Positive Psychology in Language Teaching

July 2020

This month we explore the role that Positive Psychology can have in the classroom. We’re going far deeper than just “positive thinking”! This issue dives into the scientific underpinnings of Positive Psychology and provides tools for teachers to use in their classrooms. 

Watch before you read...

Positive Psychology pioneer Christopher Peterson once defined the discipline as “the scientific study of what makes life most worth living.” In this issue, organized by guest editor Marc Helgesen, we attempt to connect this science to our world of language teaching. In the introductory videos, the father of the field, Martin Seligman explains his PERMA model of well-being. Scott Galloway, a marketing professor, breaks it down as The Algebra of Happiness.

In our lead article, Sarah Mercer introduces us to Positive Psychology and the role well-being can play in education and ELT. Bill Snyder explores Csíkszentmihályi’s important concept of Flow, and considers practical ways we can create Flow in the classroom. Marc Helgesen shares how he introduces positive psychology, and four of his former graduate students, Megumi Yoshieida, Jason Walters, Masami Maeda, and Eriko Mishima explain how they use it in their classrooms.

In the Plus section, Marc returns to give us a look at the neurotransmitters behind positive emotion, Mirela Ramacciotti tells us a story about her mother, and Oxford University Press give us some interesting data related to online teaching.

Our Thoughts on Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology and our Featured Videos Marc Helgesen

From the time, in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud looked at his cigar and wondered what it meant, Psychology focused on problems: mental illness, depression, and the like. Then, just about 20 years ago, a group of people in the American Psychological Association (APA) asked, “What about mental health?”

Think Tank Articles

Positive Psychology and the Future of ELT Sarah Mercer

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.

Using Flow Theory to Create the Engaging Classroom Bill Snyder

Engagement is the E in Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of human flourishing. And Seligman is explicit about what engagement is. It is Flow. Flow has been the focus of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s research for around 60 years now in various contexts. Csíkszentmihályi presents Flow as those moments of total engagement and “effortless action” we experience when “what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony” (1997, p. 28). When we are in a Flow state, our attention is focused and we feel in control of our actions. Self-consciousness, as well as sense of time, disappear.

Introducing Positive Psychology Marc Helgesen

Just over 15 years ago, I first heard about Positive Psychology. It was the topic of a cover story in TIME Magazine. They called it, “The Science of Happiness.” In the issue, there was a short article by University of California-Riverside psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky. It was called, “Eight Steps Toward a More Satisfying Life.” Those steps are shown in the pictures above.

Four Applications of PosPsy in the Classroom Megumi Yoshieida, Jason Walter, Eriko Mishima, and Masami Maeda

For most of the past decade, Marc Helgesen taught a “Positive Psychology in ELT” course in the MA TESOL program at the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies. After the course, students are encouraged to use and develop activities in their own classes. What follows are a few examples of things they have done.

Think Tank Plus

This is Your Brain on Happiness: A Chemical Story Marc Helgesen & The Chems

We hear a lot about brain chemicals: Neurotransmitters and hormones: Dopamine. Serotonin. Oxytocin. Endorphin. And they all impact our feelings and behavior. The problem, of course, is Psychology and Brain Science aren’t Biology or Chemistry. In Chemistry, two molecules of hydrogen coupled with one of oxygen are going to give you water every time. Social sciences, including Psychology don’t work like that.

From Anger to Redemption: Learning about Acceptance Mirela Ramacciotti

The story I have to tell is one that profoundly touched me. It not only changed the course of my studies but also led me to pursue quite a different track in how I developed my career in Neuroscience. But that can come later, first let me share the story with you. It is about a boy, still in the early years of schooling, who came to our English language school in a predicament: would we accept him?

Call for Contributions: Ideas & Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Going Deeper

Everyone asks… “How do you pronounce ‘Csíkszentmihályi’?”

Easier than it looks: chick-SENT-me-high.

“Mihály” is pronounced: Mee-high

(but Seligman pronounces it, “Mike.)”For a quick (5-minute) introduction to FLOW, watch THIS VIDEO.

The Happiness Lab

Hosted by Yale University professor Dr. Laurie Santos, The Happiness Lab provides a weekend update on important ideas from the field, along with practical ways to make use of those ideas. Each episode is about 40 minutes long. The program is now finishing its second season, although they did do an extra 10-episode “coronavirus bonus.”

The Science of Happiness Podcast

Based at the University of California–Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and hosted by Dr. Dacher Keltner, a founder of the Center, each episode highlights someone talking about a “happiness exercise” they have just learned or experienced. Then a scientist explains what was happening with the exercise. Most episodes are about 20 minutes long.

Greater Good Magazine

An on-line magazine for the Greater Good Science Center. Get regular updates to your email linking you to several articles. There is a huge number of articles from previous issues, and education is one of the categories you can search.

Happiness – Found in Translation is a delightful little book by Tim Lomas, a professor of Positive Psychology at the University of East London. The subtitle, “A Glossary of Joy from Around the World” describes it well. There are a lot of words related to happiness and positive emotion that have no good translation in English. But a few simple explanations, examples, and beautiful illustrations by Annika Huett make the meanings clear. Each word is given a two-page spread. I could have easily read it in a single evening, but I thought it would be more interesting and useful to spread-out the experience, reading only a few pages at a time, thinking about and really savoring the words.

We can’t reproduce pages here, but we can link to the “look inside” samples on amazon.com. Click HERE. Scroll down to page 20 to start seeing examples, such as Njuta, the Swedish word meaning “To enjoy deeply and intensely. To appreciate profoundly. To revel in life.”

Happiness Myths

Sorting fact from myth is important. In Brain Science, it is important enough that Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa has written a whole book on Neuromyths.

On the topic of Happiness Myths, author Gretchen Rubin has blogged about 10 of the most common. The blog is on PsychCentral. Click HERE for the article. For each myth, click on the sentence in blue to go to a page with more information and, in most cases, the source of the information.

Gretchen Rubin is the award-winning author of The Happiness Project and other books. Here podcasts and blog are at https://gretchenrubin.com.

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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

Curtis H. Kelly                Skye Playsted   



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