Think adolescence and you think angst and negativity — it’s not a phase that many of us remember with much pleasure. However, according to positive psychologist Michaela Avlund and schoolteacher Margaret McCormack, while happiness may not be an emotion familiar to many teenagers, they can be taught it. They know, because they’ve tried it — and very successfully — with nearly 60 teenagers.
Last autumn, the two teamed up to provide courses in happiness to Transition Year students in Coláiste Chraobh Abhann in Co Wicklow. It all started with a chance meeting between Michaela , who has a master’s degree in positive psychology, and second-level teacher Margaret, then a transition year co-ordinator, in a local café. Michaela happened to mention that she was preparing to publish a book about happiness skills — Happiness Skills; Based on Positive Psychology.
Margaret was instantly intrigued: “I feel that teenagers today seem to struggle more than they would have 10 or 15 years ago. They appear to have more challenges, partly as a result of the pressures exerted by social media. Life today can be more cruel,” she says, adding that Coláiste Craobh Abhann promoted the need for positive mental health.
“We were interested in bringing the skills into the school.”
Michaela, who is Danish by birth but has been living in Ireland for more than 20 years, was then invited to teach the skills of happiness to 58 students in two groups through weekly workshops during September, October, and November 2015.
Michaela, who is scheduled to present a number of workshops and talks at the Mind Body Spirit Festival at Dublin’s RDS later this month, recalls: “I was writing my book at the time. It was about the happiness skills and how important they are and how we need these skills to give us the resilience required to withstand the tough parts of life.
“Margaret thought that what I was talking about was very relevant to teenagers. “Research has shown that you can change the environment of your brain. When we get into a very ‘down’ frame of mind and begin to ruminate about negative things, there are skills which can help us out of that space and create a happy life that makes us well.”
She set out to teach the teens how to stimulate the ‘feel-good’ part of their brains using these skills: Research, says Michaela, has shown that a particular part of the brain, the right pre-frontal cortex, is a kind of defence system which promotes the production of stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. If this area is overly-stimulated, too much of these hormones is produced. They build up in the body, causing stress, illness, and negative thinking.
However, she says, stimulating the left pre-frontal cortex produces of ‘feelgood’ hormones such as serotonin and dopamine. The teenagers were intrigued by the idea that they could literally control their emotions by stimulating the production of more positive hormones through managing their perceptions and behaviour.
They studied different strategies and formulas which showed them how to view situations or experiences in a more positive light. Part of it is learning how to turn around an unpleasant occurrence by taking the time to consider how it may have happened, she says. Michaela gives the example of an apparently inexplicable argument between friends.
“This is about finding alternative interpretations of what happened,” says Michaela, who explains that one friend might already have been upset about something else before the row occurred. Students also learned about the need to consciously attempt to have positive interactions with other people.
“I wanted to teach the students that in them lies the power to create positive relationships with other people by encouraging, listening to each other’s dreams, being supportive and being able to forgive when we get hurt,” says Michaela, who is creating a series of Youtube clips to accompany each chapter of her book.
Students discussed the concepts of assertiveness, problem-solving, character strengths, and forgiveness, and received a specific formula for letting go of emotions such as hurt or anger. It was fascinating, according to Happiness Skills participant Sinead Conway, 17 , now a 5th year student at Coláiste Chraobh Abhann.
“We’d never had anything like this before. Most of it was about how to take the positive out of the negative,” she says, adding that she found the course encouraged character development.
“I learned a lot of skills — we learned how to ‘write out’ a problem and look at the different possible solutions, and how to focus on your strengths rather than weaknesses,” says Sinéad, adding that learning how to see a situation “from someone’s else’s point of view” helps in relationships and family life.
“I learned from the classes – it made me feel that it’s your own responsibility to make your thinking better.”
Sinead suffers from stress, and believes that the skills will help her tackle the challenges of the Leaving Certificate course.
“I think I’ll take a lot of what we did in class forward into the Leaving Certificate course.”
Michaela adds: “You can do so much if you use these tools, but you need to keep doing them on a day-to-day basis. It can create positive habits that will stand to teenagers.”
Manus de Paor, 16, in fifth year at Chraobh Abhann, also attended the course. It opened his eyes in a number of ways, he recalls — and taught him the benefits of just chilling.
“There’s a big stigma for lads about talking about the challenges you have in life but, the way this class was set up, it was very easy to discuss challenges so you were going to open up about stuff the way that lads would not normally do.
“We learned how it can help you to act kindly towards others and do things that are beneficial to others and take the time to act nicely. I think everyone in the class changed a bit, and in a positive way — we were friendlier, nicer, less cliquey!”
Learning the importance to your happiness of taking time out for yourself rather than obsessing with online games was fascinating, says Manus.
“I tried that during the summer, just taking time out to just chill and not to do an activity like playing a game on your phone but to reflect. I find it helps. It gives you more perspective on things that are going on. I think it makes you feel more chilled and happy and I found that the classes give you more confidence to talk to people.
“It encourages you to be more confident and to start from a point where you accept that maybe everyone has some good in them. I felt it was all very relevant.”
Margaret says that, after those first workshops finished — the school plans to run them again in early 2017 — she felt it had improved the students’ sense of well-being.
“They learned about how making the right decisions makes your day and your life. “As a class this group decided that if they saw someone doing something nice they would say well done.
“Another thing that got across to them was the strength and power of a smile and a greeting — that really struck a chord.”
Positive psychologist Michaela Avlund will be speaking at the Mind, Body, Spirit, and Wellness Festival in Dublin’s RDS from Saturday, October 29 to Monday 31. Her talk will explore how ‘You have the power to change your brain’. she will also present an assertiveness workshop on ‘Knowing what you need and pursuing it with kindness’.
TURN – a negative into a positive
- T — Tell yourself the story. Write it down as it happened.
- U — Understand why it impacted on you so badly.
- R — What’s the result of what happened?
- N — Now change your way of looking at it. Could there be another explanation for what happened? Find an alternative interpretation of, or explanation for, what happened.