We need to build community. Be a brick.

We commend the Guilderland School Board members for deciding that meeting students’ social and emotional needs — treating “the whole student” — should be this year’s top priority.

For well over a year, said Superintendent Marie Wiles, a shared decision-making team has looked at research-based approaches and landed on the Positivity Project — which she described as a scientifically validated way of empowering youth and cultivating citizenship — as the way forward.

Over three years, Chris Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, led a 40-person team to better understand character. With Martin Seligman, he wrote an 800-page book, “Character Strengths and Virtues,” based on the research.

Seligman, in 1998, had chosen positive psychology as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association, reacting against the profession’s emphasis on mental illness. Positive psychology focuses on eudaimonia, an ancient Greek term for “good spirit” or “happiness.” Practices that can contribute to this sense of well being may include social ties, meditation, spirituality, or exercise.

Peterson and Seligman’s book describes 24 character strengths they say have existed in all human cultures throughout time, including bravery, curiosity, forgiveness, hope, open-mindedness, prudence, and zest. They believe that people have all 24 strengths within them and that character is not just skills or behaviors, but rather an intrinsic part of each person.

Their thesis is that, if each child is made aware that she or he has all 24 character strengths, each child will have the foundation for self-confidence grounded in self-awareness. Children will also better understand how each person is different and how to appreciate those differences.

The Positivity Project posits that strength does not come from ignoring the negative. Rather, strengths help people overcome adversity. For example, a person can’t show self-control without first being tempted, or can’t be brave without first feeling fear.

Guilderland students in kindergarten through eighth grade each week are learning about one of these traits with the lessons being woven through the day. Gratitude will be studied during Thanksgiving week and love on Valentine’s week.

Focusing on social and emotional well being, Wiles told the school board as it was setting its goals for this year, might mean sacrificing top test scores for well-rounded traits — “not necessarily what the Business Review is measuring,” she said. That publication annually ranks local schools, largely based on standardized test scores.

Often what is measurable, what we see as achievement, is not what is most valuable.

We recently reviewed a Harvard study on loneliness that made us fully realize the wisdom of this approach.

“Devastating as this pandemic has been, it has also exposed wide holes in our social fabric and made many Americans keenly aware of how much their daily well-being hinges on the ongoing warmth and care of others,” the report concludes. “The time seems ripe for concerted efforts to reimagine our social relationships and to mobilize coherently and strategically to prevent and curb loneliness.”

The report, based on a survey conducted a year ago, in October 2020, describes an epidemic of loneliness in our nation that has deepened with the pandemic, finding 36 percent of all Americans — including 61 percent of young adults and 51 percent of mothers with young children — feel “serious loneliness.” 

About half of lonely young adults in the Harvard survey reported that no one in the past few weeks had “taken more than just a few minutes” to ask how they are doing in a way that made them feel like the person “genuinely cared.”

According to a 2020 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 63 percent of young adults are suffering significant symptoms of anxiety or depression.

“We need to return to an idea that was central to our founding and is at the heart of many great religious traditions: We have commitments to ourselves, but we also have vital commitments to each other, including to those who are vulnerable,” says the Harvard report, Loneliness in America.

In an earlier Harvard survey, youth were asked to rank what was most important to them: achieving at a high level, happiness (feeling good most of the time), or caring for others.

Almost 80 percent of youth picked some aspect of their success — high achievement or happiness — as their top choice, while only roughly 20 percent selected caring for others.

In last year’s loneliness survey, adults of varying ages were asked what was most important to their own parents in child-raising: achievement, happiness, or caring for others. Almost 90 percent of respondents reported that achievement or happiness was more important to their parents than whether they cared for others.

“Making matter worse,” the report says, “families and schools do little to cultivate in children the skills that are at the heart of the caring friendships that prevent and mitigate loneliness, including the capacity to ask questions and listen, to check for understanding when listening or communicating, to identify feelings in oneself and others, and to respond sensitively to difficult feelings in others.”

While we commend our schools for putting social and emotional needs first, the task falls to all of us, to each one of us.

No matter our age, no matter the expectations of the parents or schools that formed us, we can still learn to see the importance of looking out for others. We can, for example, get vaccinated against COVID-19, even though it may be something we don’t like, because it will help others not to get sick.

We can decide to reach out to someone who may be lonely, to listen to their ideas and try to meet their needs. We can volunteer for a group like the Community Caregivers that does just that — setting up a formal framework for neighbors to help one another.

As we have been out and about these last few weeks, gathering questions from residents to ask candidates in upcoming town elections, we heard from many people about their longing for a sense of community. We don’t think this is something politicians can solve.

Each one of us needs to reach out to try to build bridges with one another. We need to overcome our selfishness for the common good.

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