I write these thoughts in the news of the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech.
Does Positive Psychology Matter?
Does it matter? Would it be possible for positive psychology to be true, authentic and effective for individuals isolated from others experience, life circumstances? Surely not. The science is value-free, like nuclear energy, but its application is inevitably and always value-driven. Pawelski, Peterson, Prilleltensky, Cooperrider, Dutton, Fredrickson, Schwartz, Vaillant and others of our Professors always set out their stall as available and benefiting all. This is not easy. As Caroline articulates so well achieving goals is hard work, takes grit and stamina; we make many mistakes on the way, always. Learning is the only way forward. It matters.
It matters in Virginia. It matters in Iraq. In Africa and Asia. Can positive psychology furnish the mentalities that will save the planet? In the millennium launch of Positive Psychology, this extraordinary paradigm shift not only for social science but for society, Marty Seligman and Mihály Csíkszentmihályi wrote:
“Entering a new millennium, we face an historical choice. Left alone on the pinnacle of economic and political leadership, the United States can continue to increase its material wealth while ignoring the human needs of its people and that of the rest of the planet. Such a course is likely to lead to increasing selfishness, alienation between the more and the less fortunate, and eventually to chaos and despair.
At this juncture the social and behavioral sciences can play an enormously important role.”
This is the mission to which we are engineers.
I have no insights to Virginia. My taxi driver says “At least they shot the bastard.” There are important issues of command and control and no doubt the inquiry will focus on these (because they seek a risk-free solution). Yet my intuition is that those in control were perhaps disengaged, their intuition was not engaged, and crisis led to massacre.
I recall the Dunblane shootings in Scotland (16 primary children and one teacher shot dead). Dunblane is one of the nicest villages in Scotland, a place where urban squalor is unimaginable. I am very conscious also of Elliot Currie’s excellent book, The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence:
“The new Darwinism is not only tough but also distinctly uncaring and irresponsible; under its sway, we have become a society that is often self-righteously hard on children but simultaneously unwilling to accept the responsibility of actually bringing them up.”
“Bound By Sympathy”
I am shocked and appalled by the massacre at Virginia. We cannot eliminate risk nor eradicate crime and attempts at utopia generally cause more problems than they solve. Crises and tragedies rightly cause us to examine, internally as well as externally. We are bound by sympathy as Adam Smith recognized so well, and as the low birth weights of European babies immediately after 9/11 testified.
A British journalist challenged Sachs plan for mosquito nets on the basis that the main problem was over population, which would presumably be made worse by protecting children. The only route to smaller families, said Sachs with controlled anger, is for parents to have greater confidence that their children will live. This is true for us all.
I have been reading Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home with its fabulous conclusion that the opposite of death is not life. The opposite of death is love.
As engineers we have a heck of a lot of bridges to build. We are building them. Our science develops. Our values, creating a better world, remain.
Currie, E. (2005). The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence. Picador.
Hauser, C. & O’Connor, A. (2007). Virginia Tech Shooting Leaves 33 Dead. New York Times.
Krabbendam, L., de Bie, R., Essed, G., & van Os, J. (2006). Lower birth weight of Dutch neonates who were in utero at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Journal of Psychsomatic Research, 61, 715-717.
Parrado, N. & Rause, V. (2007). Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home. Broadway Books.