For the past decade, Positive Education has swept across the Australian education landscape. Based on the science of positive psychology, Pos Ed is all about marrying the science of wellbeing with the skills of achievement. In short, it’s about helping kids feel well so that they learn well.
Intuitively this approach makes sense. And with catchy commercialised content in the form of Growth Mindset, Strengths, Mindfulness, and more, it’s no wonder everyone has gone bananas about it.
I’m all for the science of positive psychology. I did my PhD in the area. I advocate for wellbeing at school, at home, and at work.
I have watched a whole lot of unqualified practitioners (and even some highly qualified practitioners) run around selling Pos Ed like it’s the answer to everything, making claims that don’t have a strong scientific basis (or any at all), and relying on folk-wisdom or someone else’s science to spruik their wares.
This past month a new research paper has been published that throws shade at the Positive Psychology movement generally. (You can read the full paper here).
It’s a fairly technical paper that re-analyses two Pos Psyc meta-analyses. (A meta-analysis is a study that reviews all previous studies in a certain area to work out what they are all saying when combined together.) This new evidence highlights some major problems with Positive Psychology.
In a nutshell, it says that, yep, Positive Psychology interventions do help with wellbeing. But just a bit. A teeny-weeny bit. They boost wellbeing barely (effect size = .10). They pretty much don’t reduce depression at all (effect size = .07). For the technically minded, this essentially means Pos Psyc is essentially not doing anything meaningful at all.
Should we throw Positive Education out? Do we stop investing in wellbeing in schools and go back to basics with the 3 R’s?
Well, I don’t think so. There are a few reasons:
First, this new meta-analysis is a review of two old meta-analyses that highlights that neither of them did a great job and neither of them looked at nearly all of the relevant research. They not only made errors with the stats, but they didn’t examine everything they needed to.
Second, the new meta-analysis highlighted that many Pos Psyc interventions are still not designed to the best standards of science, and there’s a lack of quality that is getting in the way of our understanding whether Pos Psyc actually does make change.
Third, the authors of this paper highlight that we’re still actually arguing over what is and is not a Pos Psyc intervention. This is a bit of a science nerdy geek out, but it matters if you’re running a school or workplace wanting to implement Pos Psyc interventions. What counts and what doesn’t? What works and what doesn’t?
So here’s what we do know:
- Pos Psyc interventions tend to work better when employed over a longer duration rather than a quick-fix one-off.
- It’s not just duration, but frequency that matters. Just like exercise needs to be regular and for a sufficient amount of time, psychological wellbeing exercises work similarly.
- Combining multiple Pos Psyc interventions is likely to have greater effect than just going with one thing (although there are exceptions)
- The studies in the interventions examined for these meta-analyses are not conducted in schools or organisations. We do have some evidence that Positive Psychology interventions can be highly effective in schools and organisations, but these typically work best when conducted over a longer duration with a reasonable degree of frequency.
- In any intervention there will be some people who are helped and others who are not helped. This will be due to factors related to their personality, psychological wellbeing, the degree to which they invest themselves in and adhere to the intervention, the quality of the person carrying out the intervention, and a multitude of other factors.
Here’s what I’d love to know from you…
How effective have you found Positive Psychology interventions personally and/or at your place of work?
Are there some things that have worked better and others that haven’t worked at all? And why?
Throwing out Positive Psychology interventions is a poor choice at this stage. We have sufficient evidence to believe it’s worth continuing. However, being wiser in the interventions we choose to deliver, ensuring effective systems are in place to promote adherence, and being confident that the person delivering the intervention is knowledgeable and capable are vital to the success of any intervention, positive psyc related or not.