Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.
Dave's articles are here.
Children give wonderful gifts. Our boys have given Teresa and me an appreciation for baseball, “stop for the fun of it”, archery, and lots of great times reading to them at night. Both of them enjoyed being read to long after they no longer needed that reassurance and ritual to go to sleep. Toward the end of our time reading to each of them, we were reading books that we all enjoyed, but they could not get read for themselves. The earliest of the Harry Potter books was such a book for my younger son. Of course, as a lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, I was hooked by the story, and have read them right along with the boys as each new book has been released. In preparation for both seeing the new movie based on the fifth book and reading the last book when it comes out on Saturday, my recreational reading recently has been to re-read the fifth and sixth novels.
For those of you not enchanted by the tales, they’re the story of a young boy, Harry Potter, who is destined to battle a powerful evil wizard. He goes to a British boarding school for wizards and witches whose headmaster is a powerful and good wizard named Albus Dumbledore.
Harry Potter’s Powers Have Positive Psychology Base?
Although Harry does not seem to have the type of magical power that would enable him to face the evil wizard, he has already survived several confrontations. Professor Dumbledore has repeatedly claimed that Harry has a magic greater than his opponent’s, and one which his opponent underestimates: the magic of love. Sappy? Absolutely.
These days, however, I am convinced that “sappy” and “soft-hearted” are not particularly strong arguments against a proposition. Chris Peterson reports that the character strength that distinguishes the best leaders at West Point is the capacity to love and be loved. Jane Dutton’s work shows that “high quality connections,” which she acknowledges can be understood as love, are the difference between low performing and high performing workplaces. John Gottman has found that the same relationship patterns that form the foundation of a good marriage also underlie friendships and business relationships.
Importance of Positive Emotions and Positive Thoughts
As Martin Seligman has pointed out, the science of psychology had, until very recently, virtually ignored the positive emotions. Today, however, thanks to the work of Dr. Seligman and other greats in this field, we have a mounting body of evidence that suggests just how important and powerful the positive can be in our lives. Thanks to the work of Barbara Fredrickson, we even have “Broaden and Build” as a theoretical base for understanding this power.
We also have mounting evidence of how the absence of the positive in our lives causes significant and lasting damage. Just in the last few weeks, the Wall Street Journal (here, paid registration required) published a story about recent research showing that even a single experience of major depression is linked to double the chance of developing concentration, memory, or problem-solving difficulties after the age of 65. Depression has also been linked to shrinkage in the portion of the brain devoted to memory.
Next week I will be helping facilitate training for more than 90 teachers from the United Kingdom in the Penn Resiliency Program. This program, based on Dr. Seligman’s work on explanatory style, has been developed over the last 15+ years by Karen Reivitch and Jane Gillham and others associated with the Positive Psychology Center at Penn. The program was initially a depression-prevention program for susceptible middle-school students. It continues to carry this characteristic though though research has shown it has benefits in other areas. With this recent research on the effects of depression in later life added to all the other research on the widespread and growing experience of depression, the investment in helping students develop the habits of thought and emotional regulation they can let them avoid depressive episodes appears eminently worthwhile.
Positive Emotions and Habitually Positive Thought Patterns
But, positive psychology is not just about avoiding bad things. Research evidence also continues to mount that a general approach to life based on a frequent experience of positive emotions and habitually positive thought patterns actually increases the likelihood of good consequences. In the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry takes a swig of a magical potion known for inducing luck as he attempts to accomplish a particularly difficult task. Sure enough, he not only accomplishes the task, but several other events occur as a result of his actions that move matters in directions favorable to him. Of course, I am not suggesting that positive psychology is magic. In fact, I make a point to disavow that thought when I speak. But I also admit that, sometimes, it can feel that way. For those of us who have spent too many years focusing on what can go wrong, generating personal, permanent, and pervasive explanations for the bad things that have happened in our lives, and generally living in a more negative state, living more positively can, sometimes, feel pretty magical. The experience of refusing to see things in the worst possible light, maintaining an openness to the possibility that things could turn out for the best, and therefore acting in ways that make that more likely, and then having it happen, is extraordinarily uplifting. This is especially so when the positive approach has not been one’s normal path through life and when it was a conscious choice that led to taking the more positive path.
Unlike the luck potion in the Harry Potter story, developing a more frequent basis of positive emotions, the capacity to adopt a more positive explanatory style, and other positive traits and approaches does not concentrate “luck” in a few hours. It does, however, seem to have the effect of tipping the odds of good things happening and minimizing the odds of bad things. Even over a fairly short period of time the results can significantly affect outcomes. Over the course of years, or even a lifetime, the consequences in terms of health, well-being, relationships, and achievement can be huge.
There are those who are criticizing the educational leadership in the United Kingdom for spending time and money to help teachers learn to assist students in developing resiliency. In the world of legal education, there are those who scoff at the idea that a system that seems to consistently create extremely negative emotional and cognitive consequences for the students should be changed. I believe a fair reading of the evidence suggests that the efforts to apply positive psychology to improve the lives of individuals in a wide range of settings are fully warranted on a straight cost-benefit analysis. If you believe, as Chris Peterson says, that a key summation of positive psychology’s findings is, “Other people matter,” then there is no question as to the value of these efforts. I am proud to be a part of this group.
Rowling, J. K. (2004). Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix. Scholastic Paperbacks. Book 5 in the Harry Potter series.
Rowling, J. K. (2006) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Scholastic Paperbacks. Book 6 in the Harry Potter series.
Bhalla, R. K., Butters, M. A., Mulsant, B. H., Begley, A. E., Zmuda, M. D., Schoderbek, B., et al. (2006). Persistence of neuropsychologic deficits in the remitted state of late-life depression. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 14(5), 419-427.
Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.
Gottman, J. & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure: A 5 step guide to strengthening your marriage, family, and friendships. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Seligman, Martin (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.
Steffens, D. C., Otey, E., Alexopoulos, G. S., Butters, M. A., Cuthbert, B., Ganguli, M., et al. (2006). Perspectives on depression, mild cognitive impairment, and cognitive decline. Archives of General Psychiatry, 63(2), 130-138.