Happiness expert advises UK’s first ‘positive university’

Martin Seligman is guiding the University of Buckingham’s push to embed ‘positive psychology’ across departments and courses

January 27, 2017
Surprised happy student

The founder of the “happiness” movement is to work with a UK university to help it become Europe’s first “positive university”.

To help improve the well-being, resilience and optimism of its staff and students, the University of Buckingham has linked up with US psychologist Martin Seligman to roll out an institution-wide programme of “positive psychology”, which emphasises positive rather than negative personality traits.

As director of the Penn Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Seligman has led investigations into the self-improvement technique, which has been used in secondary schools and also in the US army to improve soldiers’ resilience to combat-related stress.

Professor Seligman, who was president of the American Psychological Association in the late 1990s, has claimed that too much emphasis in psychology has been placed on treating mental health problems, rather than promoting “positive” strategies that might help individuals to avoid problems altogether.

Under the scheme launched on 25 January by Sir Anthony Seldon, the university’s vice-chancellor, every student at Buckingham will have a module on “positive psychology” based on ideas set out in Professor Seligman’s best-selling books, which include Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being (2011) and Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (1991).

All tutors will also be trained in positive psychology, with “all interactions and engagements with students to be conducted in a positive manner”, the university said.

Introducing positive psychology would help to shift universities away from being “fundamentally reactive” to student problems and move them towards helping to develop young people with the “confidence, capacity and character” to withstand problems.

“I am appalled by the needless suffering we see at universities,” said Sir Anthony, who said that individuals “do not have to be victims” as long as they had the right skills to cope with problems.

Universities tended to “wait until someone has been to see their therapist, is missing essays or lecturers see worrying signs”, he added, saying that they preferred to “rush in at the end of the waterfall” when problems were already entrenched.

Learning simple breathing exercises could, for example, help young people to cope when facing challenges, he added. “If you can teach young people to breathe deeply, they need never panic,” he said, adding that “no one ever tells you how to use our bodies”.

Sir Anthony, who is president of the International Positive Education Network and co-founder of Action for Happiness, said that the positive psychology techniques had proved successful when he introduced them at Wellington College, the prestigious independent school he led between 2006 and 2015.

The failure to introduce the technique more widely in schools constituted “almost criminal negligence” given its proven benefits, he said.

About 10 per cent of staff at Buckingham would attend positive psychology training led by University of Pennsylvania staff, which would last about eight days, with these staff helping to train Buckingham employees. Training would be optional, but “people who argue most against it become the biggest converts”, said Sir Anthony of his experience at Wellington.

Speaking at the launch, Professor Seligman explained that he hoped to measure the impact of the training by using big data, including analysis of words used in staff and students’ Twitter and Facebook posts.

Based on a $4 million (£3.19 million) research project by his 20-strong team at Pennsylvania, it is now possible to gauge happiness levels by looking at negative or positive words contained in anonymised tweets, he said. In Buckingham’s case, tweets and other social media posts would be treated as confidential and students and staff would be able to opt out of the experiment.

“This is a better way to quiz people – questionnaires are terribly 20th century,” Sir Anthony said.

jack.grove@tesglobal.com

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