Making the Case: Linking Youth Development and Positive Psychology

Now and then you have the unsettling experience of hearing your thoughts come out of someone else’s mouth. This is the experience I had when I listened recently to Dr. Martin Seligman, president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and force majeur behind the emerging discipline of “positive psychology.” He described a journey simultaneously different from but parallel to mine.

I am a sociologist who, concerned with the academic complacence about the poor outcomes of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, left academia in the late ’70s to figure out how practice and policy can better support young people’s success, not just reduce their failures. Over the years, I stumbled upon the power of “positive youth development.”

Seligman is a psychologist who has established his career in academia but who has become increasingly troubled by the fact that psychology – a field established to address mental illness, promote well-being and nurture talent – has since World War II devoted increasingly disproportionate amounts of its time to the first goal.

His goal: to have definitions, categorizations and measures for the psychological strengths that are comparable to those now available for the psychological pathologies. He and a group of colleagues have started down this path.

They have tentatively identified three categories of characteristics and are preparing to do more work on definitions and measures: qualities (ethics, creativity, humor, courage, aesthetic appreciation, sense of self in context, sense of well-being); connections outward (love/intimacy, altruism, public-mindedness, work satisfaction, spirituality); and regulation (future-mindedness, individuality, self-regulation, wisdom. All of us outside of academe have used words like these to describe the assets that we see in young people, strive to nurture in young people, or wish counted for more when program money is doled out.

Most of us have bundled combinations of these and other characteristics into lists that we suggest should be seen as alternative or additional indicators of youth success. Many of us have developed programming that we believe directly addresses these strengths. Some of us have identified instruments or devised ways to track or measure progress.

But few of us have actually done the precision work of building research-based definitions and rigorous validated measures. The time, tenure and training needed to do this work is rarely found outside the ivory towers and the thinking, trying and talent needed to give this work meaning beyond the world of clinical psychology is rarely found within. But there may be an opportunity to bring these two worlds together. The main challenge the positive psychologists will face is not defining measures and instruments, but convincing those deeply entrenched in the pathology business to use them.

There are huge disciplines and industries built around the measurement and management of individual pathology. There is a potential partnership of interests with the smaller disciplines and occupations built around the idea of youth development. I would give a month’s salary for an APA validated tome that reports that: 1) courage, creativity, and wisdom can be defined, 2) they can be measured, and 3) they can be intentionally developed (the nature versus nurture stuff). And I would gladly eat peanut butter for a second month if there were a companion document that continues by reporting that: 4) these positive strengths are linked to traditional success outcomes like academic achievement, full-time employment and civic engagement (especially for young people in marginalizing circumstances), and 5) they act as protective factors, decreasing the likelihood of substance abuse, suicide attempts and violence.

I would retire with a small sense of accomplishment if this new knowledge and evidence could be used to help define and demonstrate the elements of effective programming and sound practice for developing fully prepared youth. Youth organizations are often great places with good programs but weak programming, staffed by great people with good ideas but weak training. Positive psychology may provide an opportunity for us to bring science to the art of working with young people in groups.


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