Parents, who were involved in in a nation-wide program in Australia, frequently stated “I just want my child to be happy.”  All parents want their children to be happy, but not everyone is in agreement about what this term means or how to achieve it. The field of Positive Psychology, initiated by psychologist Martin Seligman, has identified what makes individuals happy and the experiences that promote wellbeing.

Parents of gifted students tend to be concerned about many issues: the rising incidence of stress, anxiety and depression among youth in our society; the emotional vulnerability of the gifted who are often sensitive and intense; the frustration and social isolation experienced by gifted students when academic and psychosocial needs of gifted students are not met.  Stress, anxiety and depression have serious, negative impacts on a student’s ability to concentrate, remember, make decisions, complete tasks, and achieve academically.  Within the context of these concerns, it is not surprising that parents want to prioritise psychological wellbeing and happiness.

Psychological or emotional wellbeing; thriving; flourishing; strengths; character; positive affect; positive emotion, optimism and resilience are just some of the terms that are used throughout the literature in relation to happiness.  These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, as synonyms or descriptors. Sometimes happiness, thriving or flourishing is described in relation to the absence of certain psychological states or experiences, as in Corey Keyes and Jonathan Haidt’s explanation: Students “… who flourish are free from mental illness … are filled with emotional vitality and functioning positively in the private and social realms of their lives.” Happiness is generally perceived as positive psychological and emotional states that endure and the term does not refer to fleeting pleasures. Jeanne Nakamura and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi refer to flourishing as “something beyond moments of enjoyment, in particular, a sense that one’s pursuits serve a larger purpose or otherwise hold vital meaning.”

Researcher Martin Seligman, who is based at the University of Pennsylvania, developed the acronym PERMA to identify various routes to achieving a state of happiness: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. Park, Peterson and Seligman’s research identified “Strengths of the heart – zest, gratitude, hope and love – are more robustly associated with life satisfaction than are the more cerebral strengths such as curiosity and love of learning”; however when gifted students were later investigated, the love of learning was the most prominent strength exhibited by these students.  The strength listed after a love of learning was curiosity and interest in the world; closely followed by creativity, originality and ingenuity.  In contrast to findings about the general population, it was identified that gifted students are happy when they are challenged.

Nel Noddings maintains that happiness might be the most overlooked variable in education; whereas David Hough found that in order to be happy, students need to feel that they are a valued member of the class and are successful in something they believe is of value.   Furthermore, Hough found that a teacher’s attitude accounted for the greatest variance in students’ perception of safety, enjoyment and happiness.

© Michele Juratowitch