Positive Psychology: Focusing on Strengths and the Cultivation of Well-being and Happiness

This blog was contributed by Matthew Breuninger, M.A., Psy.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. Dr. Breuninger is also a licensed clinical psychologist.

As a clinical psychologist and a college professor, I find myself profoundly aware of the mental health issues and concerns that plague many of our students. Research suggests that the recent cohorts of college students are the most anxious, depressed and suicidal to have entered our college system, ever. With the increased pressures of college—harder course work, the need to find new support networks, and navigating life predominantly on one’s own—many students struggle to master course content and subsequently grades suffer, further contributing to their anxiety and depression.

This problem is not unique to college students, however. High schoolers are also experiencing mental health issues at significantly higher rates than ever before. Students are reporting less positive emotion, fewer relationships with peers, feeling as if their life lacks purpose and less engagement across various domains of life. These issues pose significant challenges for Catholic school teachers, who must form and shape character, as well as transmit knowledge and academic skill. The simple reality is that many of our Catholic schools, despite their academic excellence and fidelity to passing on the truths of the Faith, struggle to teach our students how to flourish. The cultures of our schools are not shaping students’ character in ways that promote their well-being. Compounding this problem, administrators and teachers are suffering from high rates of fatigue and burnout.

Enter positive education. Positive education is a movement that seeks to teach, embed and live the principles of positive psychology within every level of a school (from the principal down to the custodian, from gym class to AP physics). Positive psychology is a relatively recent movement within psychology that focuses on a person’s strengths and on the cultivation of well-being and happiness. According to positive psychology, well-being comprises:

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement (flow)
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement

Along with these five domains, positive psychology also focuses on gratitude, signature strengths and resilience (i.e., the ability to cope with setbacks and obstacles we face daily). Research suggests that tools and exercises found in positive psychology decrease depression, hopelessness, and anxiety and increase psychological and emotional resilience.

Not only does positive psychology promote psychological and emotional health, but the  domains and topics on which it focuses are highly compatible with the Catholic faith, allowing them to be seamlessly integrated into the foundation of Catholic school culture in a way that promotes authentic flourishing. For example, we read repeatedly throughout Scripture that we should give thanks to God and be grateful (e.g., 1 Thess. 5:18; Col. 3:15; Eph. 5:20).

One of the exercises of positive psychology is the gratitude list. Research suggests that writing a gratitude list can decrease depressive symptoms. By habitually focusing on the positives in life, we decrease our tendency to focus on the negatives and set ourselves up to experience more positive emotions. So, a teacher might invite their students to practice a daily gratitude list in the last class of the day. Another example is found in St. Paul’s invitation to persevere and live the Christian life with endurance (Rom. 5:4).

Positive psychology provides a number of tools that help foster resilience in order that we might endure and persevere against the struggles and challenges of life. By intentionally cultivating resilience, our schools will equip our students not only to persevere spiritually, but to have coping tools to deal in a healthy manner with the normal setbacks of life. The list of exercises and ways that positive psychology can integrate with the faith to create a culture that teaches and promotes authentic well-being is too exhaustive for such a short post. Suffice it to say, however, that I believe positive education can and should be brought thoughtfully and intentionally into all of our Catholic schools.

The benefit is not just for the students though. Teachers, administrators and staff are trained and invited to live positive psychology principles in schools that embrace positive education. This creates a school culture that has shared values (e.g., genuine relationships, trust, compassion, gratitude) and a common language (e.g., virtues, resilience and positive psychology exercises). Further, research shows that when teachers are happy and healthy, students have better outcomes as well. Positive education can help our teachers alleviate burnout and find deep purpose and joy in teaching again.

Yes, we want our students to have academic knowledge and skill, but we also want them to be happy and psychologically healthy; positive education can help. While positive education has become popular in other countries, it has yet to make a significant impact in the United States. I firmly believe that our Catholic schools should spearhead this introduction and integration within American education.

Though short, I hope this post has piqued your interest in how positive psychology can help teachers and students through creating a culture embedded with empirically supported exercises and tools to enhance well-being. If you are interested in a more in-depth look at the topic, I will be giving a webinar in January for NCEA, in which I will dive into more specifics and provide various resources on positive education. This webinar will serve as an extension of my work in the Educators Track of Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Master of Catholic Leadership program.