Teaching emotional resilience

[This is an article I wrote for The Times back in 2007, but as The Times is putting all its stuff behind a firewall, I thought I would make it available here too before it disappears behind the Great Wall of Murdoch. It's about the emotional resilience classes designed by Penn University, and the UK pilot programme of them. The piece includes interviews with Martin Seligman of Penn Uni, Lord Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan of the Young Foundation, Anthony Seldon of Wellington College, and various others.]

In a classroom in South Tyneside, a small group of 11-year-olds is considering the finer points of Stoic philosophy. The teacher, Mrs Carrahar, points helpfully at the blackboard. “Come on now, kids, remember your ABC: Adversity, Belief, Consequence. Sometimes how we feel about things depends on ... what? It begins with P ... Yes, Darren?” “Perspective, miss!” says a small child. “Very good, Darren!”

The class is the latest experiment in a new movement called “positive psychology”, which is slowly but surely revolutionising the way that education is approached in the English-speaking world. It is the brainchild of Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. If there is one figure responsible for the deluge of books, articles and TV programmes on happiness with which we have been inundated over the last five years, it is Seligman. So, when I meet him in a hotel suite in London, it is a relief to discover that he is not some moronically upbeat figure, like the self-help guru played by Patrick Swayze in Donnie Darko.

In fact, he tells me, “I was a slightly depressive grump for the first 40 years of my life”. After considering a career as a professional bridge player, then turning down a Fulbright scholarship in analytical philosophy at Oxford, he eventually became a psychologist and forged a distinguished name for himself studying “learned helplessness”, or how animals (and people) learn to give up in apparently hopeless situations.

While researching the phenomenon, Seligman was struck by something: some people, and even some animals, didn't give up even in highly adverse circumstances. He began to be interested in the opposite phenomenon, “learned optimism” - why some people possess unusual powers of resilience and self-control, and whether those powers can be taught or cultivated in others.

When, in 1998, he was elected president of the American Psychological Association, the largest body of psychologists in the world, he decided that he wanted to use his presidency to shift the discipline from its histor-ical focus on mental illness to a new focus on mental health and wellbeing.

He began to gather together his own and other people's research from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), as well as from neuropsychology, the social sciences and even economics, to try to find the secret to living well. His team discovered that about 50 per cent of our average happiness level is genetically conditioned. But the rest is conditioned by things under our control: both external factors, such as our job or social life, and inner factors, such as how we think and what values we have.

His team undertook a huge amount of life satisfaction surveys, to look at what really made people happy. They discovered that some external conditions were not as important as people commonly believed: changes in income, for example, played a marginal role in life satisfaction. Other external conditions played a much bigger role, such as having a rich social network or being married.

The team also identified the inner work that can improve your wellbeing. They incorporated many techniques from CBT that have been proved to help to overcome depression and anxiety disorders. They also tried out cognitive and pedagogic techniques from ancient philosophy and spirituality, such as the idea of character strengths from Aristotle, mindfulness from Buddhism and learning to challenge one's irrational beliefs from Stoicism, then tested these insights empirically, to see if they really worked. As Seligman says: “We took some ideas from ancient philosophy and married them to the new scientific study of happiness. Aristotle never had the benefit of the seven-point scale [used to measure life satisfaction].”

So, while positive psychology is in some ways a “new science”, and a new way of approaching education, in other ways it is a return to the norm for Western education, which for centuries, through the Roman Empire and beyond, taught young people philosophic techniques to manage their thoughts and emotions. Indeed, he may not know it, but the ABC model of emotions that Darren is learning on Tyneside comes directly from a Stoic philosopher called Epictetus, who suggested that “it is not events, but our beliefs about them, that cause us suffering”.

Just as Stoic or Aristotelian philosophy tended to be the exclusive province of the ruling class in the Roman Empire, so positive psychology was initially taken up by some of the most elite educative establishments in the world. Positive psychology is now the most popular undergraduate course at Harvard University. It is also at the heart of a new A$15 million “wellbeing centre” at Geelong Grammar School, the “Eton of Australia” where Prince Charles spent two terms in the 1960s.

It has also been taught for the past two years at the £9,000-a-year Wellington College in Berkshire. There, a teacher called Ian Morris, who bears a striking resemblance to David Miliband, tries to guide his wealthy young pupils to a rounded sense of the good life. He says: “Most of them really seem to value the lessons. You occasionally get some mucking around. I sent one boy out for clowning around and he complained, ‘I got thrown out of happiness classes for laughing', which I thought was pretty funny.” Harry, a polite 16-year-old whom I meet at a meditation workshop at Wellington, says the wellbeing classes have a decent reputation among the pupils. “We're a very sporty school, and Mr Morris appeals to that in the classes. For example, he teaches us a basic meditation technique which he says Sir Steve Redgrave used before big rowing races.”

Wellington's Master, Anthony Seldon, says that wellbeing classes are an important part of moving British education beyond its “toxic obsession” with exams and tests, towards a more holistic idea of education that gives young people the cognitive skills they need to cope with the ups and downs that they will inevitably face in life. He insists that wellbeing should not be taught only to the well-off: “Every school in Britain should be teaching wellbeing. It's the right of every single child.”

Britain is, at the moment, doing badly in terms of helping its young to achieve wellbeing. The UK came bottom in a recent Unicef survey of life satisfaction among children in 21 developed countries. The Institute of Psychiatry announced last year that the number of children with emotional and behavioural problems in the UK has doubled in the past 25 years. The number of adolescent suicides has quadrupled.

The Government is now trying to bring the study of wellbeing to state schools. Last September, Ed Balls, the schools secretary, introduced a new voluntary subject in secondary education, called Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), which would be a component in the statutory subject Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE). SEAL incorporates some ideas on wellbeing from both CBT and positive psychology, such as the ABC model of emotions, but its emphasis is more on teaching “emotional intelligence” and interpersonal skills.

But some government advisers say SEAL, while a good first step, does not go far enough. Lord Layard, the government adviser and so-called “happiness czar”, says: “Nearly all schools have a dedicated hour a week for PSHE that is very often wasted, or is taught by someone who has no training, or even much interest, in wellbeing, even though it's such an important subject. What's lacking is richness of content or any seriousness of training for teachers.”

To try to take the teaching of wellbeing forward, Layard organised a pilot scheme to teach “resilience” in 22 state schools in South Tyneside, Hertfordshire and Manchester. Last July about 100 teachers and local council officials spent ten days at the University of Pennsylvania, where they trained with some of the most famous psychologists in the world, including Seligman himself and Aaron Beck, the inventor of CBT. They came back enthused. “The ideas we learnt were so useful, even for our own lives,” says Diane Wood, assistant to the chief executive of South Tyneside council. “In ten days, our head of child services overcame his fear of flying, while I don't think I've argued with my teenage son once since I went on the course.”

They started to teach the subject in September to 4,000 kids ranging from 11 to 16. The classes include teaching cognitive techniques to some troubled adolescents who have dropped out of schools because of bullying or other problems. I sat in on one in South Tyneside. The teacher, Melissa, started by picking out entries from a “problem box”, into which the students had put anonymously written notes about problems they were facing.

One note that Melissa read out says: “I'm not sure I can take any more. I feel so stressed and bad all the time. It all started when I went to the new school.” The pupils then discussed the problem, empathising and asking what could be done to change things, both in terms of the person's inner beliefs and his or her external circumstances. One affable 16-year-old boy with tattoos on his arms, Geoff, said: “I lost a tenner the other day. I was stressed at first, then I figured, well, it could have been more.” The boy next to him laughed, “Yeah, but it wasn't your money, was it?” “Well, that too,” Geoff conceded with a smile.

The pilot scheme is intended to last three years, during which the children will be surveyed to check the effect of the classes on their wellbeing and emotional resilience, compared with groups who haven't been to the classes. The results so far have been good; council officials in Tyneside and Hertfordshire are already eager to roll out the subject to more schools.

Seligman tells me that nowhere else in the world have his ideas been so taken up by public policy as in the UK. “There's a real buzz here about the politics of wellbeing,” he says. He compares Britain's embrace of both positive psychology and CBT to the Renaissance government of Cosimo de' Medici in Florence, which used its wealth to help to translate and reintroduce ideas from ancient philosophy.

The Government's interest in CBT and positive psychology is, in large part, thanks to Lord Layard, who wrote an influential report in 2002, pointing out that the Government spent more money on incapacity benefits for the mentally ill than it did on unemployment benefits. Mental illness, he declared, was “the major social problem facing our country today”.

Other key advisers have helped to refocus the Government on wellbeing. Geoff Mulgan, the former head of the No10 policy unit, says: “Wellbeing will be the major focus of government in the 21st century, in the way that economic prowess was in the 20th century and military prowess was in the 19th century.” Wellbeing does seem a peculiarly 21st-century political issue, in part because it appeals equally to the Left and the Right. The Right likes it because it emphasises taking responsibility for your thoughts and learning character strengths, such as self-control, while the Left likes it because it emphasises helping the vulner-able and improving social inclusion.

Positive psychology also seems to offer a way forward for education beyond the ethical relativism of the past 30 years when, in the words of Darrin McMahon, the author of The Pursuit of Happiness, “the only people teaching values in schools seem to be sports coaches”. The science of happiness is a way in which timeless values and philosophical techniques can be reintroduced into the classroom.

But can we ever arrive at a definitive and “scientifically proven” model of the good life, as positive psychology seems to suggest? McMahon says: “The great danger of positive psychology is that it goes from being descriptive to prescriptive. You can never arrive at one definitive idea of how to live well.” Nick Baylis, the psychotherapist who helped to introduce positive psychology to the UK and designed the wellbeing classes at Wellington, agrees: “It's all very well for Lord Layard to say money doesn't make you happy. He's a millionaire.”

There will always be different emphases, depending on social context. Wellington recently published a “ten-point programme for wellbeing”, which advised students to eat plenty of pheasant, because it was “high in selenium”. This is unlikely to carry much weight in South Tyneside, where grouse-shooting is less popular with students.

Even among the leaders of the wellbeing movement, there is disagreement over what the meaning or goal of life should be: Lord Layard thinks the goal of policy should be “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. Seligman says: “There's too much emphasis on happiness, I think. I'm interested in the meaningful or virtuous life, what the Greeks called eudaimonia.”

As concepts of wellbeing are slowly introduced into the national curriculum, this pluralism of views needs to be displayed, not hidden away. Young people need to be given guidance in tried and tested ways of thinking and living, but they also need to understand that no two people (or prophets) ever fully agree on the meaning of life, and no amount of scientific data should ever stand in the way of them making up their own minds.