Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
Positive psychology is the science of what goes right with people. It qualifies as a science because positive psychologists form hypotheses and then test them with controlled experiments and longitudinal studies.
What goes right with people is not the same as the absence of what can go wrong. In fact, some people learn to flourish in the face of things going very wrong. What we now know about human flourishing gives us an obligation to transfer research results from the lab to the street. How do we do this effectively?
In an article titled The Theory Heard ‘Round the World, Albert Bandura, expert on self-efficacy, says, “The problem we have in psychology is that we don’t profit from our successes. We construct theories and clarify how they produce their effects, but we lack implementation models for translating theory into effective practice.” He goes on to say we lack effective social diffusion models to achieve widespread adoption of what we learn.Bandura’s belief that people learn from role models whose behavior they wish to emulate has evolved into serial dramas, long-running radio or television dramas that exemplify desired behaviors that contribute to local social goals. Bandura advises Education-Entertainment expert Miguel Sabido and the non-profit Populations Communications International (PCI) as they go to countries all over the world by invitation to work with local people on TV programs addressing whatever goals the inviting country identifies, such as reducing the spread of AIDs, promoting literacy, or reducing population growth. Millions of people around the world watch serial dramas with characters like themselves facing challenges and situations familiar to them.
Bandura and Sabido have found it helpful to have three types of characters: “Positive role models whose behavior results in good things, negative role models whose behavior has adverse effects, and transitional models who start out negatively but turn into positive role models by the end.” In many parts of the world, these programs are more popular than regular TV programs, and they have led to widespread changes in behavior. In Mexico, one of Sabido’s early dramas, Ven Conmigo centered around the lives of adults enrolled in a literacy class. The year following this show’s airing, new enrollments in adult literacy programs were nine times greater than the year before. “After one episode mentioned the national distribution center that provided free literacy booklets, 25,000 people showed up the next day to get their copies.” People learn from stories.
Aristotle’s expert mean is the point of virtue located between excess and deficit. Finding this point depends on an expert evaluation of context; it is not in a fixed location. We need to keep looking for the expert mean between too much and too little empirical research in the way we talk about positive psychology. We need theories that can be tested, but stories speak louder than theories to most people. When I describe Csikszentmihalyi’s work on enabling flow to work groups, people are interested (and impressed that I can pronounce his name). What they find compelling are stories about groups that have achieved higher energy and productivity by effectively balancing challenge and skills, reserving blocks of time for people to concentrate, and giving people a sense of control over their time. When I talk about learned optimism and reframing, people are mildly interested in the idea of taking what looks negative initially and searching for opportunity or benefit in it, but the idea comes alive with a story of people turning a dreary chore into an opportunity to innovate, particularly in settings where people feel a need for more chances to exercise creativity.
We can get a huge head start disseminating positive psychology by effectively aligning with the stories that people carry around in their heads from storytellers, books, movies, and personal experience. Which of these stories give us a sense that we can make a difference? Which give us examples of courage, kindness, temperance, and wisdom? Which elicit wonder and awe? Which give us the strength to face sorrow and obstacles? Which help us forgive ourselves and others?
We need to form effective partnerships with the keepers of stories – people who teach literature and history at all educational levels, including parents reading to their children. Do the stories that children learn in elementary and secondary school give them role models of wisdom, love, courage, and other virtues? I read Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi in the 8th grade, and I still think of his labor learning to be a river pilot when I need to persist with something difficult. What stories that people learn in college literature courses are good ones to carry around in their heads for the rest of their lives? When I think about faith, I remember Alyosha in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. When I read the day’s news, I need the hope and courage in Mary Oliver’s Wage Peace. When I need judgment laced with humor, I remember Benjamin Franklin’s speech to the Constitutional Convention on its final day. When I seek contentment in temperance, I reread Horace’s ode 3.16.
True riches mean not revenues:
Care clings to wealth: the thirst for more
Grows as out fortunes grow. I stretch my store
By narrowing my wants; far wealthier thus
Than if the treasures of Alatteus
And Phrygia’s plains were mine. We are not poor
While nought we seek. Happiest to whom high Heaven
Enough — no more — with sparing hand has given.
What else belongs in a positive canon that can help people live well?Let’s start with stories that exemplify one or more character strengths. According to the criteria set by Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman, a character strength is fulfilling and morally valued in itself, does not diminish others, is pervasive and trait-like, is distinct from other strengths, is embodied by paragons and prodigies, and is supported by rituals within the larger society. The list they formed includes strengths that are mentioned in philosophical and religious texts through history and across geographies. For a brief description, see the table at the end of this article. These character strengths are described in detail in their book, Character Strengths and Virtues, sometimes called the Manual of the Sanities.
I have to speak out for one frequently misunderstood entry in the positive canon, Eleanor Porter’s book, Pollyanna. Pollyanna’s father taught her the Glad Game, the skill of taking things that make one miserable and finding new ways to think about them that open up the possibility of happiness. When her father dies, Pollyanna goes to live with a stern aunt. She practices the Glad Game with her own grief and loneliness and proceeds to teach it to almost everyone in the village. Pollyanna practiced positive psychology 93 years ago and has a lot to teach us about humor, hope, and gratitude.
I invite you all to share the stars in your personal collection of stories. What are the books, plays, poems, biographies, and experiences that help you live a good life? I look forward to writing a future article about the entries in the positive canon that I’ve learned from you.
Wisdom: Cognitive strengths involving acquisition and use of knowledge
Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways to do things
Emotional strengths that exercise the will to accomplish goals in the face of obstacles
Bravery: Acting on convictions without shrinking from threat or difficulty
Humanity: Interpersonal strengths
Love: Valuing and fostering close reciprocal relationships with others
Justice: Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life
Citizenship: Working well as a member of a group, doing one’s share, being loyal
Temperance: Strengths that protect against excess
Forgiveness and mercy: Forgiving those who have done wrong, giving second chances
Transcendence: Strengths of connection to the larger universe that provide meaning
Appreciation of beauty and excellence: Awe for excellence in art, nature, all domains of life
Reproduced with permission: Excerpts from Table 27.1 in Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2004). Classification and measurement of character strengths: Implications for practice. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice. pp. 433-445. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Storytelling @ Thursdays courtesy of kodomut