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.
As I have worked with lawyers, teachers, school superintendents, business school students and others on positive psychology, I have looked for a way to organize my approach. This pyramid is the result. (For those who prefer organic images, see the end of this post.) I admit that my thinking may be heavily influenced by my work with lawyers as I have struggled with the unique deficits that law school seems to create. That said, I share this in the hopes it will spark others to contribute their thoughts as to how to organize the findings in this new field.
My view is that “the good life” is built on a base of positivity and that a good way of thinking about that base is captured by “Resilience/Optimism/Energy” (ROE), “Strengths”, and “Relationships.” These are three components that work together to form a base on which one’s values can lead to purpose expressed in attractive, motivating goals.
Resilience/Optimism/Energy (ROE) is obviously a concept where I have not been able to settle on one word. I think about it in terms of both bouncing back from adversities and bouncing forward in the presence of opportunities. (My colleagues at Flourishing Schools have contributed a lot to my thinking in this area, especially with the concept of “bounciness”.) I am approaching resilience and optimism from the explanatory style model found in The Resilience Factor by Reivich and Shatte and Learned Optimism by Seligman. Optimism, however, can also be thought of as future expectancies (Carver and Scheier) — expecting more good things than bad to happen in the future. This is the optimism Susan Segerstrom works with in Breaking Murphy’s Law. She has done a lot of work with law students, tracking them forward as they become lawyers. I will come back to this form of optimism when I discuss Relationships. The Energy component includes regular exercise (shown to reduce depression), and meditation for mindfulness (numerous positive benefits in many studies). Meditation, however, appears from the research to have broad-ranging effects in all areas (Fredrickson, Positivity; Siegel, The Mindful Brain). Energy also includes Barb Fredrickson’s Positivity ratio.
I think of Strengths both in terms of the character strengths measured by the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths and the work-related strengths of action identified in the Gallup organization and described in Strengthsfinder 2.0 and Strengths Based Leadership. Discovering, affirming for one’s self, and having others affirm one’s strengths is an energizing, optimistic experience that builds well-being. Becoming confident in those strengths helps one re-envision current situations with new pathways into the future. Combined, these two views of strengths offer a sort of binocular view of how one might be and act in the world. Given that law school seems to reduce the connection of law students to most of the standard set of human values (as identified by Shalom Schwartz) and appears to result in lawyers who endorse 21 of the 24 VIA strengths at levels below the average for other Americans, the VIA strengths may offer special opportunities for legal professionals.
Foundation and Entry Points
Generally, either Strengths or ROE seem to make the most sense as entry points for those seeking to build their base of positivity, and working on either or both sets the stage for moving to Relationships. The VIA Strengths, for example, have as one of their criteria that exercising the strengths uplifts those who witness it. (See here for a 9-minute screen cast on the background and criteria for the VIA Strengths.)
Further, we tend to like and be attracted to happy, optimistic, resilient folks. As one becomes more strengths oriented, one also begins to see strengths in others, thereby laying the foundation for better relationships. Exercising those strengths can create moments of shared positive emotion and experiences of novelty, both of which build relationships. (Fredrickson, Positivity; Kashdan, Curious?) However, Relationships can also feed back into ROE and Strengths. For example, Segerstrom reports that those law students whose relationships increased in connectedness and carrying power over the 10 years after law school gained more expectational optimism (but those whose financial resources increased did not). I also often introduce Appreciative Inquiry — as a style and approach, not a formal methodology — when working with Relationships. “Me at My Best” stories make an excellent exercise in appreciative relating, and they help connect back to Strengths and ROE which will often be in the stories. High Quality Connections (Dutton, Energize Your Workplace) emphasize rapid moments of emotionally rich connections This connects to Fredrickson’s approach to love as the frequent, shared experience of positive emotions in a safe relationship. Finally from a group perspective — friendship, couple, family, law firm or department, school, etc. — I introduce the Losada Line: 3:1 positive to negative interactions for growth, 5:1 or higher for excellence.
With the base of positivity built up, individuals seeking “more” are in a better position to understand, sort, and own their values, develop purposes in different domains of life, and set and pursue goals with energy and joy. However, this is not a one-directional process just moving “up” the pyramid; there are all kinds of interconnections and feedback loops. For example, one technique in the resilience approach developed by Reivich, Shatte, Gillham, et al., is “detecting icebergs”. This means recognizing those situations where one’s beliefs about the situation and one’s emotions/behaviors in the situation do not match, either in size or in type. So, for example, one might have a belief about loss, which generally should be connected with sadness, but experience anger instead (which usually connects with beliefs about violation of rights). Or, one could have a belief about a minor violation of rights, but experience massive anger. In these situations, detecting icebergs is often a productive response. This is a process that helps the individual discover some slightly deeper beliefs that will make sense of the feelings/behaviors. Here’s the interesting part — it often turns out that those “icebergs” are really deeply held values, sometimes two such values that have come into conflict. So, by working on resilience, the individual striving for “better” gains insight into his values. By identifying and sorting values, he develops greater capacity for resilience!
Another cross-level connection is between goals and optimism. Writing about expectational optimism, Segerstrom says that “The first rule of doing optimism is pursuing goals.” (Breaking Murphy’s Law, p. 188.) Her research also indicates that in the 10 years from law school into the practice, her subjects whose relationship networks increased also experienced the greatest gain in expectational optimism! So, for getting a handle on how to move forward when one is down or unhappy or bored and there doesn’t seem to be a way forward, the hierarchical nature of the pyramid is a help. But, in the process, the interconnectedness and ever-changing relative importance of these aspects starts to emerge in ways that make sense to the individual.
Obviously, there are constructs I have omitted in any explicit form, but some of them are here implicitly or would be included in training sessions. For example, Snyder’s version of Hope involves Goals, Pathways, and Agency. The components are here, though I haven’t listed “Hope” separately. The same with Gratitude. I would use “Three Good Things” as an exercise in the ROE component (usually VERY early in any work with a group) and also involve gratefulness in relationships.
OK, I promised a more organic image for those who prefer such a way of thinking. In truth, it is becoming more and more my way of thinking. But, I am not an adequate artist to create the appropriate image. So, I will describe it. (Thanks to Kathryn Britton for finding two good images!)Imagine a tree growing in good soil beside a year-round stream with plenty of sunlight. The tree has rich, abundant foliage, and you can see fruit hanging from its limbs. The stream is Resilience/Optimism/Energy providing energy even in adverse, arid conditions. The rich soil is Strengths, providing support and nutrients for growth and accomplishment. Relationships are the sunlight, providing energy (note the interconnections) and beauty. The trunk of the tree are one’s personal values, the foliage is purpose in various domains, and the fruit are motivating goals whose pursuit is as enjoyable as their attainment, if not more so!
Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: William Morrow.
Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Gallup Press.
Rath, T. & Conchie, B. (2009). Strengths-Based Leadership. New York: Gallup 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.
Schwartz, S.H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the content and structure of values? Journal of Social Issues, 50, 19-45.
Segerstrom, S. (2007). Breaking Murphy’s Law: How Optimists Get What They Want from Life – and Pessimists Can Too. The Guilford Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.
Siegel, (2007). The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York: W. W. Norton.
Pyramid used with permission from Dave Shearon
Fountain of Faith from kimberlyfaye’s photostream
Icebergs from Nick Russill’s photostream
Cherries courtesy of James Yeo