Living into Well-Being: Our Theme for the Year

At MICDS, the theme for this year is well-being. The picture of well-being at MICDS is perhaps best captured in this image. The smile on his face embodies this concept. On the whiteboard behind him, you can see his math work. He’s clearly figured something really challenging out, and he’s delighted with his accomplishment.

That’s what well-being looks like.

This summer, our administrative team at MICDS read the book Flourish by Martin Seligman. You perhaps know if his work already—he’s written a number of popular books on the question of happiness and is also known as the father of positive psychology.

Allow me to talk a little bit about the difference between traditional psychology or psychiatry. The primary goal of traditional psychologists or psychiatrists is to relieve the suffering of their patients. They work to help  those dealing with severe depression and anxiety, alcohol or substance abuse, schizophrenia, etc, and use a variety of approaches, often in combination with prescription drugs, to try and help their patients function.

Positive psychologists, instead, seek to do something quite different. It is their goal to help all individuals thrive. They focus on life satisfaction and happiness. Over the last couple of decades, they have accumulated a large and growing body of research that demonstrates there are specific steps each individual can take that will result in increased happiness, life satisfaction and well-being. Many of our MICDS parents heard Tim Bono speak last year on this very topic.

One of the important tenets of positive psychology is that each and every individual has certain talents and interests that make them unique. And when that individual makes use of those unique attributes, he or she is much more likely to thrive—I’ll come back to that point shortly.

This photo of an Upper School student also embodies well-being. Just look at her—she’s weighted down with too many books and a heavy sports bag; it’s been raining; and yet she’s absolutely delighted to be here on this day.  

Martin Seligman uses the acronym PERMA as a pneumonic to help us remember five  important aspects of well-being. Positive emotion is that energy that is grounded in what good and positive and uplifting. Engagement is when we spend time doing those things that are important to us and to those around us. It doesn’t matter very much what it is really – it’s being actively involved in things that stimulate our thinking and warm our hearts. Positive relationships are those relationships that feed us. They lift us up and call us to be our best selves. They find their roots in positive relationships and healthy dynamics. This also means that we should avoid those relationships that drag us down, make us feel inadequate or cause us to be someone we don’t want to be. Meaning is something quite personal – it’s the opportunity to engage in things that have real value and importance to us personally. Something that feeds our soul. Achievement, too, is related to this . Achievement is not about external validation of our work (grades, money and the like). Achievement in this sense is about the deep satisfaction we derive from greater mastery in areas we care deeply about — and while that certainly could bring accolades from others —what really matters is that we’re getting better at or we find progress in those areas we really care about.  

Seligman reprised a term first coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow.  Flow is that state we find ourselves in when we are fully engaged, and happily so, in the work at hand. Surgeons and architects, gardeners and musicians—hopefully all of us—have on occasion felt this state. When in flow, we lose track of time and are so absorbed in what we are doing that we think of nothing else. We are fully present. Seligman states in Flourish that “You go into flow when your highest strengths are deployed to meet the highest challenges that come our way.  In well-being theory, these twenty-four strengths underpin all five elements, not just engagement. Deploying your highest strengths leads to more positive emotion, to more meaning, to more accomplishment and to better relationships.” And this idea of identifying and making good use of our own unique strengths is a central tenet of positive psychology. Helping children know what they are really uniquely good at or interested in—loving the child we have, not the one we thought we were going to have—is key here.

Many of you will remember Tim Bono who spoke on campus last year to both adults and students in the Upper School.  Like Seligman, Tim Bono is a positive psychologist and is a professor at Wash U. Dr. Bono wrote When Likes Aren’t Enough, A Crash Course on the Science of Happiness. When he spoke with faculty and staff recently, he stressed three things we should all focus on. (No surprise-—they echo Dr. Seligman’s work!)

Dr. Bono uses the Happiness Equation to remind us that when we learn to be deeply grateful for what we have, we are much happier. Dividing what we want by what we have gives a sort of happiness percentage. The more we focus on enjoying and appreciating what we have and the less we focus on yearning for what we don’t have, the better off we are.

Many of us are increasingly worried about young people. As documented by this survey back from 2013 (cited in How to Raise an Adult) of 100,000 college students, young people today are feeling overwhelmed, emotionally and physically depleted, sad, anxious and lonely. Nearly 32% of respondents stated they felt so depressed that it was difficult to function. And this among students at 153 top colleges and universities!  So what are parents and educators to do? I’ve already shared three books that I would like to encourage you to read: Flourish by Seligman, When Likes Aren’t Enough by Bono and How to Raise an Adult by Lythcott-Haimes, and soon I’ll add another author for you to consider.  

Here is what Seligman and Bono recommend, and it’s all grounded in a growing body of research.  Sound research studies indicate that if we express gratitude each day (and particularly if we take the time to write down five things for which we are grateful, and if we take the time to write a letter of gratitude and read it to the person to whom it’s written);  if we do things with and for other people (random acts of kindness, and cultivate deep, positive connections with those around us); and if we take care of our bodies by getting daily exercise and over seven hours of sleep—if we do that, then we will have a significant boost in our happiness and well-being.  In fact, as you will find in Dr. Seligman’s book, the benefits of these specific strategies outweigh those of medication in a number of studies for those struggling with moderate to mild depression, for example. (For serious mental illness and emotional issues medication can be very helpful, and he doesn’t claim otherwise. I certainly don’t want to either.)

What’s important about this is that we as adults can encourage our children and students to focus on gratitude, foster positive relationships and take care of their bodies!  

Here are some specific suggestions you may want to consider:

  • Focus on what’s working, going well, special to your child;  
  • Come up with a routine that allows each person to express gratitude, perhaps at dinner or at night before going to sleep;  
  • Do things that matter together, like service, family chores;  
  • At sit-down dinner—like in Circle Time in Beasley—listen with interest and ask questions that allow each person to relive the best parts of their day;  
  • Coach your child in empowering ways that are solution-driven, and “avoid interviewing for pain”

A few years ago, Wendy Mogel spoke a the J, where a number of MICDS parents attended.  In her books, including The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus,  she provides practical, no-nonsense advice that empowers parents to be confident adults for their children. She uses Jewish teachings and texts to do this, though parents of all faiths will benefit enormously from her insights. Here are a few quotes from The Blessings of a Skinned Knee: “If we want to give our children what they need to thrive, we must honor their basic nature- boyish or girlish, introverted or extroverted, wild or mellow.”

“A Hasidic teaching says, “If your child has a talent to be a baker, don’t tell him to be a doctor.” Judaism holds that every child is made in the divine image. When we ignore a child’s intrinsic strengths in an effort to push him toward our notion of extraordinary achievement, we are undermining God’s plan.”

“Unsure how to find grace and security in the complex world we’ve inherited, we try to fill up the spaces in our children’s lives with stuff: birthday entertainments, lessons, rooms full of toys and equipment, tutors and therapists. But material pleasures can’t buy peace of mind, and all the excess leads to more anxiety—parents fear that their children will not be able to sustain this rarefied lifestyle and will fall off the mountain the parents have built for them.”

Psychologies note—and my own experience makes it abundantly clear—that the happier, calmer and more centered the parents, the same is true for the kids. So taking care of ourselves (putting on our own oxygen mask before we assist others) is really important.  Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Encourage your book club to read one of the books we’ve talked about
  • Start keeping a gratitude journal
  • Make exercise and sleep a priority (oxygen mask)
  • Model behaviors that feed PERMA
  • Engage in activities that feed your OWN soul
  • Avoid negative emotions, negative relationships, and soul-draining activities

As MICDS parents, please join us for parent education events, watch for tips in the Parent News, join divisional and grade-level meetings…and consider participating in a book discussion with Michelle Cohen (parent, alumnus and current Board Chair) and me on Flourish starting in October. Let’s kick off this year of well-being together as a community.  

Thank you.