“How do you propose we share positive psychology with strangers?” a participant at one of my recent seminars asked. The question took me by surprise, but in a flash, I answered intuitively, “Be nice”. That succinctly covered all the ways I could think of in 2 seconds. Two weeks have passed, and I think of the myriad of thoughts that crossed my mind that day. They included:
Be nice. My biggest takeaway from MAPP is Chris Peterson’s eloquent quip, “Other people matter.” For me, that sentence frames applications of positive psychology in a social-political context as well as feeding a psychological need. It helped me thrive despite major relationship, health, and financial setbacks for I could stand on the other sides and look at life from different perspectives. Minding ‘self-deception’ as defined by by The Arbinger Institute reinforces my belief that there but by the grace of God go I too. I am indeed OK and you are also OK. Stay away from gossip, envy, ill feelings, the need to be right, concern about what others might think about us, and generally self-righteousness. Smile often and laugh from the belly. Find the joy in any interpersonal encounter.
- Practice it. Yep! practice what we preach. It is hard sometimes but Baumeister tells us that a new habit (positive living) like a muscle grows stronger the more we use it. Living PP instead of talking about it makes it easier to ‘share’ it. For example, when we experience positive emotions, we send out positive vibes and attract/inspire the same around us. Try it. I practise on a daily basis – I smile at EVERYone and watch reactions. I have seen tired faces relax into bashful tiny smiles. That’s okay. Some stop me to ask if they know me and I tell them ‘not until now’ but I think those count as high quality connections (Dutton). Do the unexpected. Just yesterday I bought lunch for all the car wash boys in my basement car park. Nope I didn’t know them except for one. They were stunned but broke into the widest grins. I felt like a millionaire even though this was a tight month. There are so many ways to practise PP, just do it!
- Give it away. Some newbies try too hard to sell PP, waxing lyrical about research findings and theories, who wrote what, and this seminar and that conference, etc and their listeners’ eyes glaze over. In the beginning I did that too but I worked on my 30 second elevator speech and couldn’t fit all that in. So now I say I help people find their own happiness and achieve their goals, whatever that might mean to them. 5 seconds and 25 left to answer questions. People also like to have tangible takeaways. A simple positive intervention goes a long way – a tip, a story, the ‘3 blessings’ exercise, a different perspective. Sometimes all we have is that one moment in time, too brief for sharing, give PP ‘a way’ instead!
- Be sensitive. Some people don’t want to look at the positive side right now. Paul Wong, Professor and Chair at Tyndale University College, Toronto wrote of his grueling journey To hell and back and what I have learned about happiness, describing his fight against cancer. Show respect and resist attempting to convert people.
- What stranger? Strangers are friends we have not met. Share PP the way you would with a friend. Recently I was in a rush and a lady interrupted my hasty dash up the escalator – she stood squarely in front of me. Then when we reached solid ground, I noticed she walked gingerly with a cane. Walking past her, I impulsively turned around and asked if she had a big collection of walking canes. Suspiciously she eyed me and I told her that I’d noticed how the motif along her cane almost matched the floral print on her dress. Her pain-strained face tentatively and then positively shone with amused pleasure at such an absurd notion and being noticed. A couple more pleasantries and I walked briskly up the next escalator as she walked on a little easier with a smile. 30 seconds of applying PP allowed both of us to experience an interlude from from life’s cares. Make friends.
What makes us think that only we know PP? Often people after a PP-oriented talk would come up to ask me if I were a Christian, and Muslim or Hindu participants tell that PP is taught by thier religion too. Confucianism, Buddhism, and major world religions all teach people to be true and pure, kind and compassionate, and so on. In fact, implicit in the characteristics of a character strength in Chris Peterson’s tome is ubiquity. What is PP but the good life reframed or repackaged in scientific wrapping supported by systematic custom-designed ploys to collect evidence? Our ancestors practiced PP quite obliviously in the sense that they did what was right and expected. Perhaps only in our modern world, where human kindness and kinship is either missing or taken for granted in many lives, do we require reminders of the good life. We seem to have become so cynical and self sufficient that we only ‘buy’ things that have been proven to work. How else do we explain Aristotle’s insight, William James’ philosophy, LaoTzu’s wisdom, Benjamin Franklin’s creative determination and the Beatitudes? These icons of great teachings that have shaped most of our worlds did not study psychology much less positive psychology – PP studied them! Be inclusive.
So my fellow sojourners on this epic PP holy grail of modern times, let’s be careful lest we offend the ‘strangers’ that we meet. Be nice, be your authentic self and remember other people matter. That’s how I would share PP with a ‘stranger’. How about you?
Some favorite reads:
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Arbinger Institute (2002). Leadership and Self Deception: Getting Out of the Box. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.
Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Baumeister, R., Gaillot, M., DeWall, N. & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1773-1802.
Laughter courtesy of Jaye Z