* Hope and Hell are both located in Michigan…Urban Positive Psychology
One of the aspects of studying positive psychology which really appeals to me is its sheer breadth – the fact that it applies in so many fields of human endeavour and experience. Positive psychology appears in disciplines as diverse as art and design, education, politics, and business. So this new research which looks at urban positive psychology particularly caught my eye this week.
Most of the scientific research related to cities focuses on their geography, history, economy, or politics. Very few studies have looked at them from a psychological perspective. Why does this matter, you might wonder. Can psychology tell us anything interesting about cities and those who live in them anyway?
You’ll be familiar I’m sure with national stereotypes, and the fact that in many countries we distinguish between southerners and northerners, or those who live in the east and the west. Research by Jason Rentfrow at the University of Cambridge, UK, and two colleagues in the US suggests that there are regional variations in personality traits. For example in the United States, there is a concentration of Woody Allenesque neurotics on the East Coast and those open to experience (psych-speak for hippies and bohemians?) on the West Coast. Such geographical variations have been brilliantly mapped on Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City? website.
But do people who live in different cities really have different psychological traits and dispositions? Few psychologists have studied variation across cities before now and those who have have focused on the negatives such as obesity, psychiatric disorders and violent crime. So new positive psychology research into city-level strengths by Nansook Park and Chris Peterson from the University of Michigan is not only interesting, but also very refreshing. As they point out, it’s high time we looked at what’s right with city life!Hotspots and Lukewarm Spots?
“No man is an island.” So said English poet John Donne back in the 17th Century. Interpreted from a psychological perspective this means that we’re all influenced to a greater or lesser extent by our surroundings, whether that’s the family we are born into, the neighborhood we play in, the community we’re part of, or the city we live in.
Previous authors have described cities which are known for their creativity and accomplishment (i.e. cities which are home to a large proportion of wealthy people, an outstanding university, which have made outstanding contributions to the arts and sciences, or to which university graduates flock) as elite, or as superstars, or as hotspots. So what do we call those cities which don’t reside in the higher echelons of such urban league tables? Non-elite? Luke-warm spots? Or how about centers of mediocrity? Richard Florida’s answer was to call such non-elite cities dutiful. But this doesn’t really do them justice.Character Strengths of Cities
As Nansook Park and Chris Peterson point out, even those cities which don’t make the elite/superstar grade must have some good things going for them. They suggest instead calling them ‘kinder and gentler’ cities. Taking a positive psychology perspective on the issue, they used the VIA Inventory of Character Strengths to explore whether strengths differ across cities in the US and the relationship between creativity and strengths. Previous research had identified two important dimensions to character strengths, namely
- head strengths – which are intellectual and self-oriented (e.g., creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning)
- heart strengths – which are emotional and interpersonal (e.g., forgiveness, gratitude, love, kindness, teamwork)
With this framework in mind, they predicted that head strengths would characterize residents of the elite, hot-spot cities in the United States, heart strengths would characterize residents in the kinder and gentler cities, and that there would be a positive relationship between head strengths and creativity/entrepreneurship.
What Does the Data Show?
They calculated the average strengths scores for VIA respondents from each city, then did a factor analysis, excluding four strengths ( bravery, perspective, self-regulation and social intelligence) which could not be assigned to just ‘head’ or ‘heart’. Two factors emerged which accounted for 74% of the variance, being strengths of the head (appreciation of beauty and excellence, creativity, curiosity, judgment and love of learning) and strengths of the heart (fairness, forgiveness, gratitude, honesty, hope, humor, kindness, leadership, love, modesty, persistence, prudence, religiousness, teamwork and zest).
According to the research, those cities with the highest head strengths were San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Oakland, and lowest were Arlington, Oklahoma City, and Omaha. Those cities with the highest heart strength scores were El Paso, Mesa, Arizona, and Miami, and those with the lowest were Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco.
Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2010). Does it matter where we live? The urban psychology of character strengths. American Psychologist, 65 (6), 535–547. Abstract.
Rentfrow, P. J., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2008). The geography of personality: A theory of the emergence, persistence, and expression of regional variation in basic traits. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 3, 339–369.