Research Scientist Dr Imelda Caleon is concerned about the increasing stress students face today, especially those who are struggling academically, and therefore more vulnerable to maladaptive outcomes. To better equip these students with resources to cope with challenges, her team developed a suite of positive psychology intervention activities to help them cultivate grateful thinking, set and work towards goals, and utilize their strengths to improve their well-being and excel in life.
Stress and Low Achievement
Adolescence is a transitional stage which can be highly stressful for many due to the co-occurrence of various physiological and social changes. “With the pervasiveness of social media these days, youths are even more vulnerable to social threats like cyberbullying that may affect their psychological and academic functioning,” says Imelda.
The increase in the prevalence and level of depression among youths worldwide is a worrying trend. Studies have found that the levels of well-being or ill-being earlier in life, such as during adolescence, can have long-term effects on subsequent life trajectories, and can predict future outcomes such as physical health, educational attainment, work performance, job satisfaction, and income.
Low-achieving students in the adolescent stage face compounded difficulties. “Relative to their peers, this group of students is likely to be more stressed out because they need to address academic challenges to level up their performance while they contend with the social stressors that co-occur with developmental changes,” says Imelda.
Studies have shown that cultivating positive emotions is one way to help these students buffer the effects of academic and social stressors and improve their learning and overall well-being. In line with this, Imelda asserts that “increasing happiness among learners can help them become better learners”.
By zooming in on positive traits, feelings and experiences, that is, to cultivate positivity among students, Imelda’s study attempts to improve the well-being and school outcomes of students who are struggling academically.
Building Well-being Resources
Imelda led a research team that focused on developing and evaluating three interventions geared towards cultivating students’ well-being, as well as adaptive academic outcomes: the Gratitude, Hope and Strengths Positive Psychology Interventions (PPIs).
The Gratitude and Hope PPI were found to generate promising benefits; the Strengths PPI was found to generate enjoyable experiences among the students but did not seem to produce significant effects on the target outcomes of the study.
The results of the study showed that the when students were taught to be more grateful using the Gratitude PPI, they tended to have higher levels of well-being (i.e., lower life satisfaction) and lower levels of ill-being (i.e., lower ratings in self-reported depressive symptoms).
“When we are grateful, we recognize that we are recipients of benefits from others and learn to appreciate the people around us. This may lead to the forging of more positive relationships and bring about increased levels of happiness,” explains Imelda. “Many other positive outcomes are facilitated by positive relationships, such as increase in self-esteem and motivation to learn.”
The Hope PPI, which guided the students to engage in hopeful thinking (e.g., setting efficient goals and savouring success in attaining goals), was found to be effective in preventing an increase in students’ depressive symptoms, preventing the decline in students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and to master learning materials, and improving the students’ use of productive learning strategies (i.e., those that involve deep processing of learning materials).
“When we are grateful, we recognize that we are recipients of benefits from others and learn to appreciate the people around us.”
– Imelda on the importance of being grateful
Principles of Positive Psychology
All of the stated intervention activities were grounded on the principles of positive psychology. Positive psychology is a movement within psychology that is concerned with the factors, processes and conditions which lead to happiness, flourishing and fulfillment.
For the advocates of positive psychology, each individual has strengths and resources that co-occur with problems, challenges and sufferings. “It is important that we face, understand and address the problems and difficulties that come our way,” Imelda says. “In doing so, we also need to acknowledge and build our strengths and resources coming from both internal and external spheres of human experience.”
By looking at human experience in a more comprehensive way, educators can better support students to blossom and flourish. Imelda also emphasized that the PPIs developed in her study attempt to cultivate students’ positive emotions without denying nor denigrating their negative emotions.
Imelda hopes that the PPIs will help students attain a healthier balance between positive and negative aspects in their lives, which can subsequently catalyze personal growth and development.