Positive Psychology and the Future of ELT

Positive Psychology and the Future of ELT

By: Sarah Mercer

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As I write, the world is still in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis.

Particularly in education, students and teachers have had to adjust to new working conditions, both displaying an incredible commitment to ensuring the best education possible in the circumstances. As with all critical periods and experiences, the crisis has caused many individuals to take stock and reflect on what matters most, what is important to prioritise, and what lessons they want to learn when moving into the “new normal” post-pandemic.

In language education too, we now have the opportunity to consider the values, purpose, and aims of what we do. In ELT, as a community, we should also use this moment in time to think about how we would like the future of our profession to be. In this article, I am allowing myself to reflect on one aspect of my wished-for future for the profession and for education in general. I argue that well-being should be a critical foundation for the future of education, and that ELT is well positioned to take on this role using insights from Positive Psychology (PP). I suggest that focusing on individual and collective well-being, including global citizenship and sustainable living, should be, and indeed already is, part of our shared responsibilities as educators and that working towards these objectives will ideally inform our future practices.

Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology (PP) is a relatively recent branch of Psychology that focuses on what is needed to live “a good life.” The founding father of PP is probably Martin Seligman who initially outlined the rationale and vision for PP in an article with Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 2000. One of the key arguments was that Psychology has traditionally focused largely on problems, deficiencies, and disorders, with little to no attention to what positive traits exist or how people come to enjoy a positive life. The authors argued that the field needed a more balanced and rounded view of human life and experience. This means not only looking at what goes wrong and how to remedy this, but also understanding what contributes to flourishing and a life well lived. In an overview of articles published between 2012 and 2017 in the Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Happiness Studies, MacIntyre, Gregersen, and Mercer (2019) reported that key topics in PP covered include: well-being, happiness, gratitude, life satisfaction, strengths, meaning in life, positive emotions, and testing specific interventions designed to facilitate personal growth.

"Well-being is collective"
Sarah Mercer
TT Author

At the heart of Positive Psychology is the notion of well-being and how to foster this. Perhaps the dominant model to understand this has been proposed by Seligman (2011), who suggested that to flourish in life, we draw on 5 characteristics referred to as PERMA (Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments). This is known as a eudemonic view of well-being where long-term self-actualisation is central to leading a satisfying and meaningful life. Potentially, the PERMA model can be expanded and some scholars have already added physical well-being as a key facet of mental well-being–essentially, they are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps for me, one of the most important expansions required is a more strongly social element to this model of well-being. As a theory with its roots in individualistic psychology, the emphasis remains very much on the individual and their personal well-being. While this is important and remains within our immediate sphere of influence, humans are always part of a collective. In order for communities and societies to flourish, individuals need to flourish, and we flourish as individuals when we live in societies that have and value collective and social well-being. As such, my understanding of well-being is that this is both an individual and a collective state with each defining the other. PP can be used to teach people how to develop their own flourishing, but, at the same time, it can also teach people how to contribute to the well-being of others, their communities, and the planet as a whole. Well-being is collective and ecologically situated.

Recently, the New Zealand government has announced that rather than focusing on GDP as a way of evaluating the health of their society, they are going to focus on well-being measures, following on from Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, the UN’s Happiness Report (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2017), and work on other national well-being indices (Diener & Seligman, 2004). Indeed, within the UN Sustainable Development Agenda 2030, quality education goals are explicitly defined as:

Ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development. (UNESCO, 2017, p. 8)

Thus, as educators, it is already within our remit to ensure we teach our learners the skills they need to flourish as individuals but also as members of their local, national, and global communities.

Positive Psychology within ELT

There are a number of reasons why we should be promoting well-being in ELT. First and foremost, positive well-being is a basic human right and nowhere should this be more obviously a desired condition than in an educational setting. Students should be flourishing within their learning contexts, not only because they deserve to as humans but also because we know that students with high wellbeing also cope better academically and achieve more (Seligman et al., 2009).

ELT specifically is well situated to take on board the responsibility of teaching individual and collective well-being alongside the language. Firstly, ELT, which follows a Communicative Approach, typically tends to have an open curriculum which gives us the flexibility to address a range of issues within our teaching. Furthermore, ELT has a long tradition of incorporating other educational goals alongside linguistic aims, such as in the form of socio-cultural competence or interpersonal skills. Another recent development that has very explicitly sought to simultaneously achieve two educational goals has been Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), which often focuses on teaching a subject alongside language learning. Therefore, the model for a dual-strand approach already exists in our field and provides us valuable lessons about potential strengths and pitfalls when teaching English and well-being competences.

For those who still may be thinking that teaching wellbeing is not their job, in fact, it is already the “official” job of educators in many settings. A key development in education across the globe has been the introduction of global skills which are present in many general, core or transversal curricula.[1] Global skills are defined as “the skills which people are acknowledged to need in order to flourish in their professional and personal lives” (Mercer et al., 2019, p. 10). There has been a shift from the traditional 21st century skills, which are already outdated. Typically, the focus was on the 4Cs (critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication) and digital literacy. However, many recognised that this focus only on skills needed for the workplace was insufficient to meet contemporary challenges facing individuals and societies. As such, these have been broadened in most cases to also include socio-emotional competences, well-being, global citizenship, and sustainable living, as well. Indeed, state curricula in countries such as Australia, Bhutan, Brazil, Japan, New Zealand, and Scotland already include such competencies. However, they are often embedded in general and non-subject specific curricular which means that, in reality, nobody feels particularly responsible for teaching them and they are at risk of becoming invisible and overlooked.

[1] A transversal curriculum is one across all subjects.

Yet, in ELT, there have already been explicit key developments to ensure teachers are able to cover these competences in their teaching. For example, a number of major publishing houses have now provided frameworks and coursebooks including these global skills as they recognise the increasingly central role they play in language education. For example, the Cambridge Language and Pedagogy Research created the Cambridge Life Competences Framework (CUP, 2019) and Oxford University Press published a position paper including teaching ideas on “Global Skills in ELT” (Mercer, Hockly, Stobart, & Lorenzo, 2019). The discussion no longer really centres on whether we should be teaching global skills in ELT, but the concern is more now about how we should be doing this.


As we move forward, we must consider what it is important for education to achieve. In my view, a greater focus on individual and collective well-being is vital and this is the responsibility of every educator. In ELT, we are especially well positioned to take up this role and commitment. We have the capacity, methodological potential, and, through PP, we also have the tools and knowledge of how to do this. Teaching for individual and collective well-being is the best way to work towards happier, more just societies and a healthier planet. We are entering a new era for education, for ELT, and for the planet. It is up to us to make a positive difference. Every teacher can contribute towards making “Positive Language Education” (Mercer et al., 2018) a global reality, empowering learners not only to achieve their linguistic goals but also to be equipped to live flourishing lives as individuals and as global citizens.


  • Cambridge University Press. (2019). The Cambridge life competencies framework. Retrieved from: https://languageresearch.cambridge.org/clc

  • Diener, E. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5(1), 1–31.

  • Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2017). World happiness report 2017. New York, NY: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

  • MacIntyre, P., Gregersen, T., & Mercer, S. (2019). Setting an agenda for Positive Psychology in SLA: Theory, practice, and research. The Modern Language Journal, 103(1), 262-274.

  • Mercer, S., Hockly, N., Stobart, G., & Lorenzo, N. (2019). Global skills in ELT. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from: https://elt.oup.com/feature/global/expert/global-skills

  • Mercer, S., MacIntyre, P., Gregersen, T., & Talbot, K. (2018). Positive Language Education: Combining positive education and language education. Theory and Practice of Second Language Acquisition, 4(2), 11–31.

  • Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Free Press.

  • Seligman, M. E. P. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5–14.

  • Seligman, M. E. P., 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.

  • United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. (2017). Education for sustainable development goals: Learning objectives. Paris, France: UNESCO.

Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching and Head of ELT at the University of Graz. She is the author, co-author and co-editor of several books in the field of language learning psychology. In 2018, she was awarded the Robert C Gardner Award for excellence in second language research.

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