As an AP Psychology teacher, I know my students are always fascinated with mental illness — admittedly, so am I. If you can turn off Hoarders or My Strange Addiction, you clearly have some sort of superpower I don’t possess. Psychology has done an incredible job of cataloguing the many interesting ways human behavior can go wrong. But we can also learn from human behavior that is going right. Positive Psychology is a growing field that shifts the focus away from defining and treating mental illness to studying mental health so that we can learn to be more proactively psychologically healthy and happy.
A few years ago, I read the book Authentic Happiness by Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Network and former president of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Seligman writes about how to experience happiness in your life by using your signature strengths to achieve flow and positive emotion. Seligman argues that even happiness can be learned, and I think it’s so cool that my students could learn how to be happier in life. Learning how to be happier goes beyond any classroom curriculum. It’s my goal to be able to share with my students some of the keys to achieving happiness in their lives, and we always spend time towards the end of the year studying the science and research behind happiness.
So what’s the point of discovering your strengths? In Authentic Happiness, Seligman argues that cultivating your strengths can benefit your health, relationships, and your career. Much of his book concerns discovering these strengths and how to use them to increase happiness. You can take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths to determine your top strengths. The survey takes around 25 minutes to complete, but it’s time well spent if learning your strengths can increase your level of happiness, right?
Before taking the survey, I had never considered my cautious behavior a strength. In fact, I’ve always assumed people who were less cautious were probably having more fun. I’ve tried to rebel against my top strength — but my most reckless behavior is probably my tendency to overdose on Nutella (come on, you have a Nutella problem too, admit it and maybe we can start a support group together). As I look back, my top strength has served me well in my life. I am careful about what I say and do, and as a result, I don’t have many regrets . . . until I’m looking at the bottom of the Nutella jar. Instead of rebelling against that strength, I can recognize ways that it helps me to be a happier person. Humor and playfulness and love of learning are a part of my everyday. If I’m not learning something new, I feel stagnant — and you can count on my nerdy jokes along the way. I can work my favorite Snoop Dogg joke into any lesson plan. No matter how they do on standardized tests, my students will know why Snoop Dogg carries an umbrella.*
My students are working on Genius Hour blogs weekly, and I asked them to take the VIA Survey to determine their top strengths and to post their results. I loved seeing how their results fit their personalities. I hope that identifying their strengths will lead my students to use strengths to increase the happiness in their lives. Here are just a couple of their thoughts on their VIA results:
“Having a future mindset will definitely help me accomplish my goals in life and humor and zest will help the journey be more fun.” – M.F.
“I never really thought of being interested in the world as a strength. Like, I’ve always been curious, and have always loved to learn. I guess I’m just now realizing that being curious will make me a smarter and more well-rounded individual, and therefore more valuable to work and other people.” – M.R.
If you have the time, take the VIA Strengths Survey. How will you use your top strengths to increase your happiness? How might it help your students to know their strengths?
*Why does Snoop Dogg carry an umbrella? For drizzle. HA!