Positive psychology, positive education

Flourishing schools and wellbeing

According to Moya O’Brien, a school really flourishes when it practises “positive psychology”. Here she explains the connection and examines an organic approach to the development of wellbeing in schools. Academic success follows.

For further ideas about “positive psychology” see the downloadable PDF at the end of the article.

What is Positive Psychology?

Positive Psychology focuses on building strengths and competencies rather than merely treating deficits and disorders. It has been defined as the scientific study of optimal human functioning (Seligman) and is concerned with discovering what makes people happier, more productive and more successful.  As Boniwell puts it – “Positive psychology is still psychology- it just studies different and often far more interesting topics and asks slightly different questions, such as ‘what works?’ rather than ‘what doesn’t?’ or ‘what is right?’ with the person rather than ‘what is wrong?”

A central goal of positive psychology is to advance our knowledge about how to help individuals improve their levels of happiness and create the conditions that allow people to flourish and thrive. The focus is not on fleeting feelings of pleasure or wellbeing but deeper reaches of human fulfilment and is fundamentally concerned with harnessing human strengths and virtues and improving the human condition through finding meaning, purpose and increasing happiness.

Positive Education

There are a number of competing goals in any school. Schools are part of a community responding and adhering to government rules and regulations.  They strive to meet parent expectations and meeting the individual needs of each student. Seligman identifies the goals parents have for their children – to grow up to become happy, successful and confident adults. Schools aim to “educate” students and maintain high academic standards. Positive education tries to bridge the gap between these goals by teaching the skills for wellbeing and the skills for achievement. The vision is a school in which children can learn and achieve but also be happy, thrive, grow and flourish.

Optimal wellbeing

Optimal student wellbeing has been defined by Nobel as “… a sustainable emotional state characterised by (predominantly) positive mood, attitude and relationships at school, resilience, self-optimisation and a high level of satisfaction with learning experiences.”  According to Seligman, we need to teach wellbeing in schools for three reasons – as an antidote to depression, as a way to increase life satisfaction and as an aid to better learning and creative thinking .

If we address student wellbeing, academic achievement will follow. The research supports this.  Students who were rated to have higher levels of wellbeing demonstrated better academic outcomes and reduced absences. As with any new idea it takes courage and leadership to put this into practice and it can take time to achieve results and see the benefits of such an approach. The schools who have addressed wellbeing flourish and thrive.

Flourishing Schools

Defining and measuring the components of a flourishing school is a challenge; what you are defining is a positive attitude, an experience and a positive atmosphere.   Each school operates within its own culture and its own community all of which influence the schools ethos.  In a flourishing school there is a positive culture and a supportive collaborative atmosphere.  It is a both a psychologically and a physically safe environment. When we are discussing flourishing in schools Norrish maintains we are discussing complex relationships across multidimensional levels. A flourishing school is a school where the individuals in the school are flourishing, the students, the staff, the class, the team, the school community.

Individual students are happy, thriving in social relationships, achieving goals with competence and confidence and contributing to the class and the school community. Staff members may be flourishing when they obtain a deep sense of value in their work and experience positive emotion throughout the day.  The staff generate positive emotion, celebrate success and model resilience in the face of setbacks. Each person feels like a valued member of the school community.

A curriculum for wellbeing?

A positive message at Geelong Grammar

In the past ten years there have been numerous attempts to develop a curriculum for wellbeing.   While many of these are excellent, in order to become a flourishing school these practices have to be integrated across all staff and students and be a part of daily school life.  A targeted intervention aimed at the students is useful but, in order to flourish and thrive, core elements of positive psychology must be integrated at school level in three interconnected ways.

Modeling and living positive psychology as teachers

Teachers can live it (practise the skills themselves in their lives), teach it (teach discrete skills to students) and embed it across all classroom and school activities. There are multiple opportunities, moments when teachers have an opportunity to increase hope, savour positive events, redefine success and respond in a way that builds positive relationships and enhances wellbeing.  Each of these moments contribute to a flourishing school from the ground up.

Flourishing schools are inclusive schools

Schools that flourish are inclusive. There is a sense of belonging and each student and teacher is welcomed as part of the school community. Each member of the community has a contribution to make and a responsibility to make the school a better place to be.  This is communicated to every member of the school communities in words and deeds.

Positive example: Geelong Grammar School, Australia

One school that subscribes to positive education and has been presented as a good model is the Geelong Grammar School in Australia. As a school they focus on six areas from positive psychology associated with wellbeing; positive emotions, positive engagement, positive accomplishment, positive purpose, positive relationships, and positive health (Norrish et al 2013). They integrate and support students in developing these six areas across all school activities to enhance student wellbeing.

More information about these six areas can be found in the downloadable PDF:

Using positive psychology to create a flourishing school environment

by Moya O’Brien

Click on the image to download the PDF

The downloadable PDF contains further guidance on using positive psychology and positive education to help create a flourishing school environment and evaluating success.


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Moya O’Brien


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Fredrickson., B. L., & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotion broadens the scope of attention and the thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion, 19 (3), 313-332.


Fredrickson, B. L. (2000). Cultivating positive emotions to optimize health and well-being. Prevention & Treatment, 3, Article 0001a.


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Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity. Crown Publishers, New York.


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Gottman, J.  (1994), What Predicts Divorce?: The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes


Lewis, S.. (2015). Positive Psychology and Change How Leadership, Collaboration and Appreciative Inquiry Create Transformational Results. Wiley Blackwell.


Noble, T., McGrath, H., Roffey, S., & Rowling, L. (2008). A scoping study on student wellbeing. Canberra: Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.


Norrish, J. M., Williams, P., O’Connor, M., & Robinson, J. (2013). An applied framework for positive education. International Journal of Wellbeing, 3(2), 147-161.


Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.


Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and wellbeing and how to achieve them. Boston: Nicolas Brealey Publishing.


Seligman, M. E., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich., K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford review of education,35 (3), 293-311.


Suldo, S. M., Thalji, A., & Ferron, J. (2011). Longitudinal academic outcomes predicted by early adolescents’ subjective well-being, psychopathology, and mental health status yielded from a dual factor model. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(1), 17-30. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2010.536774

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