Teaching the good life

Teaching the good life

Schechter applies positive psychology to the classroom

Dr. Ilana Kustanowitz guides seventh grade Schechter students in identifying specific moments that brought them joy.

After 35 years as a leading psychologist – including a stint as president of the American Psychological Association – University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman decided he was tired of mental illness.

Instead of looking at how to make sick people better, maybe it was time to research what makes happy people – mentally healthy people – do so well.

That’s the origin story of the burgeoning field of “positive psychology,” where researchers try to figure out what makes people happy, mentally healthy, and resilient – and what interventions can be made to make anyone more happy, more healthy, and more resilient.

Based on his research, Seligman has said that the good life has five components: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. (See sidebar.)

Positive psychology is a field where findings quickly move from the research lab to the popular book and corporate seminar.

And now those findings are coming to Jewish day school classrooms.

Last month, a four-day seminar at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford brought about two dozen psychologists, heads of school, and educators from day schools in New Jersey and New York to be trained in positive psychology by Aviva Goldstein, who works for the Maytiv Center for Research and Practice in Positive Psychology in Herzliya, Israel.

Maytiv is Hebrew for making better, and it was founded by Tal Ben-Shahar, who became a positive psychology superstar when his Harvard course on the topic quickly became the most popular on campus, drawing over 800 undergraduates. The author of such best selling books as “Happier,” Ben-Shahar decided that his own happiness lay back in his native Israel. Once he finished his doctorate in organizational behavior at Harvard, he went back home. Among Maytiv’s projects is bringing positive psychology into the elementary and high school classroom. Forty-six Israeli schools now use the Maytiv curriculum, and the institute wants to expand that to America, both to Jewish day schools and to other schools as well.

“The reason I fell in love with positive psychology many years ago, as a graduate student, was because every book I read, every piece of research I was analyzing, felt so Jewish to me,” said Goldstein, who moved to Israel from Riverdale, N.Y., three years ago and is finishing her doctoral degree at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, where she was first introduced to the field. “There’s something very Jewish about the foundational concepts of the field,” she added.

These concepts include the idea that having a sense of purpose and meaning is a factor leading to happiness, as are being connected to other people and experiencing gratitude.

Dr. Ilana Kustanowitz, Schechter’s school psychologist, agrees with that assessment of positive psychology.

“I believe Judaism actually had many of these ideas before Martin Seligman made the connection,” she said.

Kustanowitz had stumbled across the field while working on her dissertation, and she has been bringing its findings to the school over the past few years.

Now, she’s excited to combine some of the ideas of Maytiv’s seventh grade curriculum with Schechter’s seventh grade tefillah – prayer – curriculum.

Kustanowitz believes that will be a very good fit.

“One of researched concepts in positive psychology is gratitude,” she said. “When we increase our gratitude, we are happier, healthier people.”

And that’s where the prayer book begins.

“The first prayer we say in the morning is the Modeh Ani, where we thank Hashem for our breath,” she said.

Kustanowitz said she is considering moving the students beyond reading and reciting prayers of gratitude to having them start journals where they write down what they are grateful for at the end of each day.

“Research has shown that people who do gratitude journals over a period of time feel more satisfied with life. We want to integrate that and stretch the boundaries of how we think about tefillah,” she said.

Another positive psychology principle that dovetails nicely with the prayer book is that of mindfulness – being fully aware of the present moment.

“I think it is super cool,” said Kustanowitz.

“There’s a tradition that people say a specific bracha [blessing] after they go to the bathroom. That is not something that is commonly done in our school population. But there’s nothing we appreciate more than the ability to go to the bathroom. Our tradition tells us about stopping and reflecting in that moment after we go to the bathroom, to be mindful of that experience.”

Encouraging mindfulness speaks to a challenge of this generation, she said: “How are we going to put aside our cell phone and be really present?”

The Moriah School in Englewood sent five representatives to the positive psychology workshop.

“We plan on integrating many facets of the program into our social emotional curricula, as well as highlight essential attributes in Rosh Chodesh school spirit programming,” said Dr. Eva Lazar-Sultanik, Moriah’s assistant principal for student life.

“This program has the potential to be expanded into a school-wide curricula, with a parenting component,” she said.

Goldstein noted that some core principles of positive psychology, such as empathy and gratitude, are part of the kindergarten curriculum – but the discussion doesn’t always continue.

“One of the reasons you send your kids to Jewish day school is because you want them to learn derech eretz,” Kustanowitz said. While the focus on positive psychology in the seventh grade prayer curriclum is new, for several years the school has focused on “middat hachodesh” – a value of the month – and Kustanowitz has been selecting those values based on positive psychology.

“We know that people who are altruistic are happier and have more satisfaction in their lives,” she said. So during the Hebrew month of Kislev (which includes Chanukah), she has the school focus on the value of giving – tzedakah.

“We need to make sure the framework of Chanukah is about giving” rather than receiving, she said.

“In the month of Adar we talk about the value of joy. It’s a mitzvah in the month of Adar to be joyful. How do we cultivate joy? What are the things that make us joyful?”

“We’ve been working on positive psychology for a few years now,” Kustanowitz said. The cooperation with Maytiv “is pushing us for the next step.”

Meanwhile, Goldstein returned to Israel enthusiastic about the American Jewish educators she met.

“I was struck by how non-cynical everyone was,” she said. “It was very inspiring and very striking.”

Participants in last month’s seminar are keeping in touch and brainstorming how to bring the ideas to their schools.

“Once we have a group of schools that is really committed to launching these kinds of programs in their curriculum, we will – God willing – be launching a research track” to measure the results, Goldstein said.

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