by Ruth Pearce

Recently, three teenagers told me that they were truly changed people. Not because of anything bad, and not just because they’re growing up, but because positive psychology and the tools it offers had equipped them to better handle everyday life. They described feeling empowered and more hopeful. They described finding moments of happiness even when things are hard.

These young people had participated in a six-week workshop in positivity over the summer. That’s it—only six weeks.

If it can work for them, maybe it can work for everyone.

Let me back up a bit. At the end of the first CiPP immersion at Kripalu earlier this year, I wanted to go out immediately and apply what I had learned. I wanted to pay it forward and give other people access to the tools I had in my new toolbox, and the opportunity to experience the same epiphanies I had experienced. I was only a few weeks in, but that was the level of my enthusiasm.

My first attempts were in the workplace, where I decided to make positivity a daily practice with my team. Then, about two months after the immersion, I found out that my employer was hosting 85 interns from high school and college, and 14 of them were coming to our department. Having enjoyed a long talk with a fellow CiPPster not long before about the stress that teenagers face today, I had been considering how I might be able to expose young people to some of the concepts. What a golden opportunity to offer a few fundamentals that might help them as they faced the transition into adult life!

I proposed a six-week, twice-weekly course to the intern manager, and it was approved. We started with seven high school kids, ranging from 15 to 17 years old, and seven college students, 18 to 20 years old. The one instruction I had from the intern manager was that he wanted these young people to bond as a group—to become a team.

In six weeks we covered many topics*:

  • We explored Sonja Ljubomirsky’s The How of Happiness and, in particular, the concept of gratitude as a primer for happiness.
  • We discussed benefit finding vs fault finding.
  • We explored the joys of journaling.
  • We tried out power poses, thanks to Amy Cuddy.
  • Everyone took the VIA strengths test and we created a team profile. In one session, we contemplated the profile and considered “Is this a team you would like to belong to? Why? Why not?”
  • Everyone tried new strengths on for size, and all the attendees received a copy of Character Strengths Matter: How to Live A Full Life.
  • We read parts of Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself and considered neuroplasticity and what it means for us.
  • We watched video clips and played team- and strength-building games.
  • We used music to inspire and cheer us.
  • Everyone created a positivity poster and we displayed them on the last day.
  • At every session, we discussed the impact of the material and the exercises from the previous session, but—in the fine tradition of evidence-based positive psychology—I was determined to measure the effect with something more than anecdotal evidence. So I had all the participants take the Oxford Happiness Survey at the start of the workshop and again at the end of the six weeks. Their scores increased. Things were great.

    Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and the students returned to school and college. They promised to keep journaling and keep learning. But, as we were all saying goodbye, three local high school students approached me to ask if they could continue with the program. I gladly agreed; working with them had been so uplifting and heartening.

    When we gathered again a few weeks later, I asked, “Since we stopped meeting in August, how have you been doing? What have you noticed? Have things just gone back to the way they were before?”

    There was a long, uncomfortable pause—and then they launched into conversation. All three said that the workshop had changed them (that was their word) and they began to share what that meant. They talked about how being aware of and able to cultivate strengths had helped them deal with day-to-day life better. They each listed occasions in the past when, in the face of difficult situations, they would have given in or become depressed, and maybe wouldn’t have even left their beds for a day or two. Now they acknowledge the bad, find some benefit, and then move on.

    They talked about how, even on the most difficult day, they can find things to appreciate. Even without the external support and stimulus of our regular meetings, they are remembering to come back to expressing gratitude for whatever is good in their lives, even when they are in a moment that feels bad. They described coping even when things seem overwhelming, and they confirmed that they use these newfound skills every day. When I asked what they had done in the last few days that made them feel good, all three had an example of having helped someone else—a family member, a friend, a stranger. One of the three even commented, “Kind of strange for a teenager, isn’t it—to think of others?”

    In six short weeks, they had learned and integrated tools to help them develop resilience. And, in turn, those tools and their sense of well-being are being paid forward to people around them. They are living the saying “Appreciate the good, and the good appreciates.” And all it took was a couple hours a week for a few weeks. Imagine what that could mean for the world.

    *The material referenced above is part of a complete workshop for young people called Young People Discovering Positivity: Young People Discovering Growth, © 2015 ALLE LLC.

    RuthPRuth Pearce is the founder of the newly formed ALLE LLC (A Lever Long Enough). Her company specializes in team and workplace positivity and in building resilience and happiness in young people, particularly teenagers. Most recently, Ruth spent a year first revitalizing and then leading a team of more than 100 technologists in the United States and India on an Enterprise Data Warehouse program. Previously, she spent 20 years as a program manager on large IT programs, primarily in the financial services industry. She is currently working with the Wholebeing Institute on the 2016 Embodied Positive Psychology (EP2) Summit at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Ruth lives in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts with her husband, Gareth, and their dog, Milo.