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A PRIMER IN Positive Psychology
A PRIMER IN Positive Psychology
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Peterson, Christopher, 1950 Feb. 18– A primer in positive psychology / by Christopher Peterson. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and indexes. ISBN-13 978–0-19-518833-2 ISBN 0–19-518833-0 1. Positive psychology. I. Title.
BF204.6.P48 2006 150.19′8—dc22 2005029442
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
I dedicate this book
with love and gratitude
to my parents, who taught me
to love learning, to work hard, and
to get along with others
Positive psychology as an explicit perspective has existed only since 1998, but enough relevant theory and research now exist concerning what makes life most worth living to fill a book suitable for a semester-long college course. This is that book. Writing occupied me during 2005, and I wrote with an audience of college students in mind. Perhaps they had previously studied psychology, perhaps not. Regardless, all the material here is accessible and—I hope—interesting and informative.
In writing about this new field, I did so from the viewpoint of general psychology. Positive psychology is psychology, and psychology is science. I have tried to do justice to the science of the good life in covering topics ranging from pleasure and happiness to work and love. What do we know, and how do we know it? And what remains unknown?
I also wrote with a more general audience in mind, given growing popular interest in positive psychology. Perhaps even more so than psychology students, for whom critical thinking is explicitly urged by their instructors, the general public needs a fair and balanced presentation of what psychologists know and what they do not. Positive psychology is plenty exciting without the need to run far ahead of what has already been established.
Who am I? My personality will show itself in the pages to come. But more formally, I am a baby boomer who grew up in the Midwest. I went to school at the University of Illinois, then the University of Colorado, and finally the University of Pennsylvania. I have been a psychology professor at the University of Michigan since 1986, where I have taught a variety of courses, including introductory psychology, psychopathology, research methods, and—of course—positive psychology, to more than 20,000 students. I am the former director of our Clinical Psychology Training Program, but my identity is now that of a positive psychologist. I spent most of my professional career concerned with depression, despair, and demoralization. I am now a different kind of psychologist, one concerned with happiness, character, and purpose.
It has been said that physical scientists stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, whereas social scientists step in their faces (Zeaman, 1959). My story is different because as a member of the Positive Psychology Steering Committee, I have been able to stand next to and to work with some remarkable scholars who have shaped positive psychology from the beginning: Mike Csikszentmihalyi, Ed Diener, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, George Vaillant, and—first among equals— Marty Seligman.
The positive psychology research which has so energized me has been generously supported
by the Mayerson Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, the Annenberg/Sunnylands Trust Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, and the U.S. Department of Education. And much of what I have written here had its beginning in collaborative projects with Nansook Park and Marty Seligman.
Writing this book went smoothly, in no small part because I worked with Oxford University Press, in particular associate publisher Joan Bossert and associate editor Jennifer Rappaport, unwavering supporters of positive psychology and my own writing. Lisa Christie carefully edited what were rough chapters and suggested useful resources for each chapter. Vincent Colapietro, Ed Diener, Steve Maier, Nansook Park, Stephen Post, Lilach Sagiv, and George Vaillant helped me to track down some specific citations. Thanks to all.
1 What Is Positive Psychology?
2 Learning About Positive Psychology: Not a Spectator Sport
3 Pleasure and Positive Experience
5 Positive Thinking
6 Character Strengths
8 Interests, Abilities, and Accomplishments
10 Positive Interpersonal Relationships
11 Enabling Institutions
12 The Future of Positive Psychology
A PRIMER IN Positive Psychology
1 What Is Positive Psychology?
The chief purpose of education is to teach young people to find pleasure in the right things.—PLATO (~400 BCE)
If it is possible, talk to your parents about the day your were born. Not how or where or when, but what they were thinking and feeling when they first held you. I suspect that what rushed through them was a mix of fears and hopes. The fears included whether you were healthy and safe and whether they would be able to take care of you. The hopes included the wishes that you would grow up to be happy, that you would live a fulfilling life, that you would have skills and talents, that you would learn how to use these in a productive way, that you would someday have your own family and friends, and that you would become a valued member of a social community.
Now think about the very end of your life, whenever that might be. Suppose you have the time to think back over your life in its final moments. What would be your greatest satisfactions? And what would be your greatest regrets? I suspect that your thoughts and feelings would play out along the same lines as those of your parents decades earlier. Was your life a good and fulfilling one? Did you do your best, even when it was difficult? Did you have people in your life who loved you and whom you loved in return? Did you make a difference for the better in your community? I doubt that your regrets would include not eating more Fritos, not working longer shifts, or not watching—for the 10th time—cable television reruns of Law & Order. I doubt that you would wish you had taken more shortcuts in life, that you had put your own needs more frequently ahead of other people’s needs, or that you had never thought about what life means.
Positive psychology is the scientific study of what goes right in life, from birth to death and at all stops in between. It is a newly christened approach within psychology that takes seriously as a subject matter those things that make life most worth living. Everyone’s life has peaks and valleys, and positive psychology does not deny the valleys. Its signature premise is more nuanced but nonetheless important: What is good about life is as genuine as what is bad and therefore deserves equal attention from psychologists. It assumes that life entails more than avoiding or undoing problems and hassles. Positive psychology resides somewhere in that part of the human landscape that is metaphorically north of neutral. It is the study of what we are doing when we
are not frittering life away.
In this book, I describe positive psychology and what positive psychologists have learned about the good life and how it can be encouraged. Some of you are reading this book because it has been assigned for a college course. Others of you are reading it simply because you are curious and want to learn more. In either case, I will voice one more suspicion: You will find some food for thought here and an action plan that might make your own life a better one.
Positive Psychology: A Very Short History With a Very Long Past You may already have studied psychology. If so, perhaps you encountered this terse characterization of the field by Herman Ebbinghaus, one of the field’s luminaries: “Psychology has a long past, but only a short history” (Boring, 1950, p. ix). What this means is that psychology has been a formal discipline for little more than 100 years but that its enduring issues were phrased centuries before by philosophers, theologians, and everyday people. How do we know the world? How and why do we think and feel? What is the essence of learning? What does it mean to be a human being?
Let me borrow this characterization and assert that positive psychology has a very long past
but only a very short history. The field was named1 in 1998 as one of the initiatives of my colleague Martin Seligman in his role as president of the American Psychological Association (Seligman, 1998, 1999). One of the triggers for positive psychology was Seligman’s realization that psychology since World War II had focused much of its efforts on human problems and how to remedy them. The yield of this focus on pathology has been considerable. Great strides have been made in understanding, treating, and preventing psychological disorders. Widely accepted classification manuals—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) sponsored by the American Psychiatric Association (1994) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) sponsored by the World Health Organization (1990)—allow disorders to be described and have given rise to a family of reliable assessment strategies. There now exist effective treatments, psychological and pharmacological, for more than a dozen disorders that in the recent past were frighteningly intractable (Barrett & Ollendick, 2004; Evans et al., 2005; Hibbs & Jensen, 1996; Kazdin & Weisz, 2003; Nathan & Gorman, 1998, 2002; Seligman, 1994).
But there has been a cost to this emphasis. Much of scientific psychology has neglected the study of what can go right with people and often has little more to say about the good life than do pop psychologists, inspirational speakers, and armchair gurus. More subtly, the underlying assumptions of psychology have shifted to embrace a disease model of human nature. People are seen as flawed and fragile, casualties of cruel environments or bad genetics, and if not in denial then at best in recovery. This worldview has crept into the common culture of the United States.
We have become a nation of self-identified victims, and our heroes and heroines are called survivors and sometimes nothing more.
Positive psychology proposes that it is time to correct this imbalance and to challenge the pervasive assumptions of the disease model (Maddux, 2002). It calls for as much focus on strength as on weakness, as much interest in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst, and as much attention to fulfilling the lives of healthy people as to healing the wounds of the distressed (Seligman, 2002; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Psychologists interested in promoting human potential need to start with different assumptions and to pose different questions from their peers who assume only a disease model.
The past concern of psychology with human problems is of course understandable. It will not and should not be abandoned. People experience difficulties that demand and deserve scientifically informed solutions. Positive psychologists are merely saying that the psychology of the past 60 years is incomplete. As simple as this proposal sounds, it demands a sea change in perspective.
The most basic assumption that positive psychology urges is that human goodness and excellence are as authentic as disease, disorder, and distress. Positive psychologists are adamant that these topics are not secondary, derivative, illusory, epiphenomenal, or otherwise suspect. The good news is that these generalizations about business-as-usual psychology over the past 60 years are simply that—generalizations. There are many good examples of psychological research, past and present, that can be claimed as positive psychology.
The very long past of positive psychology stretches at least to the Athenian philosophers in the West and to Confucius and Lao-Tsu in the East (Dahlsgaard, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005). In the writings of these great thinkers can be found the same questions posed by contemporary positive psychologists. What is the good life? Is virtue its own reward? What does it mean to be happy? Is it possible to pursue happiness directly, or is fulfillment a by-product of other pursuits? What roles are played by other people and society as a whole?
Somewhat later but still many centuries ago, we encounter the ideas of religious figures and theologians—Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, Thomas Aquinas, and many others—who also posed deep questions about the meaning of the good life and its attainment. When we identify common themes across the disparate world views they advanced, we see that they advocated service to other individuals, to humankind as a whole, and to a higher power and purpose, however it is named. Today’s positive psychologists also emphasize a life of meaning and emphasize that it can be found in both spiritual and secular pursuits. In so doing, positive psychology places the psychology of religion in a central place it has rarely occupied in the history of the discipline (Emmons & Paloutzian, 2003).
Within psychology, the premises of positive psychology were laid out long before 1998. In the beginning, psychologists were greatly interested in genius and talent as well as in fulfilling the lives of normal people. Setting the immediate stage for positive psychology as it currently exists were humanistic psychology as popularized by Rogers (1951) and Maslow (1970); utopian visions of education like those of Neill (1960); primary prevention programs based on notions of wellness—sometimes dubbed promotion programs—as pioneered by Albee (1982) and Cowen (1994); work by Bandura (1989) and others on human agency and efficacy; studies of giftedness (e.g., Winner, 2000); conceptions of intelligence as multiple (e.g., Gardner, 1983; Sternberg, 1985); and studies of the quality of life among medical and psychiatric patients that went beyond an exclusive focus on their symptoms and diseases (e.g., Levitt, Hogan, & Bucosky, 1990).
Today’s positive psychologists do not claim to have invented notions of happiness and well- being, to have proposed their first theoretical accounts, or even to have ushered in their scientific study. Rather, the contribution of contemporary positive psychology has been to provide an umbrella term for what have been isolated lines of theory and research and to make the self- conscious argument that what makes life worth living deserves its own field of inquiry within psychology, at least until that day when all of psychology embraces the study of what is good along with the study of what is bad (Peterson & Park, 2003).
FAQs About Positive Psychology Positive psychology is not without its critics (Cowen & Kilmer, 2002; Lazarus, 2003; Taylor, 2001). Up to a point, those of us who are positive psychologists welcome criticism because it means that people are paying attention and, more important, because we can learn from it. Here are some of the frequently asked questions (FAQs) that I have encountered in the past few years when I speak and write about positive psychology (Seligman & Pawelski, 2003). Some of the questions come from the general public and others from my academic colleagues.
My experience is that everyday people find it exciting and the sort of thing psychology should be doing (Easterbrook, 2001). Despite the pervasiveness of a victim mentality, everyday people seem to know that the elimination or reduction of problems is not all that is involved in improving the human condition. In contrast, the academic community is often skeptical of positive psychology. Contributing to skepticism are widespread assumptions within the social sciences about human nature as flawed and fragile, notions more explicit among social scientists than the general public. From this starting point, the field can only be seen as the study of fluff— perhaps even as a dangerous diversion while the world goes to hell. Social scientists are doubtful about the existence of the good life and certainly about the ability of people to report on it with fidelity. We too are mindful of the dangers of self-report but point out that “social desirability” is hardly a nuisance variable when one studies what is socially desirable (Crowne & Marlowe,
Is Positive Psychology Just Happiology?
When positive psychology is featured in the popular media, it seems that no one in charge of
layout can resist accompanying the story with a graphic of Harvey Bell’s clichéd smiley face,2
beaming at readers in its jaundiced glory (e.g., U.S. News & World Report, September 3, 2001; Newsweek, September 16, 2002; USA Weekend, March 9, 2003; Time, September 17, 2005; Psychology Today, February 2005). This iconography is terribly misleading because it equates positive psychology with the study of happiness and indeed with a superficial form of happiness.
All other things being equal, smiling is of course pleasant to do and pleasant to observe, but a smile is not an infallible indicator of all that makes life most worth living. When we are highly engaged in fulfilling activities, when we are speaking from our hearts, or when we are doing something heroic, we may or may not be smiling, and we may or may not be experiencing pleasure in the moment. All of these are central concerns to positive psychology, and they fall outside the realm of happiology.
To foreshadow later chapters in this book, I note that pleasure and happiness are certainly of great interest to positive psychology but are more complex than whatever is conveyed by a smiley face. Positive psychologists study positive traits and dispositions—characteristics like kindness, curiosity, and the ability to work on a team—as well as values, interests, talents, and abilities. They study social institutions that can enable the good life: friendship, marriage, family, education, religion, and so on.
I cannot resist noting that not all smiles are created equal. Researchers have long distinguished among types of smiles, arguing that some are more genuine than others. A so-
called Duchenne3 (1862/1990) smile involves one’s whole face and is sincere because it cannot be faked. Contrast it with a flight attendant’s smile, a forced grimace that involves only one’s lower face.
What Is the Relationship of Positive Psychology to Humanistic Psychology?
In one of the early discussions of positive psychology, Marty Seligman and Mike
Csikszentmihalyi4 (2000) tersely distanced this new field from humanistic psychology, one of psychology’s venerable perspectives that was particularly popular in the 1960s and 1970s and still has many adherents today. In very general terms, humanism is the doctrine that the needs and values of human beings take precedence over material things and, further, that people cannot be studied simply as part of the material world. Humanists argue that scientific psychologists miss what is most important about people by focusing on the supposed causes of behavior, as if people were simply billiard balls, doing poorly or well depending on what other
billiard balls happen to have ricocheted into them.
Well-known psychologists within the humanistic tradition include Abraham Maslow (1970) and Carl Rogers (1951). Both emphasized that people strive to make the most of their potential in a process called self-actualization. Self-actualization can be thwarted by various conditions, but if these conditions are changed, then the potential within each individual will necessarily unfold.
This is a very different way of thinking about human nature than that embodied in psychoanalysis or behaviorism, dominant perspectives within psychology during the 20th century. Humanistic psychology stresses the goals for which people strive, their conscious awareness of this striving, the importance of their own choices, and their rationality. The attention of psychology is thereby directed away from mechanical causes and toward fundamental questions about existence and meaning.
Humanistic psychology often overlaps with another venerable viewpoint: existentialism. The critical idea of existentialism is that a person’s experience is primary. To understand any individual is to understand him or her subjectively, from the inside out. There is no other way.
Existentialists see people as products of their own choices, and these choices are freely undertaken. To use their phrase, existence precedes essence, with essence understood to mean a person’s particular characteristics. Existentialists stress that there is no fixed human nature, only the sort of person that each unique individual becomes by the way she chooses to define herself.
As applied specifically to psychology, these humanistic and existential viewpoints have several emphases (Urban, 1983):
the significance of the individual
the complex organization of the individual
the capacity for change inherent in the individual
the significance of conscious experience
the self-regulatory nature of human activity
Implicit here is an impatience with “scientific” psychology as it is typically conducted, because it does not always deal with what is most important about people (Maslow, 1966).
Humanists and existential theorists believe that psychologists must pay more attention to an individual’s way of seeing the world, and here they join ranks with yet another intellectual movement, phenomenology, which attempts to describe a person’s conscious experience in terms meaningful for that individual. Described so starkly, phenomenology has a superficial resemblance to cognitive approaches within psychology (H. Gardner, 1985), in that both are concerned with thoughts and thinking, but this is a misleading similarity. Cognitive psychologists
specify the terms with which to describe thinking and then try to use this theoretical language to describe the thoughts of all people. In contrast, phenomenologists start with the experience of a specific individual and then attempt to describe it.
In light of this background, why did Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi say that positive psychology was different? They made two arguments. First, positive psychology regards both the good and the bad about life as genuine, whereas humanists often—but not always—assume that people are inherently good. Second, positive psychology is strongly committed to the scientific method, whereas humanists often—but again not always—are skeptical of science and its ability to shed light on what really matters.
As points of relative and occasional contrast, I agree with the arguments of Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, but as positive psychology has evolved and more carefully examined allied perspectives, the wholesale dismissal of humanistic psychology now seems glib and mistaken. Certainly, most existentialists would agree that each person has the capacity for good and bad, just as positive psychology assumes. That the good life is simply a matter of choice seems to go too far, given the well-documented barriers to thriving posed by external circumstances like pestilence, poverty, and prejudice, but positive psychologists nowadays acknowledge that notions of choice and will are indispensable ones (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
Many humanistic psychologists, from decades ago (e.g., Rogers, Gendlin, Kiesler, & Truax, 1967) to the present (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 2000), are as committed to science as any positive psychologist. The deeper issue is what one counts as legitimate science. I have a relaxed and inclusive conception of the scientific method: the use of evidence to evaluate theories. There are multiple sources of useful evidence—each with its own pros and cons—and science should not privilege one source over another. Scientific psychology can learn much from carefully controlled laboratory experiments, but so too can it learn much from case studies of exceptional individuals, from interviews and surveys of the general population, and from analyses of historical information.
The aforementioned billiard ball conception of psychology is a caricature that applies nowadays to very few psychologists of any stripe. Like humanistic researchers, positive psychologists believe that people are appropriately studied by talking to them about things that most matter and seeing how their lives actually unfold (Park & Peterson, in press a).
In sum, positive psychology and humanistic psychology are close relatives. In some instances, their features are identical, and in some other instances, they can be distinguished. No good purpose is served by wrangling over which provides a better overall perspective, a debate that likely has no resolution. In any event, science is always about particulars, and some empirical studies undertaken from a humanistic perspective will shed light on the good life, as will some
empirical studies undertaken from a positive psychology perspective.
Is Positive Psychology Anything More Than What Sunday School Teachers Know?
Some of the findings of positive psychology (and humanistic psychology, for that matter) seem commonsensical once articulated. So, other people matter mightily. Money cannot buy happiness. Those with a reason to live do so, and do so rather well. “I knew that,” says the skeptic, which leads to another frequently asked question about the field: Does it add anything to what we already know about the good life and how to achieve it?
I am sure that you are familiar with Robert Fulghum’s (1986) popular book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and its numerous spin-offs. It seems only a matter of time before someone asserts that everything that positive psychology has to teach was already taught to most of us in kindergarten, in Sunday school, on our grandmother’s knee, or on the Lizzy McGuire Show. How do I respond to this criticism?
Well, for starters, it is wrong. Common sense and obviousness can always be asserted after the fact. Suppose I had pointed out—contrary to the actual evidence—that positive psychology has shown that we need not be concerned with what other people think or do, that “he who dies with the most toys wins,” and that a ceaseless quest for the meaning of life is a fool’s errand. “I knew all that as well,” says the same skeptic, which leaves us with an obvious need for evidence that will allow us to sort through the contradictory things that we all seem to know so well.
As you read this book, you can judge for yourself which of the findings of positive psychology are surprising. But when they are not especially surprising, I urge you to ask further, “So what?” Psychology makes too much of its counterintuitive findings, showing for example that people may be unaware of what influences their judgments and actions (e.g., Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), that our memory of events—even vivid ones—is rarely if ever literal (cf. Brown & Kulik, 1977), and that there are limitations to people’s rationality (e.g., Kahneman & Tversky, 1973). This celebration of the counterintuitive often takes the form of highlighting the shortcomings of people and in effect saying, “Look at how stupid we all are.” Research like this can be important for correcting common sense, but not if it leads to the conclusion that people are hopelessly flawed and inadequate. Then we have the scientific equivalent of shock journalism.
Remember the basic premise of positive psychology: that human goodness and excellence are as authentic as are human flaws and inadequacies. Too much attention to the counterintuitive leads us to ignore what people do well and results in a strange view of the human condition. Some of the true miracles of human activity receive scant attention from psychologists. For example, consider that most automobile drivers most of the time negotiate interstate highways without accident, all at more than 70 miles per hour. Consider that most people who give up smoking are successful on their own without professional help. Consider that almost all children
learn language without explicit instruction. Consider that most people who experience a traumatic event recover from its effects.
In chapter 4, I describe research showing that people are often unable to predict how long they will be happy or sad following important life events. So, most young people predict that being dumped by a girlfriend or …
GUIDE TO FORMAL OUTLINING I. The outline should be in sentence form. A. That means that each section of the outline must be a complete sentence
B. Each part may only have one sentence in it.
II. Each Roman numeral should be a main section of the speech.
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B. Sub-points need to correspond with the idea it is under. 1. This means that capital letters refer to the idea in roman numerals. 2. This means that numbers refer to the idea in the capital letter.
III. All sub-points should be indented the same.
A. This means that all of the capital letters are indented the same. B. All numbers are indented the same.
IV. No sub-point stands alone.
A. Every A must have a B. B. Every 1 must have a 2. C. You don’t need to have a C or a 3, but you can. D. There are no exceptions to this rule.
Your speech outline should look something like the one in the sample. Your outline will also include the full sentence details of your speech, including source citations. The number of sub-points will differ in each speech and for each main idea.
FORMAL SENTENCE OUTLINE FORMAT
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