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So how can Positive Psychology help young people to flourish?

Rod Macrae joined our webinar for teachers about Positive Psychology and discovered some of the fascinating insights about young people’s mental health.  

You can watch the whole webinar at

It sounds obvious, but for a long time, psychology has looked at fixing things rather than building on what is going well. In our BrainWaves webinar looking at positive psychology and wellbeing, Dr. Michelle Tytherleigh, a senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Chester explained a completely different approach to adolescent wellbeing.

Is it possible for teenager’s lives to be shaped around positive strategies to develop confidence, resilience and capacity to keep themselves mentally healthy? Michelle Tytherleigh says, yes.

The basics

Here is her explanation. Too often psychology fixes what’s broken, taking a ‘deficit’ approach to young people’s mental health. By contrast, positive psychology builds on what’s already good rather than focusing on repairing what needs fixing.

It was first aired about 25 years ago by Martin Seligman, who took positive aspects of wellbeing from people who are flourishing as his starting point. What, he asked, are the good things in life? What about people who have overcome adversity? What, in general, makes life worth living?

“There’s an upward spiralling effect of positive emotion” she told the webinar audience. “When we are feeling positive, how much more engaged and creative are we? Yet, at the same time Positive Psychology is recognising that sometimes we do feel negative. It recognises that we can have wellbeing, but still have mental illness. Still, it comes with a sense of meaning, purpose and positive relationships.”

5 Pillars of wellbeing

Although it wasn’t designed for education, there’s a useful tool which can be used in schools to help teenagers become more resilient and positive: the PERMA framework.

PERMA stands for:

  • Positive Emotion
  • Engagement
  • Positive Relationships
  • Meaning and purpose
  • Accomplishment or Purpose

This Positive Psychology approach doesn’t directly impact anxiety, stress or depression. Instead, it nurtures young people’s personal resources to better manage life’s challenges. Helping teenagers to develop their own capacity to deal with stress has many benefits especially at big moments such as GCSE, A and T Level exams or moving from school to tertiary education or the world of work.

“Recognising the barriers to success is something positive psychology is now scientifically and robustly showing to be beneficial” according to Michelle.


Bringing positive psychology into school

Fellow panellist Gavin English is a Deputy Head in charge of pastoral care at Alleyn’s school in South London. Introducing an educationalist’s viewpoint, Gavin pointed to schools using positive psychology to avoid the risk being overrun by mental health issues by getting in front of wellbeing problems.

All too often, he argued, schools are preoccupied with pulling students out of what he calls a ‘fast flowing river’ when mental health problems are already present, rather than helping students to stay out of troubled waters by teaching them wellbeing strategies they can use. In other words, to help them ‘swim’.

Of course, teachers are not psychologists, but they can use the scaffolding of positive psychology to help young students to take ownership of their own wellbeing.

The BrainWaves collaboration between evidence-based science and education is an ideal way of bringing this to schools.


BrainWaves in schools

BrainWaves Director of Education, Julian Turner, pointed out that delivering a solution ‘at scale’ is impossible without resources, but he believes BrainWaves’ aim of creating practical long-term interventions at schools will achieve significant benefits. This is what our BrainWaves curriculum for mental health is all about.

Already, there is work going on with Years 12 & 13 students at BrainWaves research schools, laying the groundwork for building a large, long-running cohort study so scientists can see changes occurring through different interventions and fine-tuning what is most effective.

Julian Turner said that ultimately, BrainWaves can build a practical and scalable school curriculum. Indeed, lessons which are free for any school to use are available for Key Stage 5 students already and work is scheduled to create lessons and resources for Key Stages 3 and 4, available in January 2024.

Based on the PERMA principles, critical thinking and a drive to develop greater ‘information literacy’ in the curriculum, brings positive psychology to the heart of addressing wellbeing at school.

There is a range of webinars for teachers available on our education website: