The number of positive psychology courses taught at the undergraduate level nationally has rocketed from zero to 100 in five years, declared Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, in a Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schoolsinvited address at APA's 2003 Annual Convention.

Fueling that growth is the $30 million raised thus far by nonprofit organizations to research it. But another driving factor, Seligman speculated, is the subfield's focus on building personal strengths, instead of dwelling on weaknesses—something that can immediately affect students' lives.

"When you're teaching abnormal psychology, you can't tell someone to go out and be schizophrenic for a week," said Seligman, the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a former APA president. "But when you teach positive psychology, there are always meaningful assignments you can give students."

According to Seligman, the basic positive psychology pillars to convey to students--and examples of accompanying activities to help them experience each one—are:

  • The pleasant life, involving the pleasures of positive affect and personal well-being.

Student activity: Map out your ideal day, then live and savor it.

  • The good life, involving the identification and amplification of one's unique strengths and skills. The goal, said Seligman, is to "find flow" in work, love and play.

Student activity: Identify a task you find tedious and tap a personal strength to enliven it. A student of his who disliked bagging groceries, for instance, resolved to tap her social skills and chat more with customers while bagging.

  • The meaningful life, involving participation in activities outside of the self, for the good of society.

Student activity: Plan a "perfect" surprise for someone who needs it, or tutor a child in reading or math.

Positive psychology's aim, Seligman elaborated, is to scientifically study the successful blend of all three types of lives. Seligman calls that blend "the full life."

He noted the importance of explaining to students that, just as with the study of mental illness, positive psychology uses validated test batteries, placebo-controlled studies and solid interventions rooted in science. In fact, said Seligman, more than 127,000 people have signed up so far to participate in Web-based positive psychology research being conducted by him and collaborators at various institutions.

Seligman also hopes to extend positive psychology education to people with disabilities. His vision, he said, is to spread education about positive psychology to coincide with its growing science.

"As teachers we have a unique opportunity here," he concluded. "If we can at the high school level, at the college level, at the professional level, begin to teach people how to have more pleasure in life, how to have more flow in life, how to have more meaning in life, then positive psychology will have come of age."

Further Reading

Resources for teaching positive psychology

  • Syllabi and unit plans are among the materials available on Seligman 's website: .

  • Seligman's "Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment" (Free Press, 2002) can serve as a teaching reference.

  • APA's Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools has published a positive psychology unit plan for high schools. It is available online for members at APA's High School Psychology and by request from Mayella Valero in APA's Education Directorate.