Tao of Positive Psychology

            *Note:  This section is written for instructors who are or may soon be teaching a positive psychology class (or any other class for that matter, at least in general).  For students who read this, it might give you a little insight into some of the things instructors think about when developing or modifying a class (assuming the instructor has some freedom in how to teach – that isn’t always the case).

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            As I think back over the 30+ years I’ve been teaching college, it’s fascinating how things have changed.  Not only has the nature of the classroom changed, but how I approach both teaching and assessment have varied greatly.  Part of that is the fact that I’ve taught in very different settings, beginning with introductory and then upper level classes at a major university, then moving on to lectures in a graduate course at a medical school, followed by a wide range of classes at a private four-year college, and finally to my current gig at a community college.

            Long gone are the days of a midterm, a term paper, and a final exam.  I wholly embrace the infamous “edutainment.”  Indeed, when teaching positive psychology I start each class with some funny video clip from either a show on Comedy Central (there’s nothing better than the informative satire on The Daily Show or The Nightly Show [*Note:  while working on this book the latter show was canceled – I was very disappointed!]) or YouTube.  After all, humor is part of positive psychology.

            The point, however, is not simply to have fun with my students, but rather, to get them thinking about the material we are covering and how it might apply to their real lives.  I’m not worried about my students learning any particular facts, though I hope they remember a few things down the road.  Instead, my goal is their overall education, as expressed over a century ago (and in Section IV) by America’s preeminent psychologist William James:


            A professor has two functions:  (1) to be learned and distribute bibliographic information; (2) to communicate truth.  The 1st function is the essential one, officially considered.  The 2nd is the only one I care for. (pg. 298; William James cited in Frager & Fadiman, 1998)


            Of course, teaching is, or at least should be, a personal endeavor.  Just as our students are individuals, so are we as instructors.  I have always believed that students should get some variety in their education by virtue of having different instructors, as opposed to having each instructor try to be everything to every student (which, quite simply, can’t work).  So although I will make a few recommendations here, it is my intention to keep this section very brief.  What exactly you should do in your own class (once again, assuming you have sufficient freedom) is up to you.

First Day Activities

            Generally speaking, I’m not an ice-breaker kind of guy.  I cringe when I’m at a talk and the presenter wants to do anything more than maybe go around the room and have people introduce themselves.  That’s OK, but when we have to get up and walk around and introduce ourselves or sort ourselves into different areas according to some silly criterion or whatever, I get really annoyed.  And if you plan to start a talk with some form of exercise, no matter how simple, odds are I’ll be angry for the rest of the time.  First, I am disabled, and second, I sweat a lot (and very easily).  So not only am I angry, but I’m sore, sweaty, and angry!

            Suffice it to say I’m careful about first day activities other than going over the syllabus and talking with the students about the class and my expectations for them.  Still, I was recently introduced to a first-day activity by Dr. Richard Light of Harvard University which fit very nicely with the positive psychology course.  Simply hand the students a sheet of paper with a list of potential core values, and have them circle 3-5 of them.  Here’s the list:


     Peace, Wealth, Happiness, Success, Friendship, Fame, Authenticity, Power, Influence, Justice, Compassion, Respect, Diligence, Courage, Integrity, Joy, Love, Recognition, Family, Truth, Wisdom, Status, __________ (you can have a couple of blank lines for the students to add their own values if necessary – I added one for myself, that being Knowledge).


            At the bottom of the page there are two reflection questions:

  • What core values will guide the big decisions you will make in your life?
  • What do you believe are life’s essential conversations?

            Since these potential core values are positive in nature, their discussion makes for a wonderful first day activity in the positive psychology class.

Academic/Personal Journals

            Try as I might, I cannot remember when the idea of having students in my classes keep journals came to fruition as an actual assignment.  Since then, however, they seem quite indispensable.  End-of-semesters evaluations are largely useless to anyone with significant experience.  They are highly standardized, and also highly correlated with a student’s expected grade.  Good grade = good evaluation!  Semester-long journals, however, can provide all sorts of information.

            For example, I used to teach a technology in education class.  The class typically went well, and I received good evaluations.  However, in their journals, a fair number of students reported that they really struggled with the Excel project we were doing to record/calculate grades.  So, I started doing that assignment much more slowly, and did it hand-in-hand with the students.  They found it much easier, and learned the material better as well.

            In my personality classes, I used to use a book that had a chapter on the psychology of women.  I thought I was being quite progressive at the time.  However, as I read the students’ journals, the young women in class were offended by the chapter.  Basically, the textbook pandered to radical sixties feminism, and it seems that young women today don’t identify all that well with radical sixties feminism.  So when I wrote my own personality textbook (Kelland, 2014), I took an historical approach to those theorists who addressed the psychology of women, and I’ve never had a complaint about the various chapters in which it is covered (though students don’t care much for Freud’s perspective on the psychology of women!).

            There are different perspectives on how to use student journals as a teaching tool, some of which are discussed in one of the books I published on student journals.  Actually, I’ve published two such books, and they both contain student journals in them.  Each book provides nice examples of student journals, and one focuses on positive psychology.  In each case, the goal is to determine how journaling can (and does) help my students to learn and appreciate the material in the course(s) they are taking (see Kelland et al., 2013, 2014).

Targeted Journal Discussions

            The most recent assignment I’ve added to my class, specifically in the positive psychology class, is a combined journal entry/group discussion.  I have the students do five of them, and I require three for their grade (so they can miss a couple, or not do well on a couple, and still get full credit).  The first three require them to take one of the tests on the Authentic Happiness website maintained by Martin Seligman at Penn.

            For the first assignment, the students take the Approaches to Happiness test and write a journal entry on their impressions regarding their results.  They bring that journal entry to class (so they can hand it in for their grade), and discuss it with classmates in small groups.  Since they all have their results from the test (even if their journal entry is inadequately short and lacking in any detail), the discussions go well.  My students really seemed to enjoy this assignment, especially when it came to seeing the results of the other students in their group.

            For the second one, I have them take the VIA Strengths test, and for the third one they take the Positive Affect Negative Affect Scale (PANAS).  During regular classes I have already shared my personal results as a point of discussion while covering these topics, so I’ve set the example for being willing to share personal information (most students really appreciate that).

            They have a little more freedom with the fourth and fifth assignments.  Number four covers leisure and recreation – the things they do for fun.  Number five covers the need for positivity with stigmatized groups.  That last one can get pretty interesting, and it can lead to some deep, soul-searching contemplation.  But that’s what education should be all about.


            I am a firm believer in the need for people to learn and practice public speaking skills!  However, I recognize that some students really don’t like to do it (I was once one of them).  So, although I have my students do an oral presentation in class, I keep it as simple as possible (which includes grading really easy).  In the positive psychology class, they have the added requirement that their presentation should be about something positive.

            In my other classes in psychology, the presentations often take a rather negative turn:  e.g., mental illness, suicide, family problems (including physical and sexual abuse), money problems, roommate problems, work problems, etc.  But in positive psychology I tell them to keep it positive.

            One thing I encourage them to do is use pictures.  If they have kids, pets, hobbies, whatever, if they can use visual aids to help them present it usually goes quite well.  We end up with some pretty cute pictures!

            Nonetheless, as an instructor you must be prepared for the unexpected.  I once had a student with some serious psychological issues.  She did her presentation on kittens, including the kitten she had.  It was a very disturbing and depressing presentation.  Never would I have thought that a presentation on kittens could be depressing, but this one was.  It was a bit tricky handling that one with the rest of the class looking on.

            Interestingly, that student was well aware of her issues, and the basis for her issues (serious abuse during her childhood, that continued to the present day [and had something to do with her kitten]).  She took another class with me after positive psychology, and when I last saw her she was finishing up at LCC and doing OK.  So it seems there was a positive outcome.  I hope things have continued well for her.

            One more thing, I urge the students who are really afraid to speak in public to go the first day.  Not only will it then be over, and they won’t have to dwell on it all semester, but I guarantee that if they go the first day (and do indeed present, rather than freeze up and chicken out altogether) they are guaranteed full credit.  Each semester a few students take me up on that offer, and nearly all of them agree it was a good idea.  But once in a while there is a student who tells me they still just can’t stand public speaking!

Videos in the Positive Psychology Classroom

            There are plenty of fun videos on YouTube and websites like Comedy Central, some of which are actually meaningful.  If you want to be a little more serious, go to the Positive Psychology Center website maintained by Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania.  There you can find video lectures and talks (such as TED talks) by a veritable who’s who list of well-known researchers in the field of positive psychology.


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