are unmotivated, unproductive, and demoralized. Among the factors that lead to presenteeism are feelings that you can’t be replaced (which may well be true), high job demands, low social support, and low remuneration, as well as the factors contributing to absenteeism cited above. The performance of these employees can actually be more costly to their employer than their absence (Aronsson, 2000; Janssens, 2016; Johns, 2010; Snyder et al., 2011).
Given the problems of absenteeism and presenteeism, what do we know about making the workplace a more meaningful and psychologically healthy place? As early as the 1950s and 1960s it was known that group cohesiveness, quality supervision, and job satisfaction lead to a reduction in absenteeism (see Argyle, 1972). Similar factors are relevant to conditions that contribute to presenteeism, and would, presumably, reduce it if they were addressed (Janssens, 2016).
Efforts to understand and improve workplace satisfaction and meaningful involvement in one’s work have been around for at least 50 years. We’ll examine some classic approaches, and then turn our attention to topics discussed more commonly in the field of positive psychology. First, however, let’s take a look at a common reason that many people go to work: money!
Why Work – Money or Calling?
Money may be a good reason to go to work (most of us do need some money to pay our bills), but can money buy happiness? It turns out the answer isn’t that simple. Most of the research in this area has focused on large groups, typically by comparing different countries to one another, or comparing people within a country. It turns out that there is something of a complicated relationship between money and overall happiness.
There are positive correlations between national wealth, life satisfaction (subjective well-being), and positive emotion, as well as a negative correlation between wealth and negative emotion (Diener & Suh, 1999; Seligman, 2002). However, the correlations between countries are stronger than those within countries, income change has little effect, and other factors are equally or more significant (Diener et al., 1993; Diener & Suh, 1999; see also Diener et al., 2005; Morrison et al., 2011). To clarify, people in wealthy countries tend to have higher levels of subjective well-being, but the relationship is not as strong as one might expect. Within a country, the relationship is weaker, especially above the lower levels. Some have interpreted all this to mean that once a person lives in a country that meets basic needs for all citizens (such as clean water, an adequate food supply, access to health care and education, etc.) then money is less important as a factor in determining happiness and subjective well-being.
Diener and his colleagues (Diener et al., 1985) have also looked more closely at wealthy individuals as compared to others. In a fascinating study, they interviewed 49 wealthy people chosen from the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans and compared their results to a control group of 62 Americans (chosen from the phone book – a dated approach!). The wealthy individuals were happy more often and more satisfied with their lives overall. They experienced more positive emotion and less negative emotion. So, wealthy people were very happy, but most non-wealthy people were also happy.
Of particular interest in this study by Diener et al. (1985) is that money was rarely mentioned. Rather, the subjects in this study mentioned factors such as good family and friends, achieving goals, and good health. In fact, a majority of individuals stated that money could increase or decrease happiness, depending on how it’s used, followed by the choice that other factors could outweigh it. None of the subjects believed that money guaranteed happiness. When money was cited as a significant factor, it was due to the fact that money made it possible to do other things which were the actual source(s) of happiness.
As for a direct relationship between work and money, there are many people who say that if they had all the money they needed they would continue to work, or there are those who say that pay becomes a concern primarily when they perceive that their coworkers are not commited to the same level of quality work (Harter & Blacksmith, 2013). Therefore, earning money cannot be the sole reason that these people go to work. According to some theorists, there are three main reasons why people choose to work. First, work is simply a way to earn a living, as such their work is just a job. However, as we’ve just seen, money is apparently not clearly rewarding for everyone, especially for those who don’t earn much. And if the pay is poor, that can contribute to presenteeism. The second reason is the rewards of advancement at one’s place of employment. These are people who are career oriented – it is success within the career itself that motivates them. The third group, however, are those who find the work itself to be fulfilling. They consider their job to be a calling (see Wrzesniewski et al., 1997, 2003).
What defines work as a calling is determined by the individual. More recently, this term has lost its traditional religious connotation (being “called” by a god to do his/her work) and now refers also to work that makes a meaningful contribution to the good of society (once again, in the mind of the individual). Those who consider their work to be a calling are maximally engaged in their work, and passionate about it. They feel a stronger relationship with their work, and they spend more time at work and gain more enjoyment and satisfaction from it. In addition to being highly satisfied with their work, they also tend to be more highly satisfied with their lives overall (Wrzesniewski et al., 1997, 2003).
Even if a person’s connection to their work does not rise to the level of a calling, the workplace can still become a more meaningful place. So now let’s turn our attention to ways in which that can be proactively planned for within a company, or within any such institution (such as a college or university, etc.).
Eupsychian Management and Theory Z
Abraham Maslow, best known for his studies on self-actualization, is also well-known in the field of business. He spent three years as the plant manager for the Maslow Cooperage Corporation, and later he spent a summer studying at an electronics firm in California (Non-Linear Systems, Inc.) at the invitation of the company’s president. He became very interested in industrial and managerial psychology, and the journal he kept in California was published as Eupsychian Management (Maslow, 1965). Eupsychia refers to real possibility and improvability, and a movement toward psychological health, as opposed to the vague fantasies of proposed utopian societies. More precisely, though this is something of a fantasy itself, Maslow described Eupsychia as the culture that would arise if 1,000 self-actualizing people were allowed to live their own lives on a sheltered island somewhere (see Atlas Shrugged for an interesting perpective on this concept; Rand, 1957/1992). Maslow applied his psychological theories, including both the hierarchy of needs and self-actualization, to a management style that takes advantage of this knowledge to maximize the potential of the employees in a company (also see the collection of Maslow’s unpublished papers by Hoffman, 1996).
Maslow introduced a variety of terms related to his theories on management, one of the most interesting being synergy. Having borrowed the term from Ruth Benedict, synergy refers to a situation in which a person pursuing their own, selfish goals is automatically helping others, and a person unselfishly helping others is, at the same time, helping themselves. According to Maslow, when selfishness and unselfishness are mutually exclusive, it is a sign of mild psychopathology. Self-actualizing individuals are above the distinction between selfishness and unselfishness; they enjoy seeing others experience pleasure. Maslow offered the personal example of feeding strawberries to his little daughter. As the child smacked her lips and thoroughly loved the strawberries, an experience that thrilled Maslow, what was he actually giving up by letting her eat the strawberries instead of eating them himself? In his experience with the Blackfoot tribe, a member named Teddy was able to buy a car. He was the only one who had one, but tradition allowed anyone in the tribe to borrow it. Teddy used his car no more often than anyone else, but he had to pay the bills, including the gas bill. And yet, everyone in the tribe was so proud of him that he was greatly admired and they elected him chief. So, he benefited in other ways by following tradition and letting everyone use his car (Maslow, 1965). In the business field, when managers encourage cooperation and communication, everyone benefits from the healthy growth and continuous improvement of the company. And this leads us to Theory Z (which is Eupsychian management).
Douglas McGregor, a professor of industrial relations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was greatly impressed with Maslow’s work, and McGregor had used Motivation and Personality as a textbook in his business classes. Based on Maslow’s theories, McGregor published a book in 1960 in which he outlined two managerial models, Theory X and Theory Y (Gabor, 2000; Hoffman, 1996). Maslow described the two theories as follows:
…To put it succinctly, Theory Y assumes that if you give people responsibilities and freedom, then they will like to work and will do a better job. Theory Y also assumes that workers basically like excellence, efficiency, perfection, and the like.
Theory X, which still dominates most of the world’s workplace, has a contrasting view. It assumes that people are basically stupid, lazy, hurtful, and untrustworthy and, therefore, that you have got to check everything constantly because workers will steal you blind if you don’t. (pg. 187; Maslow, 1996a)
The Theory X/Theory Y strategy was intentionally put into practice at Non-Linear Systems, hence Maslow’s invitation to study there. Maslow concluded, however, that even Theory Y did not go far enough in maximizing people’s potential. People have metaneeds (the need for Being-values), needs that go beyond simply offering higher salaries. When employees have their basic needs met, but recognize inefficiency and mismanagement in the company, they will still complain, but these higher level complaints can now be described as metagrumbles (as opposed to the lower level grumbles about lower level needs). Theory Z attempts to transcend Theory Y and actively facilitate the growth of a company’s employees toward self-actualization (Hoffman, 1996; Maslow, 1971; Maslow 1996b).
Frankl’s Existentialism Applied to the Workplace
In 1989, Stephen Covey published The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s book became very popular, selling millions of copies on the way to becoming a #1 New York Times bestseller. If you were to read the first chapter of that book now, it would seem very familiar. Covey presents a very existential approach to understanding our lives, particularly with regard to the problems we experience every day. Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that in the chapters describing the first two of these seven habits he cites and quotes Viktor Frankl numerous times. Indeed, Covey cites Frankl’s first two books as being profoundly influential in his own life, and how impressed Covey was having met Frankl shortly before Frankl’s death (see Covey’s foreword in Pattakos, 2004).
The first two habits, according to Covey, are: 1) be proactive, and 2) begin with the end in mind. He briefly describes Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps, and refers to Frankl’s most widely quoted saying, that Frankl himself could decide how his experiences would affect him, and that no one could take that freedom away from Frankl! People who choose to develop this level of personal freedom are certainly being proactive, as opposed to responding passively to events that occur around them and to them. It is not necessary, of course, to suffer such tragic circumstances in order to become proactive in one’s own life:
…It is in the ordinary events of every day that we develop the proactive capacity to handle the extraordinary pressures of life. It’s how we make and keep commitments, how we handle a traffic jam, how we respond to an irate customer or a disobedient child. It’s how we view our problems and where we focus our energies. It’s the language we use. (pg. 92; Covey, 1989)
Covey compares his habit of beginning with the end in mind to logotherapy, helping people to recognize the meaning that their life holds. Covey works primarily in business leadership training, so the value of working toward a greater goal than simply keeping a company in business from day to day is clear, especially for those who care about employee morale and quality control (see also Principle-Centered Leadership; Covey, 1990). When employees share a sense of purpose in their work, they are likely to have higher intrinsic motivation. Think about it for a moment. Have you ever had a job you didn’t really understand, and didn’t care about? Have you ever been given that sort of homework in school or college? So, how much effort did you really put into that job or assignment?
Covey’s remaining habits are: 3) put first things first, 4) think win/win, 5) seek first to understand, then to be understood, 6) synergize, and 7) sharpen the saw. At first glance these principles seem reasonably straight forward, emphasizing practical and responsible actions. However, what does “sharpen the saw” mean? Sharpening the saw refers to keeping our tools in good working order, and we are our most important tool. Covey considers it essential to regularly and consistently, in wise and balanced ways, to exercise the four dimensions of our nature: physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual. By investing in ourselves, we are taking care to live an authentic life.
More recently, Covey has examined his principles beyond the business world. In 1997 he published The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, a book in which he applies the same 7 habits to family life. Covey certainly has solid credentials as a family man, as father of 9 and grandfather of 43 children, and he won the 2003 Fatherhood Award from the National Fatherhood Initiative. Drawing in large part on his own extensive, personal experience, Covey uses many stories, anecdotes, and examples of real-life situations to help provide context to the challenges of raising a family and how we might best work with them. But first, he introduces a simple process: have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish, have a plan of how you might accomplish it, and use a compass (your own unique gifts that enable you to be an agent of change in your family). In essence, Covey is recommending that you prepare yourself to develop the seven habits. We all know how difficult it is to establish a new habit or break a bad habit; how is your New Year’s resolution going?
Just as families change, so does the world we live in. Recently, Covey addressed this change by proposing an eighth habit (Covey, 2004). He says that this was not simply an important habit he had overlooked before, but one that has risen to new significance as we have fully entered the age of information and technology in the twenty-first century. As communication has become much easier (e.g., email), it has also become less personal and meaningful. Thus the need for the eighth habit: find your voice and inspire others to find theirs. According to Covey, “voice is unique personal significance.” Essentially, it is the same as finding meaning in one’s life, and then helping others to find meaning in their own lives. It is through finding a mission or a purpose in life that we can move “from effectiveness to greatness” (Covey, 2004).
Whereas Covey presented an approach to personal and professional effectiveness (and later to greatness as well) that parallels the principles set forth by Viktor Frankl, Alex Pattakos very directly applies Frankl’s theories to both the workplace and one’s everyday life in Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles at Work (with a foreword by Stephen Covey; Pattakos, 2004). Frankl himself urged Pattakos to publish his book during a meeting in 1996. Pattakos, like Covey, has been profoundly influenced by Frankl’s writings throughout Pattakos’ career. According to Pattakos, we are creatures of habit, and we prefer a life that is both predictable and within our comfort zone. As the world is changing in the twenty-first century, so the conditions under which we work are changing. Pattakos believes there is a need for humanizing work. More than just balancing one’s personal life and career, humanizing work is an attempt to honor our own individuality and to fully engage our human spirit at work. Simply put, it is an effort to apply Frankl’s will-to-meaning in our workplace (Pattakos, 2004).
Like Covey, Pattakos presents seven core principles. They are similar to Covey’s seven habits, but in keeping with Pattakos’ intentions they are aligned more directly with the principles of logotherapy and existential psychology described by Frankl. The seven core principles are: 1) exercise the freedom to choose your attitude, 2) realize your will-to-meaning, 3) detect the meaning of life’s moments, 4) don’t work against yourself, 5) look at yourself from a distance, 6) shift your focus of attention, and 7) extend beyond yourself. These principles include not only the ideas of personal freedom and will-to-meaning, but also dereflection (principles 4 and 6) and the will-to-ultimate-meaning (principle 7). Clearly Pattakos has accomplished his goal of applying logotherapy to the workplace, but how well does this application work in real life?
Pattakos describes the case of a probation officer with the state department of corrections. Rick, as Pattakos identifies him, was raised in foster care and orphanages. However, rather than developing a sense of caring and concern for others who have difficulties in their lives, Rick refers to his clients as “maggots.” Rick has become insensitive and unforgiving, he has also become deeply depressed and anxious. Overall, he feels lost, unhappy, and unfulfilled, and he doesn’t know what to do about it. According to Pattakos, he has become a prisoner of his own thoughts, and only he has the key to his own freedom. Very simply put, he needs to find a new job or find meaning in the one he has now. One possibility is for Rick to consider his own life circumstances in relationship to his clients:
…Whenever we stop long enough to connect to ourselves, to our environment, to those with whom we work, to the task before us, to the extraordinary interdependence that is always part of our lives, we experience meaning. Meaning is who we are in this world. And it is the world that graces us with meaning. (pg. 157; Pattakos, 2004)
By making a responsible choice to seek meaning in our lives, to not work against ourselves, we can put ourselves on a path we had not seen before:
When we live and work with meaning, we can choose to make meaning, to see meaning, and to share meaning. We can choose our attitudes to life and work; we can choose how to respond to others, how to respond to our jobs, and how to make the very best of difficult circumstances. We can transcend ourselves and be transformed by meaning. We can find connection to meaning at work, in the most unusual places and with the most unexpected people. Meaning is full of surprises. (pg. 159; Pattakos, 2004)
And finally, it does not matter what sort of job we have. It is our choice, our freedom:
No matter what our specific job might be, it is the work we do that represents who we are. When we meet our work with enthusiasm, appreciation, generosity, and integrity, we meet it with meaning. And no matter how mundane a job might seem at the time, we can transform it with meaning. Meaning is life’s legacy, and it is as available to us at work as it is available to us in our deepest spiritual quests. We breathe, therefore we are – spiritual. Life is; therefore it is – meaningful. We do, therefore we work. (pg. 162; Pattakos, 2004)
Viktor Frankl’s legacy was one of hope and possibility. He saw the human condition at its worst, and human beings behaving in ways intolerable to the imagination. He also saw human beings rising to heights of compassion and caring in ways that can only be described as miraculous acts of unselfishness and transcendence. There is something in us that can rise above and beyond everything we think possible.
Additional Positive Changes in the Nature of Work
As we’ve seen, there have been individuals and organizations pursuing ways to make the workplace a more positive and rewarding environment. However, the need for applying principles of positive psychology in the workplace has increasingly become more critical due to recent changes in the nature of the workplace. Long-term employment with one company is becoming much less common. Instead, many companies are relying on part-time, contingent employees, and those employees are expendable when the given task is complete. Consequently, those employees have no control over the number of hours they are able to work, often have to work multiple jobs, and still have feelings of insecurity regarding their jobs as well as feeling they’ve been treated unfairly. Often, individuals responsible for implement changes in processes have little understanding of how either individuals or groups function on a psychological level (Frey et al., 2003; Turner et al., 2005).
Nonetheless, there are ways in which both employers and employees can strive to make the workplace a positive experience. Turner et al. (2005) identified four main areas in which these efforts are applicable: work redesign, group work, developing proactive role orientations, and transformational leadership. We’ve already examined some early work on transformational leadership, so now let’s examine the other three categories.
Work Redesign just happens to be the title of a book published by Hackman & Oldham in 1980. In general, work redesign refers to an overall approach in which jobs are designed to maximize employee engagement (see below for more discussion of engagement) by creating conditions that facilitate high levels of motivation, satisfaction, and performance (Hackman & Oldham, 1980; Turner et al., 2005). In part, this was an intentional backlash against trends earlier in the 20th century to create “Taylorism” in the workplace (named after F. W. Taylor): minimizing skill requirements, maximizing management control, and minimizing time on task (Arnold et al., 1991). In contrast, work redesign focuses, among a few other factors, on increased autonomy in the workplace.
The approach advocated by Hackman & Oldham (1980), the job characteristics model (JCM), addresses five core job characteristics:
- Skill Variety – Many people benefit when a variety of skills and talents are necessary, and can therefore be exercised, in the performance of a task.
- Task Identity – Many people prefer tasks which require the completion of a “whole” piece of work; i.e., doing a job from beginning to end with a clear outcome.
- Task Significance – People like to know that their work has a substantial impact on the lives of others (whether locally or globally).
- Autonomy – This refers to the degree to which a given task allows for freedom, independence, and discretion by the individual in scheduling the work and determining how it should be carried out.
- Feedback – An essential component of any task is information regarding whether or not it has been completed effectively.
(pgs. 78-80; Hackman & Oldham, 1980)
When designed appropriately, the first three factors (skill variety, task identity, and task significance) lead to experiences of meaningfulness regarding one’s work. If given autonomy, the individual(s) experiences responsibility for the outcomes of the work. With proper and professional feedback, the individual(s) knows the actual results of their efforts. Overall, when employees experience meaningfulness, responsibility, and they are informed that their work has been successful, the result is high levels of internal work motivation, a valuable commodity going forward for the organization (Hackman & Oldham, 1980).
Hackman & Oldham (1980) went a step further, and created a formula for addressing workplace motivation based on the JCM, the motivating potential score, or MPS.
MPS = (skill var + task id + task sig) ÷ 3 x autonomy x feedback
Utilizing the MPS formula to study the applicability of the JCM, much of the research has been supportive. Although some concerns remain, it appears that each of the five characteristics contributes to overall satisfaction and motivation. However, different characteristics relate to different outcomes. For example, task identity is most significantly related to performance, but has less effect on psychological outcomes (e.g., well-being). Absenteeism, as another example, can best be addressed by enhancing skill variety, autonomy, and feedback (Fried & Ferris, 1987; Turner et al., 2005). Thus, more work remains to be done, especially given the continued changing nature of the workplace due to external forces (as noted above).
An alternative approach to the JCM can be found in the demand/control model (Karasek, 1979; Karasek & Theorell, 1990; see also Turner et al., 2005). This approach suggests that healthy work environments are those in which psychological demands are balanced against one’s decision latitude (control). There are four basic types of work, according to this model. High-strain jobs combine high psychological demands with low levels of control. This results in high levels of stress, and potentially corresponding psychological strain (e.g., anxiety, depression, physical illness). Low-strain jobs are the result of high control but little in the way of psychological demands (aka, a relaxed job). Such jobs are not stressful, but they also fail to generate much in the way of intrinsic motivation (i.e., they are unlikely to be fulfilling or meaningful). Passive jobs have both low demands and little control. Overall, such jobs are demotivating, and can result in the degradation of one’s skills and subsequent feelings of helplessness (Karasek & Theorell, 1990; Turner et al., 2005).
Finally, however, we come to active jobs – those with high psychological demands but also with high levels of control. Despite the demands of such jobs, the ability to exercise one’s skills and options for coping can lead to an exhilarating work experience. Indeed, Karasek & Theorell (1990) cite Csikszentmihalyi’s studies of surgeons, rock/mountain climbers, and professional athletes and their experiences of flow in such challenging and stimulating situations. Not only are people involved in this type of work active, they also tend to be much more active outside of work. In other words, an ideal life at work can facilitate an ideal life outside of work, resulting in the best of both worlds (Karasek & Theorell, 1990).
In both of the primary texts addressing the JCM, Work Redesign by Hackman & Oldham (1980), and the demand/control model, Healthy Work by Karasek & Theorell (1990), the authors address working in groups, and how their models might be applied to such groups or teams. So let us now take a brief look at group work.
Often work is done in groups or teams, which in and of themselves can be a positive source of social networking and support, as well as helping to fulfill the individual need to belong. Indeed, feeling a strong sense of commitment to one’s team(s) can lead to extending that commitment to the organization as a whole (Argyle, 1972; Turner, 2005; see also Arnold et al., 1991). The overall effectiveness of the team, as well as the satisfaction derived from it, is a combination of the task assigned, the official working arrangements, and the individual personalities, each of which influences the overall social system of the group.
However, there is an inherent danger when working in groups: the possibility of “groupthink” (Janis, 1982). Groupthink refers to a false sense of harmony and certainty, due to an excessive tendency to strive for agreement while suppressing opposing views (see also Frey et al., 2003). The likelihood that such a situation can arise within a group, even to the extreme, led Friedrich Nietzsche to declare:
Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations, and epocks it is the rule. (pg. 48; Nietzsche, 1886/2011)
However, groups can achieve their potential top performance if certain conditions are met. According to Frey et al. (2003), those conditions include the following:
- Team members agree on the rules for interaction, are able to communicate honestly, and are respectful and loyal
- Membership represents a variety of talents, experiences, education, and background
- The team has a strong commitment to excellence and achievement
- Everyone takes responsibility for the team’s success
- Team goals are clear, specific, and meaningful
- The team is able to profit from individual strengths
- Team members fit together technically and personally, and are able to reflect on both what is good and what is bad regarding the process
(pg. 155; Frey et al., 2003)
Highly conducive to the develop of “dream teams” is the application of a positive input-process-output model which focuses on key inputs (e.g., an inspiring task, valuing diversity, developing attachment, and clear and evolving roles) and processes (e.g., confidence, trust, optimism, and supportive leadership) which allow teams to functionally optimally (Richardson & West, 2013). When teams are supported and allowed to function at this ideal level, the benefits are twofold:
…we propose that financial growth and positive human functioning come hand-in-hand and should no longer be seen as alternatives or trade-offs…The task now is to instill such concepts into the commonsense philosophies of all managers, leaders, and organizations, in order to make dream teams a widespread reality. (pg. 246; Richardson & West, 2013)
When leadership, in collaboration with employees as individuals and/or within teams, is intent on making the workplace a positive environment, what exactly does that look like? Peter Warr (1999) has identified 10 factors which play a significant role as “environmental determinants of well-being:”
- Opportunity for personal control
- Opportunity for skill use
- Externally generated goals
- Environmental clarity
- Availability of money
- Physical security
- Supportive supervision
- Opportunity for interpersonal contact
- Valued social position
A number of these factors relate to a person’s engagement at work. Engagement has been defined as one’s involvement with and enthusiasm for work, and at the most fundamental level it is a strong determinant of who stays at and who leaves an organization (Harter & Blacksmith, 2013). The two main reasons that people stay with a job are pay and how well the job fits the person’s interests (which includes whether it is fulfilling – like a calling). The primary reason that people leave a job is being disengaged, and employees who are disengaged typically cite their immediate supervisor as the primary problem (6x more often than any other reason; Harter & Blacksmith, 2013; see also Harter, 2000).
Engagement is an essential factor when it comes to making work meaningful. When employees comprehend a sense of self in their work it can lead to both a sense of purpose and a feeling of “mission” about one’s work, resulting in engagement and performance which helps one to transcend personal interests in favor of concern for your contributions to the organization and the greater good (Steger & Dik, 2013). Given the importance and the value of engagement, and the role played by supervisors cited above, it is interesting to note that when the Sunday Times in the United Kingdom identified the “Best Companies to Work For” it turned out that many of those companies have an intentional engagement program and a dedicated engagement champion to oversee those efforts (Stairs & Galpin, 2013).
Within companines and organizations that have achieved notable success in achieving excellence, Frey and his colleagues have identified what they refer to as center of excellence cultures (see Frey et al., 2003). The more of these that exist, the more likely the company/organization is to continue moving forward toward achieving their full potential. Examples of center of excellence cultures include:
- Customer orientation culture – employees understand what needs to be done to satisfy their customers
- Competitor orientation and benchmarking culture – being guided by the best in the world, members of an organization learn the best practices in all fields and on all levels
- Net production and entrepreneurial culture – all employees are conscious of the entire production process, the economic implications of their actions, and they have an attitude of responsibility and initiative
- Culture of permanent improvement and innovation – this includes a variety of potential subcultures, including a problem-solving culture, mistakes-as-learning-opportunities culture, and a creativity and fantasy culture
- Recognition-of-diversity and synergy culture – diverse people are selected to join the organization, and diversity remains key when they are assigned to groups
- Constructive confrontation and conflict culture – different views are discussed constructively and false harmony is avoided (i.e., groupthink and blind obedience are not acceptable)
(pp. 157-158; Frey et al., 2003)
It’s important to note that pursuing the goal of making the workplace a more positive environment is not merely a nice thing to do. Rather, it has real benefits for both the organization and the individuals working there, including improved customer satisfaction, greater productivity, fewer accidents, and higher profits (Harter et al., 2002, 2003). In addition, having some control over one’s working conditions may actually facilitate leisure-time physical activities and their consequent health benefits (Choi et al., 2010; see also Wright, 2013).
* * *
Overall, this section of the book (Section IV) refers to positive institutions. In many fields of study and practice, once a particular approach becomes popular and influential there is an interesting “institution” that appears: the handbook. Positive psychology has seen the creation of a bunch of handbooks, all of which are cited (or chapters within them are cited) in various locations throughout this book. There is the Handbook of Positive Psychology (Snyder & Lopez, 2005), the Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools (Gilman et al., 2009), Positive Psychological Assessment: A Handbook of Models and Measures (Lopez & Snyder, 2003), the Oxford Handbook of Methods in Positive Psychology (Ong & van Dulman, 2007), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Disability (Wehmeyer, 2013), and finally, the one relevant to this specific section, The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work (Linley et al., 2013).
In the foreword, Dave Ulrich (2013) talks about abundant organizations. There are three perspectives on this: the abundant organization, the antecedents of abundance, and the outcomes of abundance. The antecedents involved in building an abundant organization include a sense of identity, purpose/meaning, positive relationships, delight (enjoying time at work), and an overall positive work environment. These principles can lead to an organization in which there is appreciative inquiry, social responsibility, high performing teams, and commitment (among other factors). The outcomes, then, are positive advantages for not only the organization itself, but also for the individuals involved, their families, and the community (Ulrich, 2013).
One essential component of a positive working environment is the quality of leadership in the organization. It has been suggested that authentic leaders help to create authentic followers, i.e., followers who share the same characteristics (Avolio et al., 2013). So, what are the characteristics of an authentic leader? They tend to be self-aware, they are activated by trigger events, they are capable of self-reflection, and they exhibit developmental readiness (i.e., they view trigger events as learning experiences and respond accordingly). The psychological components underlying these characteristics include confidence, resilience, and hope. In such an environment, there can be a reciprocal relationship that reinforces ongoing authentic leadership development, not only in the United States, but in other cultures as well (Avolio et al., 2013).
In order to be maximally effective, it is important for leaders to emphasize a strengths-based approach to organizational development. This will both engage others in the organization and the community of stakeholders as well as lead to transformative cooperation (Morris & Garrett, 2013; Sekerka & Fredrickson, 2013). Transformative cooperation involves a shift in how people view their organization as well as how they view their role within it, with an emphasis on mindfulness directed toward strengths that already exist within the organization. Overall,
…transformative cooperation is therefore defined as: a dynamic process that brings organizational members together to create innovation through social interaction, where positive change emerges through new organizational forms that provide benefit for all who participate. (pg. 83; Sekerka & Fredrickson, 2013)
Two techniques that can promote and/or enable an ideal working environment are coaching and mindfulness. Although coaching typically focuses on goal attainment, rather than psychological well-being, the two need not serve contrary purposes. Indeed, coaching can serve as a platform for incorporating positive psychological principles in a variety of ways. Although the research in the field of organizational coaching does not explicitly address positive psychology in the same manner as research specifically in the field of positive psychology, many of the same outcomes are achieved. In other words, successful coaching programs often result in outcomes that would be routinely examined in related research on positive psychology (see Grant & Spence, 2013).
Marianetti & Passmore (2013) have noted that many of the challenges facing organizations today, such as rapidly advancing globalization, intense competition, and cultural differences tend to push organizations to their limits, the result of which is a stress-filled focus on future-oriented planning and outcomes. Mindfulness, as we’ve seen previously, prepares one to focus on the present, which Marianetti & Passmore (2013) believe can offer a more authentic view of “reality,” leading to a more reasoned and effective use of resources within the organization.
Finally, let’s address some concerns regarding the application of positive psychological principles in the workplace (an attitude we’ll examine further in Section V). Samantha Warren (2013) expresses the concern that the theories and perspectives we’re discussing here focus primarily on what people do well at work, or on how to feel good and have “fun” at work. Consequently, the organization is more likely to reap all the benefits from these efforts. Of particular concern is what happens to the individual when they pour themselves into their work, only to be dismissed by an uncaring organization that decides their position is no longer needed? At it’s worst:
…much of the positivity agenda is aimed at the individual – improving coping strategies and resilience, developing positive responses and states of mind, with little regard for the structural inequalities and power struggles that characterize working life, resulting in unwelcome and untenable demands being made on employees…If this is true, positive psychology might unwittingly be providing the apparatus for a kind of “organizational projection” whereby the organization remains blameless and appears saintly in “allowing” its staff to learn how to flourish, rather than recognized for generating the conditions for negativity to take such deep-rooted hold in the first place. (pg. 320; Warren, 2013)
So, although there may be benefits to pursuing positive psychological principles in the workplace, there may also be dangers. What matters, perhaps, is having truly authentic leaders who actually care about their employees. Then, when concerns arise, they might be dealt with in ways that address the concerns of the employees as equal to the concerns of the organization.
Education has an interesting place in the history of both the United States of America and the field of psychology. Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, considered education to be essential to a free and democratic society. Of particular importance was the ability to read, without which the freedom of the press was irrelevant (since few would be able to read that press without education). So, Jefferson became a strong advocate for a public system of education, “so much as may enable them to read and understand what is going on in the world, and to keep their part of it going on right…” (pg. 534; Thomas Jefferson in 1795, cited in Koch & Peden, 1944). Indeed, the right and ability to participate in the affairs of government should lead to what Jefferson called “public happiness” (see Battistoni, 1985).
An important influence on Jefferson’s perspectives on education was the Italian criminologist Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria. Beccaria believed that education was an essential component of a healthy society, either in a positive way or in terms of reducing discontent and crime – depending on which translation of his work (or which quotation) you prefer. The preceding sentence may sound strange, but I have encountered two different “quotations” of this passage, neither of which is in Italian (which I cannot read). In one translation of Beccaria’s An Essay on Crimes & Punishments, it reads as follows:
Finally, the most certain method of preventing crimes, is to perfect the system of education. (Beccaria, 1872/2017).
However, in a letter written by William Duane to Thomas Jefferson on July 5th, 1811, Duane transmitted the quote to Jefferson as follows:
The most certain means of rendering a people free and happy, is to establish a perfect method of education. (William Duane, 1811/2017; also cited in Koch, 1957)
Regardless of which quote best represents Beccaria’s idea (or if the second quote is from a second, unknown source), both Beccaria and Jefferson believed that education helped people both in their own lives and as citizens of a democratic society. Jefferson carried this obligation one step further, having proposed a bill in Virginia to ensure that the education of everyone would be paid for by those members of society who could afford it. However, his plan failed to come to fruition:
And in the Elementary bill, they inserted a provision which completely defeated it; for they left it to the court of each county to determine for itself, when this act should be carried into execution, within their county. One provision of the bill was, that the expenses of these schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, every one in proportion to his general tax rate. This would throw on wealth the education of the poor; and the justices, being generally of the more wealthy class, were unwilling to incur that burden, and I believe it was not suffered to commence in a single county. (pg. 50; Thomas Jefferson in 1821, cited in Koch & Peden, 1944)
As it turns out, there’s more to Jefferson’s support for education than simply the ability to know what’s going on with one’s government. It runs deeper than that. Jefferson believed that people should be judged on their own merits, not on the privileges associated with birth in aristocratic England and most other countries, including early America (as noted in the preceding quote). In a letter to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson wrote:
…I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents…There is also an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed, it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society…even in Europe a change has sensibly taken place in the mind of man. Science had liberated the ideas of those who read and reflect, and the American example had kindled feelings of right in the people. An insurrection has consequently begun, of science, talents, and courage, against rank and birth, which have fallen into contempt. (pp. 632-634; Thomas Jefferson, cited in Koch & Peden, 1944)
A bit later in the 19th century, 1899 to be precise, William James wrote Talks to Teachers on Psychology – and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (James, 1899/1992). James believed that teaching was about more than merely the transmission of information:
A professor has two functions: (1) to be learned and distribute bibliographic information; (2) to communicate truth. The 1st function is the essential one, officially considered. The 2nd is the only one I care for. (pg. 298; William James cited in Frager & Fadiman, 1998)
What might be involved in communicating truth, and how might one go about it? That would vary from topic to topic, but something James considered important was helping to develop a student’s will (as in the exercise of will power). James considered our will to be of great importance, and he included chapters on the will in two classic books: Psychology: Briefer Course, published in 1892 and in Talks to Teachers… James not only thought about the importance of the will, he recommended exercising it. In Talks to Teachers…, he sets forth the following responsibility for teachers of psychology:
But let us now close in a little more closely on this matter of the education of the will. Your task is to build up a character in your pupils; and a character, as I have so often said, consists in an organized set of habits of reaction. Now of what do such habits of reaction themselves consist? They consist of tendencies to act characteristically when certain ideas possess us, and to refrain characteristically when possessed by other ideas (p. 816).
Earlier in Talks to Teachers… he described the process of teaching in rather vivid words:
The science of psychology, and whatever science of general pædagogics may be based on it, are in fact much like the science of war. Nothing is simpler or more definite than the principles of either. In war, all you have to do is to work your enemy into a position from which the natural obstacles prevent him from escaping if he tries to; then to fall on him in numbers superior to his own, at a moment when you have led him to think you far away; and so, with a minimum of exposure of your own troops, to hack his force to pieces, and take the remainder prisoners. Just so, in teaching, you must simply work your pupil into such a state of interest in what you are going to teach him that every other object of attention is banished from his mind; then reveal it to him so impressively that he will remember the occasion to his dying day; and finally fill him with devouring curiosity to know what the next steps in connection with the subject are. The principles being so plain, there would be nothing but victories for the masters of the science, either on the battlefield or in the school-room… (pp. 718-719)
In the last of his three talks to students, James asks “What Makes a Life Significant?” In a sense, he describes what we think of as being a renaissance “man,” a combination of intellectual and physical pursuits at the highest level. In addition, it refers to the value of healthy social relationships.
A few summers ago I spent a happy week at the famous Assembly Grounds on the borders of Chautauqua Lake. The moment one treads that sacred enclosure, one feels one’s self in an atmosphere of success. Sobriety and industry, intelligence and goodness, orderliness and ideality, prosperity and cheerfulness, pervade the air. It is a serious and studious picnic on a gigantic scale…You have a first-class college…You have magnificent music…You have every sort of athletic exercise…You have the best of company…You have no zymotic diseases, no poverty, no drunkenness, you have cheapness, you have equality, you have the best fruits of what mankind has fought and bled and striven for under the name of civilization for centuries. You have, in short, a foretaste of what human society might be, were it all in the light, with no suffering and no dark corners. (pp. 862-862)
Now that we’ve examined some historical perspectives on education and teaching (I hope you’ll excuse the brief personal indulgence), let’s turn our attention back to positive psychology and teaching. We’ll examine teaching at two different levels. First, there is what we typically think of as school – the K-12 system. Second, we’ll look at higher education, more commonly known as college. This work is clearly important, since having bad experiences in school, particularly feelings of helplessness and sensing a lack of personal control, leads to continued failure in school and the consequent challenges of limited income and lower occupational status (see Argyle, 1999; Peterson, 1999).
The early school years are particularly important, since for many people this is the beginning of society’s influence on a person. The earliest years of one’s life are, naturally, spent primarily with the family and/or friends (playmates). School is the place where a person begins their entrance into society as a whole, as well as preparation for one’s eventual career. Consequently, school has been referred to by some as a life industry (Peterson, 2006a).
However, there is a need for positive personality development in schools, as well as a need to prepare teachers to aid in this process, that goes well beyond the simple need for education. School-aged children face many problems, including abuse, violence, depression (and suicide), and dropping out. Indeed, as many as 1,500 students drop out every day (Conoley & Conoley, 2009)! Thus, efforts to improve the experiences children have in school can have profound positive influences for both individuals and society as a whole.
One area in which society plays a role in this process is, obviously, teacher education. As straightforward as that may seem, it varies from program to program and across different countries and cultures (Quick & Siebörger, 2005; Siebörger & Quick, 2004). My colleague Geoff Quick and his associate from South Africa, Rob Siebörger, have found that the important factors which need to be consider when developing a high quality teacher education program include ample time for teaching practice, full partnerships between the university and the school where the practice teaching takes place, effective supervision/mentoring, the student teacher’s knowledge and professionalism, and the value of actually being in a real school gaining hands-on teaching experience (Quick & Siebörger, 2005).
Returning specifically to the issue at hand, what would be involved in a decidedly positive approach to education? When it comes to teacher preparation, several principles (among a total of 10) identified for teacher education programs by academic deans working at research-based educational institutions connect with positive psychology. For example, teachers should encourage students to construct their own understandings by building on existing knowledge and beliefs, learning tasks should be interesting, relevant, and meaningful, teachers should model the behaviors and practices they want their students to adopt, and students should often be encouraged to work together (see Conoley & Conoley, 2009).
An essential component of this approach is to involve school children in the process of determining the best approach to positive education. Whereas parents and teachers have traditionally thought of school as a place to learn academic material, when children are given the opportunity to voice their concerns they mention factors such as safety, social relationships, and physical well-being (e.g., obesity). Creating an educational environment that is engaging and positive leads to children being more engaged, more successful, and happier (see Conoley & Conoley, 2009).
According to Maehr and his colleagues, the critical role for educators to play is that of being a motivator (Maehr et al., 1992). The goal is to get the students themselves invested in their learning, and this can be done by helping them to recognize the purpose of education and their own goals in school. When children accept the goals they have helped to define, it influences their willingness to work hard, take on challenges, and persist when things are difficult. Furthermore, it is beneficial when this engaging and challenging approach pervades the entire school. While working with the entire staff of select schools, Maehr et al. (1992) identified seven approaches that were useful in attempting to positively change the overall learning environment:
- Provide meaningful, challenging, contextualized tasks
- Give students an increased sense of control over their schooling with opportunities for choices and decisions
- Recognize students based on progress, effort, and improvement rather than in comparison to others
- Group students heterogeneously and based on interest rather than on relative ability
- Use evaluation to provide helpful feedback rather than for comparison to others
- Allow all students equal access to school resources
- Allow flexibility in how teachers and students use time during the school day to allow for innovation and variety
(pg. 415; Maehr et al., 1992)
By directly involving teachers in these changes, they should be more highly motivated as well, just as the students should be. In addition, this allows the teachers to bring their expertise and pedagogical knowledge into practice, as well as their personal awareness of the daily circumstances of their particular classroom (Maehr et al., 1992). Providing a simple overview of these changes as they affect an entire school’s culture, Maehr & Midgley (1996) re-emphasized the role of school leadership in promoting a positive culture, a culture which focuses on both the children and on learning. Unfortunately, in too many situations:
Not only do educators fail to recognize that they can do something to enhance motivation and learning – even for students at most risk for school failure – they behave incorrectly…Too often, school is made to be a competitive game in which some become losers and others become winners – but not learners. Too seldom do children experience the intrinsic and inherent joy of learning for its own sake. (pp. 214-215; Maehr & Midgley, 1996)
After reviewing several lines of research, Snyder et al. (2011) propose that positive schooling is built upon a foundation of care, trust, and respect for diversity, and then combines planning, motivation, and setting goals. In relation to the material cited above, care, trust, and respect are important aspects of making the learning environment a safe place, where children will hopefully feel welcome and comfortable. The motivation, planning, and setting of goals then plays a role somewhat more directly in getting to the business of academic learning, but within a context in which the students are taking ownership of their education. Taken together, this will not only help students to learn and do well academically, but it will also set them up to be lifelong learners, with benefits that extend far beyond graduation (see Peterson, 2006).
It’s also important to consider the age of students as it pertains to education. For example, there appears to be a significant decline in motivation among students of middle school age (grades 6-8; see Anderman & Maehr, 1994). This is an important time, since children are beginning the transition from childhood toward adulthood. The structure of school itself changes, presenting students with different challenges and risks, all of which can be a challenge to a students’ self-efficacy and subsequent motivation. As students are moving toward the potential independence of adulthood, school becomes more focused on rules and discipline, stricter grading, grouping by ability, poor teacher-student relationships, and little opportunity for students to make important decisions (i.e., take ownership of their education; Anderman & Maehr, 1994). To help alleviate these problems, Anderman & Maehr (1994) suggest shifting the focus in school toward establishing goals, which helps to provide purpose and meaning to one’s education. This approach can be applied both in the classroom and to the school as a whole, can be extended to the pursuit of mastery levels of learning, and should include a focus on social goals in addition to more traditional task and ability goals (see also Kaplan & Maehr, 2007; Urdan & Maehr, 1995).
An important approach to addressing those social goals is to consider social emotional learning (SEL), something of considerable importance during adolescence (see Cohen, 1999a; Elias et al., 1997). According to Elias et al. (1997), lost in the myriad of approaches suggested for the improvement of schools is a reasonable appreciation of the developmental stage of the typical adolescent. It is undeniable that adolescents have relationships and emotions. So failing to consider them appropriately puts an undue (and often unattainable) burden on them with regard to success in school. SEL, however, can provide a framework within which to coordinate the various challenges faced by adolescents outside of (though in some ways also within) the classroom – such as delinquency and stress prevention, suicide prevention, teen pregnancy prevention, chemical dependency prevention, AIDS education, etc. (Elias et al., 1997).
When developing a program to address SEL issues, it is important to consider the following (for additional/alternative perspectives see, e.g., Brooks, 1999; Shriver et al., 1999):
- Describe your needs, goals, and current practices
- Consider your options (re: preparation, knowledge, expertise)
- Get started (with everyone on board – teachers, staff, administrators)
- Consider whether the program is working (provide for tracking, feedback, evaluations, etc.)
- Let others know about the program (particularly the parents and the community)
(pp. 119-124; Elias et al., 1997)
Once again, addressing SEL involves a developmentally informed perspective. Although development is driven biologically, there are four major factors that come into play: an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, the conscious and unconscious meanings we attribute to experience, interpersonal experiences (e.g., family, friends and other peers, teachers), and the community in which one lives. The interplay of these factors, along with physical development/maturation, can result in very different social and emotional competencies for each child (Cohen, 1999b). When allowed to foster, this process continues an age-old quest to “know thyself:”
An individual’s capacity to recognize what self and others are experiencing fosters self-discovery, a spirit of cooperation, and the potential for creative problem solving. By the same token, how young people understand and give meaning to learning, including the frustrations, failures, achievements, and important moments of confusion, determine the degree to which they can learn from the experience. (pg. 20; Cohen, 1999b)
Although developing a positive approach to education is clearly desirable, it can only be successful if the students themselves buy into the program. We cannot force them to succeed, and we cannot force them to enjoy the process. Consequently, Strahan (1997) has suggested taking a mindful approach to learning. In his conception, mindful learning involves first helping children to develop a sense of self-worth and self-discipline, and to then teach academic concepts in ways that tap the students’ strengths. Once again, this should involve a school-wide cultural shift toward caring and cooperation. It will take time and effort, but the benefits far outweigh the costs (Strahan, 1997).
With regard to other ages, what about the youngest of our children in the K-12 education system – the little ones in kindergarten? Although kindergarten used to be a relatively informal setting which prepared children for elementary school (to wit, it is not the 1st grade), now it has become much more like the actual elementary school experience (Golant & Golant, 1999). Thus, it’s important that parents help their children prepare for the kindergarten experience.
Today…children are admitted at increasingly earlier ages. (In many cities a child born before January 1 can enter kindergarten the preceding September, making his or her effective entrance age four.) Once enrolled in kindergarten, children are now often presented with formal instruction in reading and math once reserved for the later grades.
How did this radical turnabout in attitudes happen?…The Russian launching of the Sputnik in 1957 drove Americans into a frenzy of self-criticism about education and promoted the massive curriculum movement of the 1960s…Unfortunately, many academics knew their discipline but didn’t know children… (pp. 6-7; Elkind, 1981)
Since most parents will not have a choice as to where there children attend kindergarten, Golant & Golant (1999) emphasize getting involved and helping children to prepare for the relationships that will be necessary for school to be a positive experience (relationships with both teachers and other students). One suggestion for helping children prepare for kindergarten (in the “it’s funny cuz it’s true” category) is to put them in a good preschool program. Among the factors that characterize a good preschool, parents should look for the following:
- Learning activities are geared toward socialization
- Staff address each child’s personal needs
- Teachers get down to the children’s level(s)
- Staff helps children put their feelings into words
- Staff is skilled at dealing with conflict management
(Golant & Golant, 1999)
Sending children to preschool to prepare them for kindergarten, so that they can handle the kindergarten curriculum that really belongs in elementary school, is, of course, begging the question: are we hurrying them even more? In my personal experience, having sent two children to both preschool and then all-day/all-year kindergarten, it’s wonderful if…you can afford really good childcare. My two boys actually “graduated” from the kindergarten program at Schoolcraft College in Michigan. It was a wonderful experience, and they have done great throughout their education (Samuel is about to begin a doctoral program in physical therapy, and John is a junior at an Ivy League college), but it cost us a lot of money. I am very much aware of the fact, and very thankful, that we were able to pay for it when we had the opportunity for them to go there. Not everyone is so fortunate, and space is limited as well (full disclosure, we also had connections that helped our first son get in – a friend on the Board of Trustees!).
It is interesting to note that in his book The Hurried Child, David Elkind (1981) proposes a simple antidote for the pressures of pushing children too hard too early: let them play! Play can also create transitions into more traditional schoolwork, such as working on art projects, and helps to prepare children to focus on a topic for an extended period of time (being absorbed in play can later be conceptually applied to working on a lengthy assignment; Golant & Golant, 1999). Indeed, research suggests that how children learn is as important as what they learn, and that chosing between playing and learning is a false dichotomy:
Playful learning or guided play actively engages children in pleasurable and seemingly spontaneous activities that encourage academic exploration and learning. Here, teachers using guided play have a set of learning goals in mind. They are subtly directive, embedding new learning into meaningful contexts that correspond with children’s prior knowledge and experiences. (pp. 27-28; Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2009)
And yet, the 2003 reauthorization of Head Start (which we’ll revisit in the next section on community programs) directed attention toward preliteracy and premath skills while ending program evaluations that included assessment of something we just reviewed as being very important in children’s lives: social and emotional functioning (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2009). Based on their review of the current research, Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues offer the following seven recommendations (with one subset that also numbers seven):
- Disseminate research-based, accessible informationl to parents and the community on the vial role of play in learning
- Broaden the definition of evidence-based learning
- Demand that preschool/kindergarten academic curricula follow principles on how young children learn best:
- Policies, programs, and products directed toward young children should be sensitive to their developmental age and ability (research-based)
- Children are active learners who acquire knowledge by examining and exploring
- Children are fundamentally social beings who learn most effectively in socially sensitive and responsive environments
- Children learn best when their social and emotional needs are met and when they learn life skills necessary for success
- Young children learn most effectively when information is embedded in meaningful contexts
- The process of learning is as important as the outcome
- Recognizing that children have diverse skills and needs as well as different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds encourages respect for individual differences and allows children to optimize their learning
- Maximize children’s social development in preschool/kindergarten
- Improve education preparation of early childhood administrators and teachers
- Improve preschool assessment
- Build connections among homes, preschool, and the community that foster play and playful learning
(pp. 68-72; Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2009)
* * *
In the preceding section of this book (the section on work), I mentioned the curious institution of the handbook. And…yes, there is a Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools (Gilman et al., 2009). Since each of the chapters in this handbook is itself a review of relevant literature, I can’t really summarize it further. Consequently, I’ll just mention some of the key points regarding the relevance of topics we’ve already covered as they pertain to the experience of going to school.
Hope, optimism, and gratitude are all important for children in school. Higher levels of hope are correlated with better grades and social skills, and even with superior athletic performance amongst student athletes. This is true not only in grade school, but also in college (see Lopez et al., 2009). When helping children to develop a more hopeful perspective, it is important to focus on three key areas: goals, pathways thinking, and a sense of agency (the belief that they can be successful). For the good of the whole school, it is also important to help teachers maintain their own personal hope, to keep them engaged and to help avoid burnout (Lopez et al., 2009).
Optimism is more closely related to how young students deal with stressful challenges, particularly when it comes to making difficult adjustments. Students who are optimistic are less likely to resort to aggression when dealing with their anger (Boman et al., 2009). Gratitude is a factor in promoting strong and healthy social bonds in school, making the school-based experience generally more positive. In part, gratitude enhances one’s sense of purposeful engagement in life (including, of course, school itself; Bono & Froh, 2009).
For some, it is most important to help young students develop positive self-concepts (Bracken, 2009). Indeed, the field of psychology is full of “self” related terms (e.g., self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-control, self-respect, self-actualization, and lots of so-called “self-help” programs). As we’ve already seen, Maslow described one of the characteristics of self-actualized individuals as knowing they have a “self” to actualize. Bracken believes that a child’s global self-concept (or any person for that matter) is based on a collection of domain-specific self-concepts, which are in turn influenced by their own perspective as well as the perspective(s) of others. Thus, if we endeavor to enhance positive self-concepts in those various domains (e.g., academic, family, physical, racial, etc.), the consequent positive developments will influence the overall self-concept in positive ways, with myriad potential benefits (Bracken, 2009).
Prosocial behavior, particularly behavior related to empathy and sympathy, can have numerous benefits in schools, including enhanced ability to work in groups on academic assignments and reduced aggression or other externalized behavioral problems. Obviously, greater levels of prosocial behavior are also consistently associated with positive social relationships. Although the role of parents is very influential with regard to such a disposition, when teachers are trained in child-centered approaches they can also foster improved empathy-related responding in school children (Spinrad & Eisenberg, 2009). Indeed, applying empirically-based programs school-wide can have positive benefits in many areas, for the betterment of both students and teachers/staff (see Miller et al., 2009; Varjas et al., 2009).
Once again, the engagement of students themselves is a most important determinant of their long-term success in school and, should they pursue higher education, in college as well. This can be critical when considering students who are minorities and/or impaired due to some disability (Griffiths et al., 2009; Prout, 2009). One approach to helping students be more engaged in their education is the use of flow techniques (Shernoff & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009), and another valuable factor is the involvement of parents (Reschly & Christenson, 2009).
If it hasn’t become apparent, what offers the highest probability for the success of children in school, as well as school being an entirely positive experience, is an holistic approach involving cooperation between the students, their peers (i.e., students in relationship to one another), teachers, staff, parents, and the community with an eye toward incorporating evidence-based positive psychological programs. It may sound ambitious, but are our children and the future worth anything less?
* * *
Finally, let’s address a particularly unfortunate situation that can be very deleterious to a positive school experience. Bullying has become very prominent, and it’s quite a complex phenomenon in schools (see, e.g., Jankauskiene et al., 2008; Jenkins et al., 2017). In addition, a wider range of violence among youth affects or interacts with their experiences at school and, as we’ll see in a more hopeful vein, vice versa (see Eron et al., 1994).
A school, like any other organization, has a “personality,” or climate. That climate influences the individuals within the school, and can have a profound influence on their behavior. When schools are crowded, when rules are rigid (fostering anger and resentment), and the building is poorly designed, the school environment can actually foster aggression and violence (Pepler & Slaby, 1994). Furthermore, failure in school can lead to a variety of antagonistic reactions and behavioral problems, as well as distrust, estrangement, and conflict between the school and the child’s home/parent(s) (see Bandura, 1997). In contrast, a school which has a positive environment is inviting, and often sees a reduction in aggression and bullying (Orpinas & Horne, 2006). According to Orpinas & Horne (2006), a positive school climate results from successfully addressing eight essential components:
- Excellence in Teaching – since the goal of school is education, there is no substitute for good teaching
- School Values – a clear and easily understood philosophy promoting a safe and positive environment is essential
- Awareness of Strengths and Problems – awareness is essential both for addressing any problems and for building on strengths
- Policies and Accountability – policies for handling bullying (or any problem) should involve all members as partners in seeking win-win solutions
- Caring and Respect – this is an intentional approach to counteract the unfortunate tendency to “get tough” and turn the school into something resembling a jail
- Positive Expectations – again, an intentional approach to counteract the tendency of many teachers to pay less attention to students who are not expected to succeed in school (creating a negative self-fulfilling prophecy)
- Teacher Support – in order to achieve these goals, much is asked of teachers, so they need to be supported in their efforts
- Physical Environment Characteristics – for example: is the school clean, attractive, organized, safe, etc.
(pp. 80-105; Orpinas & Horne, 2006)
Among the best approaches to dealing with bullying, as well as other forms of aggression and violence, are programs which help students to develop social competence (Guerra et al., 1994; Jenkins et al., 2017; Orpinas & Horne, 2006; Pepler & Slaby, 1994; Slaby et al., 1994). Orpinas and Horne (2006) have identified six areas in which social competence skills can be improved: awareness, emotions, cognitions, character, social skills, and mental health/learning abilities.
Awareness involves recognizing different types of bullying as well as understanding that bullying is an unacceptable behavior, even though many adults consider it a natural part of childhood. The latter point is why character education is an important component of anti-bullying campaigns. Bullying must be recognized as unacceptable.
When it comes to one’s emotions, the role they play in a person’s life and in their decisions is critical. Obviously, children who come to school angry, frustrated, pessimistic, etc. are going to have difficulty relating to others and controlling subsequent emotions in conflict situations (which they may have created). Daniel Goleman suggests, in his popular and widely acclaimed book Emotional Intelligence (1995), that the human brain retains primitive emotional structures that can easily hijack our rational thoughts and cause, instead, emotional reactions. Thus, according to Goleman, the ability to work with emotional intelligence is essential to one’s well-being in life. Fortunately emotional intelligence can be trained and strengthened (Goleman, 1995, 1998). Based in part on Goleman’s work, Orpinas & Horne (2006) offer a variety of examples pertaining to how teachers can work with students to control their emotions. Included among these examples is something we’ve seen before in this book: mindful breathing.
Although bullying and other types of violence often take place outside of school, school can still be an ideal location for the implementation of anti-bullying and anti-violence training. Since most children attend school, particularly at younger ages when such programs are best implemented, programs instituted in a school setting will reach a wide-ranging audience that must attend them. Example programs, such as those reported on by Guerra et al. (1994), address a wide range of topics, including: stress management, self-esteem, assertiveness, social networks, anger management, impulse control, and modeling and role-playing nonaggressive solutions to common social problems. Unfortunately, these programs have met with limited success. However, even short-term reductions in problematic behavior is a good thing, and research and training need to start somewhere.
Generally speaking, teaching in college is not really different than teaching in the K-12 schools, at least not in any important way. In other words, although the content may be more advanced and more independent learning may be expected, the principles that help to make someone a good teacher are no different.
In the field of psychology, there has been a valuable and widely proclaimed book available since 1951, originally entitled Teaching Tips but now known as McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. The varied editions over the years have changed significantly, so it’s important to know that the two editions I will be referring to are the 3rd (the oldest one I could get; McKeachie & Kimble, 1956) and the 14th (the most recent; Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). This book, which has grown from 124 pages to 392 pages (and added 10 contributors), covers a wide variety of topics including preparing for a class, meeting a class, facilitating engaged and motivated learning, addressing cultural diversity, technology, ethics, and continuing to grow as a teacher.
If there is one message that seems to come across loud and clear over the years, it is that the personal connection between the instructor and the students is what facilitates deep learning. As for technology, it’s quite amusing to look at the older edition. For example, in 1956 they talked about exciting new developments on television and with slide projectors which make it possible to watch slides in a lighted room. I’m willing to bet that most students today wouldn’t be able to recognize a slide projector, even if PowerPoint is based conceptually on giving a slide show.
Another interesting change over time, which reflects my experiences during my teaching career, has to do with cheating. In the early edition, it isn’t even mentioned. It was simply taken for granted that students did not cheat. Later this topic became an entire chapter, but currently it is contained within a chapter. It’s not that professors are less concerned about cheating, but a variety of techniques to deal with it (from searching online for plagiarism to teaching students about their own responsibilities) have arisen.
In the final chapter of the most recent edition, Marilla Svinicki (who has taken over as main editor) has this to say:
The great thing about teaching is that there is always more to learn…As we improve, our students respond more positively, and their increased interest and enthusiasm sparks us to even more effort and enjoyment…What most impresses us is that, no matter how difficult the circumstances, there are always some vital, effective teachers…However much you are intrigued by new possibilities, it is important not to forget what you enjoy doing. Our final advice is, “Have fun!” (pg. 337; Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014)
While having fun, however, what is it that really defines a master teacher? According to Buskist et al., (2002), master teachers are highly capable in terms of knowledge, classroom management skills, and personality.
Knowledge and classroom management skills are fairly straight forward. As for knowledge, the master teacher know his or her subject area. They are aware of current research and developments in the field. However, they also have ready access to a variety of personal anecdotes that bring the material to life as well as connect it to other areas of study. In other words, they make the material meaningful. As for classroom management skills, among other characteristics, they are able to communicate well and motivate their students. They downplay their own authority, and foster an environment of participation and enjoyable learning (Buskist et al., 2002).
The personality of a master teacher is a bit more difficult to define, since it is unlikely that there is just one type of teacher who can be effective. Master teachers rely on their own, unique personal strengths to adapt to the learning environment and to their students. They are approachable, genuine, have a sense of humor, and respect their students. These characteristics help to create a rapport between the instructor and the student(s), of which trust is a significant factor. Perhaps most important, however, is that master teachers are enthusiastic and passionate about their subject, and that excitement is conveyed to students both in and outside the classroom (Buskist et al., 2002).
Teaching as a Calling
Similar to what we addressed in the previous major section (on work), teachers are particularly effective in positive ways when they consider their career to be a calling. Remember that those who consider their work to be a calling are fully engaged with their work, they derive a great deal of satisfaction from the work, and they are passionate about it (Wrzesniewski et al., 1997, 2003). Indeed, what could make a more meaningful contribution to the good of society than helping lots of children (many more than just your own) grow and flourish as productive members of that society?
In an article entitled The Call to Teach, Buskist et al. (2005) commented on a once popular bumper sticker (I know I’ve seen it, but not in a while) that says “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” Unfortunately, it seemed necessary to create such a bumper sticker, in part, to offset the commonly uttered, derogatory statement, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” It’s a shame that teachers are often held in such disregard, which begs the question, “Why do it?” Simply put, some teachers truly love to teach. For example, consider the following quotes from two renowned psychology professors:
We are fortunate to be teachers of psychology. We have a fascinating, continually developing subject to teach, and we have students in our classes who are primarily there because of their interest in the subject matter…In this, my 55th year of teaching, I still enjoy preparing for the next week’s classes… (pg. 487; McKeachie, 2002).
Teaching is more fun than most people should have. After 40 years of great fun, I cannot imagine doing anything else even for more prestige and money…The real reason for teaching is to make a difference – to be honorable, competent, responsible, productive, and unselfish but proud. Teaching is not a profession; teaching is a calling – delightful, invigorating, mysterious, frustrating, passionate, precious, and sacred. Good teachers stretch the mind and heart. I hope the world is a better place because we teachers make a difference… (pg. 507; Brewer, 2002).
Upon having received an award as one of the outstanding new teachers from the Central States Communication Association, David Worley had this to say:
…for me, it is a charge (a “charge”), a challenge, and a choice because teaching remains a duty to be fulfilled, a delight to be enjoyed, a discipline to be embraced and a decision to be repeatedly made with each entrance into the classroom…While effective teachers certainly develop their skills, insights, and understandings through education, experience, and personal and faculty development, these alone, in my view, may help make a solid and important contribution to effective teaching but do not make great teachers. In contrast, great teachers have a “vocation” or a sense of call and mission which presses them to teach. (pg. 278; Worley, 2001)
Worley (2001) goes on to address a topic of considerable importance. Who are the teachers who shape teaching? He mentions his father, his 1st grade and 5th grade teachers, two high school teachers, and several college professors. From my perspective, it is interesting that he only lists positive influences. In contrast, my teaching has been influenced, in part, by some bad teachers. It has always been my goal to be nothing like them.
The teachers I remember most fondly were my 8th grade math teacher, and my high school German (all 4 years) and biology (2 ½ years) teachers. Each of these teachers clearly loved their subjects, and they were willing to tolerate some typically juvenile shenanigans, so long as we continued to learn what they were teaching. Granted, I enjoyed math, German, and biology on their own, but these teachers knew how to feed into that and keep class entertaining while we were also learning.
Although I had some good college professors, it wasn’t until graduate school that I once again encountered some professors who had a profound influence on me. I had the pleasure of being a teaching assistant for Dr. Alice Young, who was also the professor for several of my classes and she was on my thesis, qualifying exam, and dissertation committees. As one of her teaching assistants, I was impressed by how professionally and seriously she approached her teaching, while doing the same with regard to her research. From Dr. Larry Stettner, more than anything else I learned about writing amusing exam questions – in other words, you don’t always have to take everything so seriously! I’ll never forget his question about a rhinoceros on a Lashley jumping-stand (look it up). I’ve done my best over the years to come up with a few funny questions of my own. For example:
Q: According to Carl Jung, the psychic resources common to all humans are known as: archetypes, archipelagos, archaeopteryx, or Arkansas?
Q: Karen Horney suggested that a compliant personality can be the result of overemphasizing which interpersonal strategy of defense: moving toward others, moving against others, moving away from others, bowel movements?
Last, but certainly not least, was my history of psychology professor, Dr. Charles Solley. One of the things he made us do, which I admired greatly, was to act like we were students in an old European university. What this meant in his class was that we had to stand when he entered, and wait for permission to be seated (much like in a courtroom in America). The effect this had was to make us really think about the value of an education, something that was not available to just anyone back in the day, as well as respecting our professors for the invaluable knowledge they would then impart to us (and Dr. Solley was fascinating).
For some reason not immediately obvious, Prof. Solley and I got along really well. He gave me his copy of an old set of translations of Russian medical literature on the central nervous system and behavior (my Ph.D. is in physiological psychology; Russian Scientific Translation Program, 1957), as well as an autographed copy of his own book Peterkin – An Educational Fable (Solley, 1972). In this story, Peterkin is a boy who strives throughout his education to fit in, and to find a great teacher. Along the way he encounters many problems, with people finally telling him not to worry about it. This leads to my favorite line in the book:
Telling a person not to worry when he is worried is like telling a fire not to burn when it is burning. (pg. 64; Solley, 1972)
Eventually Peterkin meets some good teachers, and along the way he learns the true meaning of what it is to be a good teacher. Consequently, he makes the decision to become a teacher himself.
As I began to do a little research for this section, I ran into something of a problem. There are many community-based programs to help people of all ages and challenges. Indeed, we’ve encountered some already, such as in the section on resilience (programs that included the community in helping children to overcome challenges). Consequently, it is particularly difficult to do this field justice. So I’ll mention just a few things, including some that are of personal interest to me (once again, I’ll have to ask you to forgive my personal indulgence).
The Need for Community
In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, belongingness and love needs are the third of five categories (more immediately necessary than esteem needs or self-actualization; Maslow, 1943/1973; Maslow, 1970). Humans are a social creature, and close, meaningful relationships are an important factor fostering physical and subjective well-being (see, e.g., Myers, 1999). People who emphasize such an approach to life in general can be referred to as communitarians. As such, they are neither libertarian nor collective, and they defy labels such as liberal or conservative (Myers, 1999).
A community approach within the field of psychology offers numerous advantages, including focusing attention on such things as cultural relativity, diversity, and empowerment. Within community organizations there is also an opportunity for people to volunteer their time and talents in the pursuit of personally meaningful goals that also benefit others (see Compton, 2005; Stoecker et al., 2009). There is a natural connection between academia and community organizations for volunteerism under the guise of service learning. Service learning involves having students in a class perform community service that directly enhances learning the academic material in the class (Raybuck, 1996; Stoecker et al., 2009).
When I was teaching in New Hampshire at St. Anselm College, we had an active relationship with the Manchester Mental Health Center (MMHC). For our psychology students this was an invaluable opportunity. Not only did they learn a great deal more (in real life) about psychological disorders, but the director of the program for MMHC said quite directly that when they looked to hire new employees they would always lean toward experience over grades. The reason was quite simple – an experienced student knew what the career was really like. Working with mentally ill people is not easy, and often not pretty, but it is critical work. The benefits to the student, therefore, were not merely feeling good about doing community service, but also more substantial in terms or preparing them for their chosen career, and ultimately providing the community with the best available mental health practitioners (see Kelland, 1996, 1998).
One of the best known community-based programs in America is Head Start. A federal program currently housed in the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), part of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), this program was designed as part of President Johnson’s Great Society campaign. The goal was to fight the insidious effects of poverty by providing cognitive, social, physical, emotional, and family support to children in poor families (Head Start, n.d.; Vinoskis, 2005; Zigler & Muenchow, 1992; Zigler & Styfco, 1993, 2004).
Despite the popularity of Head Start, the success of this program has been equivocal. There are entire books on this debate, such as Zigler & Styfco’s The Head Start Debates (2004), and numerous government reports can be found on the ACF/DHHS website (at www.acf.hhs.gov). These studies are complicated by the fact that the quality of Head Start programs varies, and despite Head Start enrollment, parents seldom have any choice where their children then go to school. In the simplest terms, Head Start has measurable, positive benefits for the children in the program. However, these benefits tend to fade away by the time the children are in 3rd or 4th grade. There are also positive effects on the quality of parenting by the parents who participate with their children.
These data leave us with a conundrum. Some would say that Head Start is a failure, because the effects wear off. Others would say, and I include myself in this latter category, that the data tell us Head Start works, but that we need to add continued support throughout the children’s years in school (overall better education). It seems unconscionable to me that some communities might choose money over improving the lives of disadvantaged members of our society. But that is a challenge we still face.
Interestingly, in the early 90s the decision was made to expand Head Start – to the earlier years of life. The Early Head Start (EHS) program began in 1995, with a mandate to focus on cognition, language, attention, behavior problems, and health, as well as on maternal outcomes including parenting, mental health health, and employment (Head Start, n.d.; Love et al., 2013). Generally speaking, the outcomes for EHS have been uniformly positive, if modest. Effects were best if the children received additional support between the earliest years of life (when they were in EHS) and the beginning of school (such as being in Head Start or some other program of academic support following EHS; see Chazan-Cohen & Kisker, 2013; Love et al., 2013).
When it comes to serving children with special needs, although this was not originally part of Head Start, it was encouraged by President Johnson. In 1972 it became an official aspect of the program’s mission. This made Head Start the first large-scale program to actively serve young children who have special needs. Today, all Head Start and Early Head Start programs are required to have both a Disabilities Services Plan and a coordinator who ensures the plan is updated annually and carried out within the community. As with all Head Start programs, there is also support for the family members of the special needs children (Quesenberry & Clark, 2011).
So it’s clear that Head Start has had both success and challenges. So, now what? Looking ahead, Barbara Bowman had this to say with regard to the continued development of the Head Start program:
Over the years, Head Start has been a beacon of hope for many children and families…Head Start has contributed not only to the education of low-income children, but, through research and demonstration programs, it has also made a lasting contribution to our understanding of children’s development and learning. Few in our field will forget Head Start’s emphasis on the whole child and comprehensive services. Nevertheless, as we go forward it is important to continue Head Start’s tradition of adaptations and improvement. Much can be gained if Head Start continues to analyze the changes in society and considers policy and program alternatives. Head Start has served well in the past. I am certain that the Head Start heritage will live on no matter what its future directions. (pp. 543-544; Bowman, 2004)
Another important program, which has focused on reading, was established by two pediatricians in Boston with the goals of encouraging parents to read to their children and supporting their efforts to do so. Reach Out and Read (www.reachoutandread.org) began as a single program distributing 1,000 books in 1989, and as of 2015 they had 5,800 programs distributing 6.5 million books to 4.5 million children (some 78 million books in total so far). The success of this program is not merely wishful thinking. In fact, empirical research has demonstrated that this program has significantly increased literacy behaviors in the families affected (Golova et al., 1999; High et al., 1998; Needlman et al., 1991 – Note: these are just the first few references, the Reach Out and Read website lists another dozen peer-reviewed articles confirming the effectiveness of their program). The Reach Out and Read program has made a special effort to support particular groups, including low-income Hispanic families, Native American families, families with children who have special needs, and children of military personnel (on the military based themselves; see Klass et al., 2009).
The Special Olympics and Other Disability Sport Programs
Before there were calls for the formal pursuit of positive psychology, there were some authors in the field of disability studies taking an assertively positive approach right in the titles of their books: Disabled? Yes. Defeated? No. (Cruzic, 1982); Yes, You Can!!! (Dietz, 2000); and No Pity (Shapiro, 1993). In keeping with a positive approach to living one’s life with a physical disability, a number of sports programs have been developed along this line. Certainly, one of the best known athletic programs for people with physical disabilities is the Special Olympics.
The Special Olympics began in 1968, having been founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a sister of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Another sister, Rosemary Kennedy, was born mentally retarded. Shriver desired a better life for all people with mental retardation, and this motivated her to organize the first Special Olympics competition. The Special Olympics rapidly spread around the world, and remains both popular and inspirational today. The competition is organized around different levels of ability for both children and adults with mental retardation. More important than the competition, however, is the opportunity to participate in athletic events with other athletes, and to enjoy that opportunity. The motto of the Special Olympics is “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt” (Cobb, 1983; Kennedy, 2002; Kent, 2003; Single, 1992; Songster, 1986).
Prior to the Special Olympics there were also other organizations which focused on athletes with disabilities. The first International Silent Games for the Deaf were held in 1924. Following World War II, wheelchair sporting competitions began in England and the United States, typically involving basketball, archery, rugby, tennis, and marksmanship. In 1960, the first Paralympic Summer Games were held for people with spinal cord injuries. Today, the Paralympic Games include seven classes for athletes with spinal cord injuries, eight classes for people with cerebral palsy, three classes for blind people, and twelve classes for amputees. Although all these events are designed to provide individuals with the opportunity to compete against individuals with similar disabilities, some of the athletes have been able to compete with anyone. Kevin Szott, a blind competitor who won a Paralympic Games gold medal in Judo, has won a bronze medal in a national event. This helped to qualify him for a spot at the Olympic training center. Andy Leonard was a champion in power lifting, and not just in the Special Olympics. He has won open national competitions in his weight class (Note: Power lifting is not an Olympic sport, though it is included in the Special Olympics.).
Perhaps the first disabled athlete to win a medal at the Olympic Games was Lisel Hartel of Denmark. A wheelchair user, she competed in dressage, a form of precision horseback riding. At the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, Hartel won the silver medal (with a little help from her horse). Baseball player Jim Abbott won a gold medal at the 1988 Olympic Games (pitching the winning game despite having only one hand). Jackie Joyner-Kersee, winner of multiple gold medals at the Olympic Games and World Championships (plus silver and bronze), is considered one of the greatest female athletes ever, despite having asthma. Thus, when given the opportunity to compete in athletic competition, true champions are able to overcome their apparent disadvantages and excel in their sport (Buell, 1986; Kent, 2003; Montelione & Davis, 1986; Savage, 2000; Single, 1992).
Richard Zulewski (1994) has written a very helpful book entitled The Parent’s Guide to Coaching Physically Challenged Children. Full of insightful suggestions and guidelines, this book provides a very helpful resource for anyone working with special needs children, including descriptions of common disabilities and a wonderful chapter on communication. Of particular note is what he has to say at the beginning of his first chapter:
What makes some children special? Perhaps they have a physically or mentally handicapping condition, or they have physical or mental retardation. But what, other than a physical or mental handicap, warrants that these children be treated differently than other children? The answer is really quite simple. There should be no difference in the way we treat or acknowledge them…Special children laugh and cry and savor and hurt just like other children. They have feelings, emotions, joys and pains like everyone else…Often, exceptional children are identified only by the way they respond to the world around them or in the way they learn or fail to learn. They are individuals with special needs or who require special consideration. (pg. 5; Zulewski, 1994)
Another valuable resource is Disability Sport and Recreation Resources, 3rd Ed. (Paciorek & Jones, 2001). This book lists a wide variety of athletic organizations which exist to support athletes with disabilities, as well as individual locations where disabled athletes can learn and train. A total of 46 different individual and team sporting activities are listed, including the martial arts and traditional track & field events, but also ranging from activities such as scuba diving and flying to wheelchair dance sport, fishing, and driving all-terrain vehicles.
A Sampling of Additional Programs
Earlier in this book we’ve looked at positive youth development and resilience, areas in which community organization involvement (including schools as part of the community) has been an important factor in working to improve the lives of young people at risk. Far too many programs exist to simply cover them all; for a review of this topic in general (as it pertains to youth development) from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine see Eccles & Gootman (2002; see also Jenson et al., 2013). Of course, for anyone reading this it would be best, should they need the help of such an organization, to investigate what is available in their own community.
An interesting area in which community organizations can prove most helpful is that of adult education, whether formal or informal (see Galbraith, 1990a,b). It’s interesting to note that as I looked at Galbraith’s book, I was reminded of things I’ve done from time to time in my community that I had forgotten about. Two institutions in communities that can provide a source of adult education are social organizations (i.e., clubs of various types; Ferro, 1990) and local libraries (Sisco & Whitson, 1990). Some years ago I gave a talk for the Brighton Senior Men’s Club here in Michigan, and I’ve done some public readings at Cromaine Library in Hartland, MI during their Banned Books Read-Out. The first invitation came from a student who took a class with me at the Adult Center for Enrichment – Livingston County (MI), and the second invitation came from a student in a class I taught at the Hartland Senior Center (MI). So, as I was performing some community service, I was asked to perform some more, and I was more than happy to comply. Although I refer to these activities as service to the community, please don’t fail to realize that it was greatly rewarding (and fun) for me as well. After all, I’m part of those communities!
Having emphasized the importance of community, it is also important, however, to maintain a sense of individuality (esteem needs according to Maslow [1943/1973; 1970]). Western culture is individualistic, as opposed to being collective. Snyder et al. (2011) refer to this as the Me/We Balance, and suggest that the positive psychological goal is to achieve a recognition of “Us.” One amusing aspect of this perspective is how we respond to others who are more or less similar to us. As is widely recognized in the field of psychology we tend to prefer others who are similar to us. However, if they seem to be exactly like us, then we get very uncomfortable (Snyder & Fromkin, 1980; Snyder et al., 2011).
One source of uniqueness, of course, is our name. For many of us, we add to that identity a nickname, which often has more meaning for our immediate circle of friends. Although nicknames assigned by others may be negative (even cruel), nicknames created or assented to by ourselves can be a valuable way to assert our unique identity (e.g., see Snyder & Fromkin, 1980). I’ve collected quite a few nicknames in my lifetime, but two are of particular significance. The oldest, and the one used by all my friends growing up, is “claw.” It came from having an old-fashioned, first baseman’s mitt (which is a hybrid between a regular glove and a catcher’s mitt). In the Marine Corps the guys in my unit gave me the nickname “Mad Dog.” It was partly a reflection of my personality, and partly based on my initials, M. D. Kelland (for Mark David).
As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, there are countless community organizations. I’ve coached soccer for our community youth sports program, and I’ve taught meditation at the local senior center. For a couple of years I volunteered some time at the Capital Area Center for Independent Living here in Lansing, MI, teaching cane and wheelchair-based self-defense (to clients with various physical and psychological disabilities).
For several years, while my children attended elementary school, I tutored 1st-graders in that school who were struggling to read. This was a school-based program which brought in local parents to help the reading specialist. She called the program H.U.G.S. (Hallways Used for Great Success – since we tutored the kids in the hallway). Most parents who volunteered were grateful that their children had been helped, but I had a very different motivation. My children just learned to read on their own, by picking up sight reading while we read to them (they both spent their school years in the gifted/talented program). So, since I didn’t have to really teach my own children to read, I thought it might be rewarding to help some other children learn to read. I was right, it was very rewarding!
I’ll finish up with one special story from those 1st grade tutoring sessions. Normally, we would take the folder for whoever the next child in line was, that way all the children got the same number of tutoring sessions. At the end of the session we would make some notes on how it went, so the next tutor was better prepared. One day I picked up the file of a boy I had not worked with before. All the notes were bad: he wouldn’t pay attention, he wouldn’t try, he was uncooperative, disrespectful, etc. These behavioral issues were seriously interfering with his ability to learn!
When I worked with him that day, it went great. We had no trouble at all, and he did the best he could. The notes made no sense to me, and thankfully I had not let them influence me. So, afterward I went to talk to the reading specialist about this young boy. It turns out he was from a different culture (that was a little obvious, of course), and women are traditionally NOT respected in that culture. Looking around the school: all the teachers were women, the reading specialist was a woman, the art and music teachers were women, the librarian was a woman, the principal was a woman, even the janitor was a woman! And all the tutors so far had been women. OK, the gym teacher was a man, but his student teacher was a woman too!
When this boy finally saw a man had come to tutor him, he was amazed, and he did the very best he could. I wasn’t anything special as a tutor, but yes, I was a man. The reading specialist asked me to pull his file every time I came in to tutor, which I was happy to do. Then she assigned me another boy, who was described in general as “squirrelly.” A lot of boys could be described that one, I was certainly one of them myself. I really enjoyed working with these boys, and they were solidly at grade level in reading by the end of 1st grade. They just needed to know that education was OK for boys/men. Once they realized reading had value, they were able to focus better and do their best. I’m glad I was able to help, just by being me.