Book Review: Personal Well-being Lessons for Secondary Schools

Instinctively, a good teacher knows that a happy child learns more easily and bounces back more quickly from disappointments than an unhappy child.  It’s common sense that a happy teacher performs better than an unhappy one, and this has now been borne out by research at Birkbeck College at the University of London, which suggests that there is a link between teacher well-being and student attainment.

But the science of positive psychology is bringing a whole new impetus to the subject of well-being in education in many parts of the world. Regular Positive Psychology News Daily readers will already know about the Penn Resilience Program (PRP) in the US, UK and Australia, the Wellington College Happiness Curriculum (which Anthony Seldon wants to expand to other UK schools), Jenny Fox Eades’ Strengths in Schools approach in primary schools, and Toni Noble and Helen McGrath’s award-winning Bounce Back! resilience program. New books on the subject of positive psychology in schools are also appearing, for example educational psychologist Sue Roffey’s excellent Changing Behaviour in Schools, which I reviewed last year.

Ilona Boniwell and Lucy Ryan’s new book, Personal Well-being Lessons for Secondary Schools: Positive Psychology in Action for 11-14 Year Olds is the latest book in the field. It draws on the Well-being Curriculum for primary and secondary schools, which is a joint project between the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Academies Federation and the University of East London. [At this point I should declare an interest in this project as I have been involved in developing the Well-being Curriculum for Haberdashers’ Aske’s primary school.]

The emphasis of the Well-being Curriculum in Years 1-9 is on positive interventions, focusing on those areas which have a substantial evidence base, such as positive emotions, flow, and resilience. In Years 10-13, the emphasis is on positive education more generally, enabling young people to reflect on and make choices about their well-being and development.


The book contains 36 hour-long well-being lessons organized into 6 themes:

  • Positive Self (e.g. Strengths, confidence, best possible self)
  • Positive Body (e.g. nutrition, mindfulness, exercise)
  • Positive Emotions (e.g. fun/humor, savoring, emotional intelligence)
  • Positive Mindset (e.g. creative problem-solving, hope, mindsets)
  • Positive Direction (e.g. flow, goals, time perspectives)
  • Positive Relationships (e.g. forgiveness, kindness, gratitude)

Each of the 36 lessons contains a concise plan which provides the overall shape of the session, as well as  more in depth ‘How To’ instructions on how to do each activity. These instructions, which vary from one page (Lesson 9, The Nutrition Quiz) to four and a half pages (Lesson 10, Mindfulness for Life), provide sufficient detail for the teacher or youth leader to understand the concepts and lead the session competently. The aims and objectives of each lesson are summarized, and the resources requirements, such as computer access, music, poster paper and other props, are outlined.

Each lesson starts with a Teacher Explanation, which is usually a presentation or teacher-led discussion to set the scene for the hour. This is typically followed by three to four 10 or 15 minute individual or group activities on themes which will be familiar to positive psychology practitioners (strengths, flow, gratitude, positive emotions etc) but with some surprising appearances. The last time I came across creative problem-solving techniques, for example, was during my MBA, and it’s interesting to see that they make an appearance here too. I’m very curious to know how youngsters get on with this approach. I hope they’ll be less skeptical and more willing to give them a go than some of the managers and leaders I’ve worked with! Although it isn’t clear from the text what positive psychology evidence this particular lesson is based on, it definitely looks like a lot of fun and is a great way to introduce children to new ways of thinking and problem-solving. I would say the same about Lesson 34, Sweet Trading, which focuses on practicing negotiation skills, and Lesson 31, Tonic or Toxic, which includes the DESC model of assertiveness (Describe/Express/Specify/Consequences). Although the evidence for the link to well-being isn’t made clear (do effective negotiators or assertive people have higher well-being?), from the perspective of how to build positive relationships, it makes sense to teach children and young people how to be assertive rather than aggressive and how to negotiate effectively.

What I really liked about this book

It contains some very creative approaches, is an excellent, practical translation of positive psychology theory. and is well supported by research resources. Each activity has a good explanation and is often supported by an additional handout that can be downloaded from the publisher’s website and photocopied for the entire class.

Some of the lessons are completely inspired, for example, Lesson 25 (about motivation) called Egg Yourself On. I love the “six-egg solution to all motivation problems” which involves rotten, fresh, hard-boiled, soft-boiled, scrambled, and Cadbury’s creme eggs.  It was a great lesson to read, and I’m sure it’s great fun to teach and very memorable for students. Also among my favorites is the Strengths Songbook (Lesson 6), which is based on creating a list of songs reflecting personal strengths and a CD cover with credits acknowledging friends, teachers, role models, and family members who have helped the student develop the strengths.

What I liked less

I would like the book to have a clearer, more consistent approach to explaining the positive psychology concepts in each lesson along with easier access to the references. In the original manuscript for the Well-being Curriculum, each lesson concluded with its own bibliography, so there was no problem if a study was mentioned but not fully referenced in the text. However trying to find the right reference in the list of around 250 at the end of the book is more difficult. Some correlational research is explained as if it were causal. For this age group of students it may be difficult to get the across the idea of a correlation, so it’s easier to say ‘placing importance on money makes you less happy’ (Lesson 36) than it is to explain that it correlates inversely with happiness.

It’s a shame that in quoting Seligman’s statement that roughly 50% of every personality trait is attributable to genetic inheritance (Authentic Happiness, 2002, p47), the authors didn’t go on to emphasize his main point, which is that high heritability doesn’t determine how unchangeable a trait is. And we know that we can change our level of happiness, given effort and knowledge, although more research is needed about the long-term impact of various techniques.

And although it’s a minor point, it’s also worth mentioning that teachers and youth workers using this book should, as always, be prepared to adapt some of the activities and language used; what is suitable for a 14 year old may not be suitable for an 11 year old.


This is an imaginative, practical and well-resourced manual that covers all the major areas of positive psychology and more. Taking the six major themes as a starting point, it covers a lot of ground, providing a wealth of new activities to introduce positive psychology and more general personal development, business, and coaching ideas to young people in an entertaining and engaging way. I also think it’s as much fun to teach as it is to study.  Its flexible structure means that teachers or youth-workers can use the book to develop a well-being curriculum that suits their needs. I highly recommend this book as a must-have resource for teachers.

About the Authors

Dr Ilona Boniwell is programme leader for the MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of East London, the first of its kind in Europe. She is also author of the best-selling Positive Psychology in a Nutshell (2006)and co-author of The Happiness Equation: 100 Factors that can Add to or Subtract from your Well-being (2008) and Positive Psychology: Theory, Research & Applications (2011), which was reviewed on PPND here.

Lucy Ryan is a UEL MAPP graduate and a leading sales and personal development trainer and executive coach, working with many blue chip organisations across the UK. She is also a University of East London MAPP lecturer, specializing in positive psychology coaching.


Boniwell, I. & Ryan, L. (2012). Personal Well-Being Lessons for Secondary Schools: Positive Psychology in Action for 11-14 Year Olds. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Briner, R. & Dewberry, C. (2007). Staff well-being is key to school success. Department of Organizational Psychology, Birkbeck College, University of London, in partnership with Worklife Support.

Fox-Eades, J. (2008). Celebrating Strengths: Building Strengths-based Schools. Coventry: CAPP Press.

Noble, T. & McGrath, H. Bounceback!

Roffey, S. (2011). Changing Behaviour in Schools: Promoting Positive Relationships and Wellbeing. London: Sage Publications.

Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Yeager, J., Fisher, S. & Shearon, D. (2011). Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. New York: Kravis Publishing.

This article first appeared on Positive Psychology News Daily on 30th May 2012

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