Character and Relationships: Timeless and Timely

Jeff Bryan
The Positivity Project
9 min readSep 7, 2021

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Why P2 in 2021–22

Our mission at The Positivity Project (P2) is to empower our youth to build positive relationships and become their best selves. With everything that we’ve been through the past 18 months — and with all the uncertainty that we continue to face — we believe that our mission is critically important.

That’s because we believe that P2’s focus on character and relationships is both timeless and timely.

Timeless

Why do we say that P2’s focus on character and relationships is timeless? First, let’s look at the definition. To be timeless means that the object you’re referencing is not restricted to a particular time or date. For example, the timeless themes of love, solitude, joy, and nature.

And, I would add relationships and character to those examples.

We know that we’re social beings. We need other people around us. There’s a reason that extended bouts of solitary confinement can be considered cruel and unusual punishment. Other people matter to our ability to survive and thrive. Other people matter to our health, our happiness, and our resilience.

There is a reason that Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of Harvard’s 80+ year Study of Adult Development, explained, “The clearest message” they got from their study is that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” And, there is a reason that Dr. Chris Peterson said he could sum up positive psychology in just three words, “Other people matter. Period.”

We also know that character strengths are timeless. That’s because of the research driving the classification of positive psychology’s character strengths. Alongside Dr. Martin Seligman, Dr. Peterson led a team of more than 40 PhDs over 3 years to understand what character is and how it presents itself in the lives of individuals. They read every major book from history’s most influential philosophical traditions — all the way up to researching Pokemon cards. Then, they did what researchers do — examined, analyzed, and debated.

In their analysis, they tried to find ways to disprove particular strengths or their universal applicability. For example, they conducted a thought experiment, asking themselves to try to “imagine a culture or subculture…(in which) parents looking at their newborn infant (were) indifferent to the possibility that the child would grow up to be cowardly, dishonest, easily discouraged, pessimistic, and cruel.”

Below are three passages from Character Strengths and Virtues that speak to the timeless nature of character strengths:

“There is a strong convergence across time, place, and intellectual tradition about certain core values.”

“These particular styles of behaving may have emerged, been selected for, and been sustained because each allows a crucial survival problem to be solved. Without (which)…our ancestors’ social groups…would have died out quickly.”

“We believe that character strengths are the bedrock of the human condition and that strength-congruent activity represents an important route to the psychological good life.”

Timely

So, we believe that character strengths and positive relationships are timeless. Now I want to explain why they are timely. Going back to the dictionary, something is timely if it is appropriate or adapted to the times or the occasion.

And, at this time in history, we’re facing some difficult problems. However, not all of these problems are new. Many have been building for decades.

Pre-COVID Lockdown Research

According to separate studies, between 1979 and 2009 narcissism increased and empathy decreased. Dr. Jean Twenge, who conducted a meta-analysis of college students’ scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, found that narcissism increased by 30% between 1979 and 2006. Dr. Sarah Konrath, who conducted a meta-analysis of research on empathy among almost 14,000 college students between 1979 and 2009, found an empathy drop of 40%. That means college students were becoming more selfish and entitled — and less able to understand the feelings and perspectives of other people.

The academic journal article “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades” shows that between 1985 and 2004, Americans who said they had no one to discuss important matters with more than doubled, to nearly 25 percent of the population. That means one in four Americans had no one to talk to about a difficult situation in their life.

A 2018 study of 20,000 adults, found that loneliness is an “epidemic” in America — with 18–22 year-olds the loneliest of all generations. And, the authors note in their study that “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

In 2021, Dr. Jean Twenge and Dr. Jonathan Haidt presented research showing that loneliness among 15-year-olds sharply increased worldwide beginning in 2012. They attribute this increase to the rise of social media, explaining, “2012 was the first year that a majority of Americans owned a smartphone; by 2015, two-thirds of teens did too. This was also the period when social media use moved from optional to ubiquitous among adolescents.”

Yet all of the studies cited above include studies of people before social distancing, and other lockdown measures, imposed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The measures imposed as a result of Covid-19 have exacerbated issues that adults and adolescents are facing.

Post-COVID Lockdown Research

In October 2020, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a report called Stress in America. The authors explain, “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.”

The report found that Gen Z individuals (defined as 13- to 23-year-olds) are more stressed than other generations. And, they are worried about their education with 87% of 18–23 year-olds Gen Z agreeing that “education is a significant source of stress.” The APA report also highlighted parental stress with 63% of parents stating that the pandemic made the 2019–20 school year significantly stressful for them.

Coinciding with the APA report is data from the CDC. In 2019, 10.8% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder. Between April 2020 and August 2021, the average number of adults who reported symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder within the last 7 days, jumped to 30.8%, with a peak of 42.4% in December 2020.

Children’s mental health also suffered amid pandemic-related lockdowns.

In August 2021, JAMA Pediatrics published a study explaining “estimates of clinically elevated child and adolescent depression and anxiety were 25.2% and 20.5%, respectively. The prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms during COVID-19 have doubled, compared with prepandemic estimates, and moderator analyses revealed that prevalence rates were higher when collected later in the pandemic, in older adolescents, and in girls.”

According to a November 2020 CDC report, “Beginning in April 2020, the proportion of children’s mental health-related ED visits among all pediatric ED visits increased and remained elevated through October. Compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health-related visits for children aged 5–11 and 12–17 years increased approximately 24% and 31%, respectively.”

A March 2021 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics showed increases in suicidal ideation and attempts. The authors write, “Months with significantly higher rates of suicide-related behaviors appear to correspond to times when COVID-19–related stressors and community responses were heightened, indicating that youth experienced elevated distress during these periods.”

And, citing this CDC study, a June 2021 article highlights the negative impact on adolescent girls. It explains that “visits to emergency rooms for suspected suicide attempts rose about 51 percent on average for girls aged 12 to 17 in the four weeks ending March 20, compared with the same period in 2019. The rate began rising in the summer of 2020, the researchers said.”

Now, this is all very tough research. It shows the struggles that many Americans — and especially our youth — are facing today. As we often say, even though our name is The Positivity Project, we don’t ignore the negative. However, the question is: What can we do to help?

Why P2?

The Positivity Project isn’t a cure-all solution that will magically solve all of these complex issues. As Partner Schools have heard us say, P2 isn’t intended or designed to be a quick fix. P2’s success is grounded in consistency over time.

We believe that consistently focusing on timeless elements of humanity — such as character and relationships — over multiple years can help students in the near term and across their lives.

Take 60-seconds

What I’d like everyone reading this to do is take 60-seconds to think about two people in your life. The first is an educator from your time in K-12 who had a positive impact on your life. The second person is a friend from K-12 that had a positive impact on your life. Write down those people’s names and the character strengths they embodied while positively impacting your life. Please have them in your mind as you read these final sections.

Why Relationships?

What do we know? What does the research tell us about relationships?

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (NSCDC) at Harvard University tells us that resilience requires relationships. The NSCDC is an interdisciplinary group of scientists representing diverse fields such as neurobiology, endocrinology, psychology, economics, and pediatric medicine.

They had a simple question:

Why do some children do well and show resilience, despite exposure to stressful circumstances and hardship?

Their answer is:

“Resilience requires relationships, not rugged individualism…The single most common finding is that children who end up doing well have had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”

Next, is a study we previously discussed. Dr. Robert Waldinger and the Harvard Study of Adult Development found that relationships were the key to health and happiness across people’s lives. In his TED Talk, Dr. Waldinger notes:

“Social connections are really good for us and loneliness kills.”

“It is the quality of your relationships that matters.”

“Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains.”

He also explained why this information is so easy to understand — but so easy to ignore. It’s because relationships are messy and complicated and lifelong. They’re not a quick fix.

Why character strengths?

Character strengths are also never-ending. As Dr. Peterson explained in his 2009 paper “Character Strengths: Research and Practice”:

“No one will live his or her life without challenges and setbacks, but to the degree that young people have greater life satisfaction, character strengths, and social support, they will experience fewer problems in the wake of inevitable difficulties.”

Just like relationships, character strengths are a marathon and not a sprint. This is why the work P2 Partner Schools are doing every day is so important. Because character and relationships aren’t a quick fix.

The P2 Model

That’s why P2’s model is grounded in consistency. Consistently focusing on character strengths and positive relationships will help students — and adults — develop more self-confidence and more empathy. This leads to a more positive school culture that will better support teachers’ ability to teach and students’ ability to learn important subjects like math, science, social studies, and English.

P2 isn’t at odds with academic learning. In fact, it bolsters it because it helps kids feel more comfortable in school and more confident in who they are as people.

We know that educators have more on their plates than ever. That’s why we aim to make teaching students about character and relationships as easy as possible for teachers and as engaging as possible for students.

To learn more, please visit us at: https://posproject.org/

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Jeff Bryan
The Positivity Project

CEO & Co-Founder, The Positivity Project. Supporting educators to empower students to build positive relationships and become their best selves