Adolescents, Sunny Side Up

A curriculum takes a pre-emptive strike against teenage depression.

Positive psychology: Giving teens the tools to deal with life's challenges

BY CECILIA CAPUZZI SIMON, The New York Times, August 01, 2004 >>

The 16 students in Kevin Haney's ninth-grade English class certainly appear to be having fun. As they file in, the classroom buzzes with adolescent banter, flatulence jokes and cellphone conversations.

But are they happy? That's the question psychologists hope to answer as the group progresses through high school. The students, who attend Strath Haven High School in this affluent suburb west of Philadelphia, are part of an experimental curriculum that integrates so-called positive psychology into academics, in this case literature.

Beginning this past school year, Mr. Haney and three of his colleagues have been teaching their familiar roster of inspiring, if not exactly cheery, reads -- ''Romeo and Juliet,'' ''Antigone,'' ''Inherit the Wind'' -- as a way to find a personal path to happiness. Think of an evolved form of character education. Through psychological exercises and discussions around literary themes, students learn to use their personal strengths (say, compassion, humor, leadership) to enhance everyday life.

Martin E. P. Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist and author of the best-sellers ''Authentic Happiness,'' ''Learned Optimism'' and ''The Optimistic Child,'' has spent nearly a decade on a campaign to redefine psychology not just as a way to remedy emotional pathology but to optimize human potential. The latest thrust of this offensive is the Positive Psychology for Youth Project. The program at Strath Haven, financed by a $2.8 million federal grant, is his first attempt to bring his techniques to children not identified as at-risk for depression or mental illness.

The school was chosen for its stable student population and faculty, and the commitment of the school district. At least half of each ninth-grade class through 2007 -- about 650 children -- will be involved in the four-year controlled study. Students are randomly assigned to a language arts class with positive psychology or to a class without it. They will be measured for emotional well-being using standard assessments for depression. Academic achievement, extracurricular activities, civic engagement and discipline records will also be compared year to year.

The idea? To prevent depression by giving children the tools to deal with challenges faced in high school and life. And the best way to reach them is in school, where they are receptive to learning and where lessons can be reinforced as part of an academic discipline.

''My highest hopes were that if we could get to kids at the right time of life, these lessons could be foundational,'' says Dr. Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association. ''So we're doing this just at the cusp of puberty, when emotional growth and consolidation is the most flexible.''

On this day in May, Mr. Haney guides his students through a typical class to demonstrate the curriculum for the benefit of a reporter and photographer. It is held after school, because this being a scientific experiment, the University of Pennsylvania would not allow a regular class to be observed. Among those attending are Jane E. Gillham, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College and one of the program's directors, and Dr. Seligman, who has never been to a class before and is seated at a desk among the 14- and 15-year-olds. It is no surprise that the teenagers exhibit a desire to impress on their visitors that they ''get'' the program.

In today's class, Mr. Haney tells his students, they will write about their own ''signature strengths'' and identify literary characters that also possess them. Early in the year, the students had completed a questionnaire to identify their top five character traits from a list of 24 -- traits like bravery, intimacy, prudence and forgiveness. (It can be completed free online at After ''identifying who they are at their best,'' students can use those strengths with family, friends, community and academics to bolster well-being and buffer against depression, says Karen Reivich, a psychology professor and curriculum director at the University of Pennsylvania.

Carl Stanton, wearing a ponytail and T-shirt that reads ''Young Friends,'' tells his story to the class. ''Bear with me,'' he says. ''You might not understand this connection.'' Carl describes drawing on his signature strength of gratitude after being spurned by a love interest. ''It took me a long time to gain the courage to say how I felt, and I was turned down. But I'm grateful because it gave me the experience to handle it better the next time.''

His ability to make something positive of an unfortunate situation reminded Connor Bryant of the character Ralph, from ''Lord of the Flies.'' ''Even though he was stuck on the island,'' Connor explains, ''Ralph said, 'This is a good island.'''

Connor, dressed in black with a pierced ear and stud bracelet, has his own tale of bravery. When he was 12, he competed against 16- to 18-year-olds in a swim meet. ''It scared me,'' he says. ''But it all went away when I hit the water. I won the race, but we lost the meet. I was happy that I swam."

Study of ''Lord of the Flies'' might coincide with a real-world exercise in kindness, a concept raised in the book: students select a person who has positively affected their lives and write and deliver, in person, a letter of thanks. For the study of ''The Odyssey,'' students identify the strengths that Odysseus came to recognize and use during his travels -- ingenuity, courage and creativity.

The positive psychology curriculum, 23 lessons delivered about once a week for 90 minutes, is fashioned on Dr. Seligman's theory that there are three routes to happiness: the Pleasant Life (pleasures of touch, taste and smell, and sensations like euphoria and excitement), the Good Life (gratification from using signature strengths in relationships, work and activities) and the Meaningful Life (gratification from service to others).

The first part of the curriculum focuses on the Pleasant Life and building positive emotion. In one lesson, students recount good things that have happened to them; in another, they learn mindfulness through savoring events and sensations.

Research shows that children who are resilient -- who bounce back from problems because they are good at seeing them from multiple perspectives and who accurately understand their role in the situation -- fare better after trauma. ''Some think that resilient kids got lucky through a scramble of genes,'' says Dr. Reivich, who teaches emotional resilience skills to depressed or at-risk fifth through eighth graders. ''But empathy, impulse control, knowing your strengths and how to apply them, flexible thinking, each can be taught and increased through a cognitive model.''

That model, which Dr. Reivich calls ''the ABC's,'' is introduced in the fourth lesson. It teaches students to challenge overly negative beliefs and identify the link between their thoughts and actions -- time-tested techniques of cognitive therapy.

Unit two explores the Good Life and building signature strengths. The splashiest exercise is called ''Panel of Paragons.'' Students nominate individuals who represent one of their strengths, and then invite them to address their class. This year's ''paragons'' included the district's school superintendent, for leadership and kindness; a local artist, for creativity; and the school board president who is also a history professor, for excellence.

The Meaningful Life is addressed last, with lessons on philanthropy, teamwork and even the meaning of life. Students use essays about the meaning of life written by celebrities to engage parents in a three-week dialogue, and then write about what they learned.
''In any other context,'' says Mark Linkins, who is on Strath Haven's faculty, ''parents and students probably wouldn't do that. But in the context of a school assignment, they've got to. I've had parents say to me, incredulously, 'I'm going to talk to my kid about the meaning of life for three weeks?' But by the end of it, they have covered territory never touched on before, and make connections on some big issues.

The program was assembled in answer to a call put out by the United States Department of Education several years ago. Congress had set aside $16 million in grants for character education curriculum that met certain criteria established by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Chief among them: programs had to be ''scientific-evidence-based experiments'' integrated into an academic discipline with community applications and locally implemented. Thirty-nine programs were awarded grants. ''We wanted to move away from the word-of-the-day on the wall,'' explains Linda McKay, senior adviser for character education and civic engagement at the department. ''It wasn't enough.

Federal education officials express ideological impatience with a 60's do-your-own-thing educational approach that stripped public schools of ''ethical determinations,'' as Deborah A. Price, deputy under secretary for safe and drug-free schools, puts it. The shift, she says, ''left children without groundwork in those areas.''

Early efforts to reintroduce character education were superficial, says Merle Schwartz, director of education and training at the Character Education Partnership, an advocacy group based in Washington. Isolated and didactic lessons -- along with programs that focused on feelings and behavior without teaching moral reasoning and thinking skills -- did not work, she says. Recent research suggests that comprehensive programs that connect with academic standards have a better chance of success.

The stricter guidelines and whole-school approach may mollify character education's skeptics. Carlton Jordan, senior associate at Education Trust, a school reform group, deplores unproved programs that take up valuable academic time. He says he would welcome a plan that encourages discourse about real-life challenges while connecting to a ''rigorous curriculum.''

The Positive Psychology for Youth Project remains, at this point, as unproved as the rest of them. And given the nature of happiness and depression, its effects could be fleeting or difficult to measure. A recent study from the National Institute of Mental Health casts some doubt on cognitive therapy's effectiveness compared with antidepressant medication in treating depressed adolescents. But other studies have shown cognitive therapy to be equally effective in alleviating depression in adults, with lower rates of relapse. Dr. Seligman says there is a large amount of data to support the effectiveness of teaching the techniques to adolescents.

While scientists make sense of the recent study, psychologists who treat youth say discourse like that encouraged at Strath Haven can provide a route into the insular world of adolescence, where depression is epidemic and communications often coarse.
''If Seligman can help children evaluate themselves more realistically and less harshly, that's important,'' says Ron Taffel, a psychologist and author of ''The Second Family: How Adolescent Power is Challenging the American Family.'' ''It can loosen them from the grip of the pressures they face.''

But a roomful of ninth graders is a tough audience. ''They question everything,'' Dr. Reivich says. '''Why is optimism better than pessimism?' 'Why is it better to work at a soup kitchen than to go shopping with my friends?''' Virginia Scott, who teaches a language arts/positive psychology class at Strath Haven, says her biggest challenge has been convincing them that she is not trying to ''make them into happy faces all the time.'' At the beginning, some parents worried that the curriculum was an effort to convert students to some religious movement.

''We're not trying to be smiley-face psychologists,'' Dr. Reivitch says. ''That's not what positive psychology is about. You can experience the negative emotion, but not sink so deeply into it that you can't get out.

Mr. Haney's charges seem to be getting the message. After class on this spring afternoon, many students stay behind to discuss the experience.

Some say they are more tolerant at home. ''I started doing chores around the house and I'm nicer to my mother,'' Elizabeth Wasserman says. Lauren Taylor remembers being tapped to head a group exercise. ''If this class thinks I'm a leader, I guess I better get with it,'' she recalls thinking. So she focused on leadership, one of her top traits.
But are they happy?

The group starts with a joke (We are teenagers!'' shouts a voice from the back). They then become serious. ''I think we're on the verge of more happiness,'' says Emily Magee. ''I do things subconsciously now, like count my blessings and don't overreact to problems.

Alex Barrantes-Tancredi is philosophical. ''People have the idea that being happy means skipping through the flowers,'' he says. ''But happy is being happy with who you are.''

"Children who are resilient -- who bounce back from problems because they see them from multiple perspectives and who accurately understand their role in the situation --fare better after trauma."