Combining the science of wellbeing with morality and ethics

Jennifer Hanson-Peterson

Anzac Service at Geelong Grammar School 2017  

Positive Education brings together the science of Positive Psychology with best practice teaching and learning.  Its ultimate goal is to enable people to live rich, full, meaningful lives - that is, to flourish.  The term flourish, as we like to describe it to the younger students at Geelong Grammar School, is all about “feeling good and doing good” – and we also often refer to the goal of Positive Education at GGS as “living a good life” or having “good character”.  That all seems reasonable and pretty straightforward. But a complex, critical question that we as a school community have had to grapple with on our journey with Positive Education is:  What is ‘good’ and who defines this in our context? If your school is implementing or wanting to implement Positive Education, we believe this is an essential question for you to address within your context, too.

We find that many schools start their Pos Ed journey with an exploration of Character Strengths, introducing their students to strengths to create a common language around people’s positive human qualities, and to highlight what is right with their students. Considered one of the greatest contributions to the field of psychology and viewed as the ‘backbone’ of positive psychology, the book Character Strengths and Virtues by Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman (2004) describes the Values in Action (VIA) Classification of Character Strengths. The VIA Classification comprises 24 Character Strengths that are universally valued. That is, these Character Strengths have been identified by the authors and their large collaborative team of about 50 researchers as being valued across cultures and religions, and throughout history – from religious teachings of the Torah and the Bible, to the ethical teachings of Aristotle and Plato, to even more modern interpretations of desirable attributes such as the words in Hallmark greeting cards. 

Many schools that teach Pos Ed stop their exploration of Character Strengths here - helping students identify their top Character Strengths (i.e. signature strengths), regularly running activities to help strengthen students’ Character Strengths language and encouraging students to use all 24 of their Character Strengths like tools or resources to overcome challenges. This is admirable, but the development and utilisation of our Character Strengths should not be the end goal. Peterson and Seligman sort these 24 Character Strengths into six overarching virtue categories: wisdom - the acquisition and use of knowledge; courage - the will to accomplish goals in face of opposition; humanity - connection to other people; justice – development of a healthy and stable community; temperance - buffering against excesses; and transcendence – connection to the larger universe. It is these six virtues that begin to help us understand what it means to live a ‘good life’, and the Character Strengths are the tools we use to help us move towards these virtues, that is, to live a good, virtuous life. It is important that the Character Strengths remain tethered to these virtues to help Positive Education remain tethered to moral and ethical traditions. Just as a well-functioning, moral society might benefit from pursuing all six of these virtues, so too a well-rounded, flourishing person would remain mindful of the virtues as guiding principles as they employ their own Character Strengths. Yes, we may be particularly drawn to one virtue more than the others. However, most of us would agree that all six virtues are inherently valuable to us and those around us as we attempt to navigate an increasingly complex ethical landscape.

Despite the moral and ethical underpinnings of Peterson & Seligman’s Character Strengths and Virtues, the field of Positive Psychology has intentionally moved in a secular, morally neutral direction. In his 2004 bestseller, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Professor Martin Seligman, one of the founding fathers of Positive Psychology, wrote: “Positive Psychology points the way toward a secular approach to noble purpose and transcendent meaning” (emphasis added). Seligman reiterates that Positive Psychology is grounded in rigorous science; thus, it is often referred to as ‘the science of wellbeing’. As a science, Positive Psychology has a responsibility to meet the “essential features of science”, namely remaining objective and “free of moral, political and social values” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In fact, in an article comparing Peterson and Seligman’s secular approach to Thomas Aquinas’ Christian virtue theory, Titus highlighted that Positive Psychology has indeed attempted to take a “value-free position” and a “morally neutral approach to virtue” (Titus, 2016).  Our team, based on our experience working with the Character Strengths, thinks this is okay to an extent  – Seligman and Peterson’s work “represents the most significant effort in history to review, assemble, research, and classify positive strengths/traits in human beings” (http://www.viacharacter.org/www/About-Institute/Character-Strengths-and-Virtues). They have provided the much-needed groundwork for Positive Education, pioneering a common wellbeing language for schools to use. However, our team does believe there are some major limitations in taking a value-free, morally neutral position when introducing Positive Psychology in and education context, which will be unpacked further in this piece.   
But first, the advantage of this secular approach to Positive Psychology means that a Positive Education framework can be applied successfully in any school – government schools, as well as schools based on the teachings of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and so on. But we argue that it is then the responsibility of the school to take a morally-informed approach to Positive Psychology, to provide the moral context in which the Pos Ed framework will be operating. This context can then inform both the school community’s definition of the nature of the ‘good life’ (Arthur, n.d.; Kritjánsson, n.d.) and its practices of teaching and learning. Establishing the moral context - ideally done in partnership with key stakeholders including parents, students, and teachers -  involves clearly articulating the school community’s social norms and cultural underpinnings, perceptions of morality and its ‘core values’. It is our belief that these must be tied to the development of moral citizens - citizens who contribute to the ‘Common Good’, and are primarily eudaimonic (doing good in the service of others; acting in accordance with their values and purpose in life) as opposed to hedonic (looking only to increase positive emotions such as happiness and minimise painful emotions such as sadness) in their approach to life. These core values must be lived, captured in all policies and practices and must be seen at the ‘masthead’ of the school.

The potential risk of introducing the science of wellbeing into a school that lacks a well-established moral context is that what it means to live a ‘good life’ is open to anyone’s interpretation. Whilst some might not see issue in students defining their own value system, schools do already communicate to their community what is ‘good’, or valued, in their context. First, this is done through the school’s rules and mission and motto; second, this is even more loudly communicated through the actions and behaviours of school staff. It is vital that the former guides the latter. It is important that everyone is on the same page, that the school culture is guided by a collective voice. Without this moral context, Positive Education’s wellbeing practices are at risk of feeling hollow, shallow, or perhaps haphazard and disjointed, leaving students and staff feeling confused (“Why does it really matter if I forgive my classmate or not?”, “Why should I feel gratitude if things aren’t going my way in life?”). There is an additional risk of that hollowness being filled with, say, the ‘values’ of a self-interested, hedonistic, individualistic culture driven by personal motivations, concerned only with increasing one’s own satisfaction, material possessions, status, and so on.
Martin Seligman himself acknowledged that wellbeing is highly subjective and Positive Psychology is not inherently good. At the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2011, Seligman stated that “Osama bin Laden flourished” (Anderson, 2011). Whilst his statement was controversial, it is not that farfetched to presume that bin Laden considered himself to have a high level of wellbeing - that is, using Seligman’s PERMA model for measuring wellbeing, he did likely have high levels of Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. Bin Laden (or a member of ISIS, or the Ku Klux Klan, or the Third Reich) was also likely well-skilled at using the Character Strengths of bravery, perseverance, self-control, spirituality, to name a few. He also likely felt a great sense of purpose carrying out acts he believed he was called to perform in the name of the cause he was fighting for, no matter how heinous the rest of the world viewed these acts to be. Today, with seemingly frequent news of horrific terrorist attacks including the recent Manchester tragedy, it is imperative we think deeply about the values that underpin what we value and what drives our actions. Whilst these terrorists would have been lauded by their organisations or groups for their bravery, perseverance, self-control and so on, it is clear that the rest of us find their acts appalling. We all have all 24 Character Strengths (among many other positive human traits), but what they are used in aid of is what determines their virtuosity. There is no doubt you have come across someone who over uses or misuses their strength of humour and playfulness - cracking jokes at inappropriate times or finding it hard to take situations seriously. A less extreme example of the harms of a secular, moral-free approach within the school is students using the Pos Ed approach to turn inward, focussing only on their own strengths or wellbeing at the expense or exclusion of others. The moral structure and aims around a community are just as important in a school as in a family, workplace, or government. So, we must ask ourselves: “Whose values and which Character Strengths are we actually seeking to promote in our school?”
Before GGS began its Positive Education journey, our strong Anglican tradition – as well as our affinity for Aristotle’s ethics - was the moral context at our school. Preceding the Pos Ed initiative, GGS’s Pastoral Policy approach reflected this moral context; for example, including as its core values Kindness and Forgiveness, plus the recognition that Relationship Reparation is the only way forward when students make mistakes. This approach is based on the understanding that to err is human, and that the management of errors requires a kind and forgiving approach to ensure wellbeing of individuals and communities (To read more about our Kindness, Forgiveness, and Reparation Policy, please visit this webpage). We strongly believe this approach enables our entire school community to develop moral strengths to live by and to become empathic, trusting, unselfish contributors to society, as well as to develop a culture wherein these moral strengths form the ‘unwritten ground rules’. Deeply ingrained in the very fabric of GGS is a commitment to community and service to others. Many long-standing staff members felt Positive Psychology augmented the already-in-place cultural change and was providing the scientific evidence to back much of what the School was already doing instinctively.

Building on this rich foundation, Positive Education in our context involves understanding, believing in, and serving something greater than the self and consciously engaging in activities for the benefit of others. Our students are continually encouraged to reflect on ways they can use their Character Strengths altruistically, for the benefit of others. Building on Character Strengths education, GGS also incorporated the evidence-based Appreciative Inquiry approach - identifying what is going well and considering what you can continue doing to maintain and build on the good – to extend our values-driven development. The connections between our Anglican tradition and Positive Education are made regularly in the sermons delivered in the weekly chapel services that all students attend and at staff conferences.  See, for example, an excerpt from Reverend Eleanor O’Donnell’s sermon to our staff Term 1 of 2016,  taking a critical look at the similarities and differences between Positive Education and our faith tradition, and discussing forgiveness, gratitude and hope in the context of Christianity.

...Despite this apparent synergy, it is really important not to be uncritical in the way we appropriate the Pos Ed vision into our faith context here. Any tendency to say of the stuff of chapel ‘why, it’s pure Pos Ed’, or to say of some of the learnings of Positive Education, ‘this is so good that we can leave any notion of God out of it all together’ is really quite disingenuous and misses the point of both the vision and the context... Read full extract here >

The recently passed Honourable Frank Callaway – an active member of the Geelong Grammar Foundation and both a passionate supporter and critic of Positive Education – used to refer to Positive Education in the GGS context as a stool supported by three legs: rigorous science, ancient philosophy and Christian faith / the Gospel. Without the presence of any one of those legs, the stool would topple over for us. 

So, what makes up the legs of your school’s Pos Ed stool? We believe, as does Martin Seligman, that the first leg must be scientific evidence - Positive Psychology offers high-quality measures of wellbeing and high-quality research on ways to help people flourish. We believe the second and third legs should be moral and ethical traditions that already operate in your context or will be adopted to better inform your context. Is the second leg an Eastern religious tradition, such as Buddhism? Is the third leg Aristotelian ethics and virtues? Is one of your legs a Christian tradition, or perhaps a humanistic approach to psychology and education? Engage your colleagues, the parents at your school, and maybe even your students in these conversations. Your Pos Ed journey will be all the more powerful for it.


Arthur, J. (n.d.) Being of good character. Jubilee Centre for Character for Character & Virtue’s Insight Series. http://www.jubileecentre.ac.uk/userfiles/jubileecentre/pdf/insight-series/ArthurJ.pdf

Dahlsgaard, K., Peterson, C. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2005) Shared virtue: the convergence of valued human strengths across culture and history, Review of General Psychology, 9, 203–213.

Kristjánsson, K. (n.d.) Teaching character – but what sort of character? Jubilee Centre for Character for Character & Virtue’s Insight Series. http://www.jubileecentre.ac.uk/userfiles/jubileecentre/pdf/insight-series/KristjanssonK.pdf

Lapsley, D. & Woodbury, R. D. (2016) Moral character development for teacher education, Action in Teacher Education, 38(3), 194-206, DOI: 10.1080/01626620.2016.1194785

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004) Character strengths and virtues: a handbook and classification (New York, Oxford University Press/Washington, DC, American Psychological Association).

Other recommended reading

A thorough investigation of the ways in which positive psychology and Lutheran theology align, and how the latter could further enhance wellbeing in the context of Lutheran schools.

Jennifer Hanson-Peterson 2016
Jennifer Hanson-Peterson

Jennifer Hanson-Peterson is a Trainer and Content Developer for the Institute of Positive Education. She completed her Masters in Human Development, Learning, and Culture, with a concentration in Social-Emotional Learning and Development at the University of British Columbia, Canada. She has extensive experience conducting research on the impact of positive psychology initiatives on student wellbeing and developing tools to improve social connections for disadvantaged youth.