Pick any chapter from Chris Peterson’s posthumously published book, Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology and you’re in for a real treat. His reflections cover every aspect of what it means to be human, to live a life worth living. Even sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll get a passing mention, although you won’t find them listed in the index.
Editor’s Note Memorial Day in the United States is officially a day to remember those who died while serving in the military. But for most of us, it’s a time for remembering all those we have lost. Many of us will be thinking about Chris Peterson, so it’s a particularly apt time to run a review of his latest book.
This book is somewhat understated which reflects Peterson’s personal style. Despite his legendary status as a pioneer of positive psychology (e.g. as the co-creator of the VIA Inventory of Character Strengths along with Martin Seligman), he somehow eschewed the rock-god status that others in positive psychology seem to relish.The cover is similarly inconspicuous. It doesn’t scream ‘positive psychology’ at you from the bookshelf. For a start it’s not adorned with yellow sunflowers or smiley faces like so many books on happiness. As the old adage goes, don’t judge this book by its cover. It’s an absolute gem. It should be mandatory reading for every positive psychology student. This book deserves to be a best seller.
Eleven reasons to own, read, and love this book
- It’s comprehensive. This book is a fabulous compendium of concise insights into the whole of positive psychology. It covers all the usual suspects such as purpose, positive emotions, resilience, and relationships, and it also other topics as diverse as teddy bears (Reflection 54,) niceness (44), tears (40), and the sex appeal of good character (29).
If you’re a positive psychology novice you couldn’t find a better book to pique your curiosity and drive you to seek out new knowledge. If you’re already a positive psychology devotee (and unless you have read all of Peterson’s reflections on his popular Psychology Today blog, from which this book originates) I can guarantee you’ll find something new, surprising, and thought-provoking in this book.
- It’s brilliantly organized. This means that it makes sense to read it from start to finish – there are some fabulous links both backwards to chapters you’ve already read, and forwards to upcoming chapters to anticipate with relish.
However its structure also means that it makes sense to dip in and out, if this is your preferred reading style. You don’t have to read it all from cover to cover; you can skim the Table of Contents as I did and randomly pick a chapter which jumps out at you, or simply close your eyes, open the pages and see what you get. Whichever method you chose to read it, I think it will work.
- It’s concise. No chapter is more than 4-5 pages long, and they’re usually much shorter, so it’s easily digestible. This means that you can probably read at least a couple of chapters on your daily commute to and from work. To my mind that’s a great way of spending that lost time, if you’re not otherwise using it being mindful or adopting some other travel-friendly well-being–enhancing activity!
- It’s thought-provoking. I started reading this book using the ‘dip in’ method , beginning with Reflection 46, “Books Matter”. The brevity of the title grabbed me. Perhaps on the day in question something about our young son’s education was front of mind. I can’t really remember. But I was hooked from the start. It’s a short reflection of just over two pages, the essence of which is some 2010 research of 70,000 children from 27 countries which found that children growing up in a home with many books (500 or more) stayed in school 3 years longer than children from largely bookless homes.
Before you start weighing in with objections about parental education, occupation or social class, the study’s finding was independent of these. Now, you have to admit it, that is astonishing. It does make me wonder what it is about the presence of books. The study doesn’t answer that question directly; further research is required. It also makes me wonder whether, in the future, ownership of e-books on a Kindle will have the same (or perhaps greater) impact. As a matter of interest, do you know how many books you have in your house?
- It’s easy to read. The conciseness of each chapter helps, but it’s more than that. Peterson was a master of the written word, not just in his academic papers and text-books but also in his Psychology Today blog, from where these reflections originate. He knew how to write in an engaging way. Each chapter of this book draws you in, like a good short story. You want to find out what happens next, how the piece relates to positive psychology and to pursuing and living the good life.
- It’s personal. This is 300+ pages of Chris Peterson at his best – entertaining, down-to-earth, authentic and inspiring. It’s as if he’s speaking to you personally.
The twinkle in his eye radiates from this book. You get a sense of the person he really was not just a great mind and a great educator (he won the prestigious Golden Apple Award for outstanding university teaching in 2010), but a man of the people. ‘Other people matter’ was the way he summed up positive psychology, and it also summed up his approach to living, loving and working. He put other people first. He made other people matter. His unique approach to living a good life comes across very clearly in this book. He knew what worked for him, what made his life worth living, and a large part of that (certainly the public face of Chris Peterson) was about sharing those insights with other people.
- It’s both original and amusing, not in the laugh-a-minute, frenetic way of some stand-up comedians, but in a dry, subtle, often tongue-in-cheek way. He’s the first professor of positive psychology that I know of who has used the phrase ‘promiscuously positive’ (p256) to describe people who are conspicuously, insincerely, or otherwise inappropriately cheerful.
Even Part 10 ‘Rants’, in which he airs some of his pet gripes in positive psychology, is a delight to read. For the record they include email, people who want to pick his brains rather than ‘share’ positive psychology, and the use of upspeak. I found myself laughing out loud reading Reflection 76 entitled “Can you be too cheerful?“, in which he calls for ‘appropriate’ cheerfulness rather than the ‘conspicuous’ brand. “Is positive psychology to blame for conspicuous cheerfulness?” he asks. “Maybe yes, maybe no. But I do know that a gathering of positive psychologists is rather overwhelming, with all the hugs and the non-stop expressions of satisfaction and success. Ugh” (p256). You may think this comment odd coming from someone who was at the centre of the positive psychology world until his untimely death in October 2012, and is still very rightly revered as one of the giants in the field, but it makes perfect sense to me. I don’t think he was being scornful, merely matter-of-fact. Chris, you are a man after my own heart!
It’s companionable. I thought long and hard whether that was the right adjective to describe a book and in the end I decided it was. Yes this book is a great friend. It will keep you company, and you’ll want to keep it by your side. Perhaps it’s because it was originally a blog, and that’s what good blogs do. They speak to you. Perhaps it’s because mine was a gift (thank you Senia and Dan!). I think this book is a great representation of friendship, of Peterson’s catchphrase. “Other People Matter.” If other people matter to you, send them this book.
- It’s clever. Yes Peterson was a professor so you’d expect this book to be intelligent and it is. He’s sharp, humble, serious and funny (see point 7) all at the same time. That’s clever. He also manages to balance putting forward a compelling perspective on pursuing the good life based on research as it currently stands, and at the same time leave room for questioning, discussion and debate. That’s really clever. I’m not often envious, but I wish I’d been one of his students.
- It’s enduring. Whether it ends with a resolution or not, a good book should be memorable. With fiction it may be a particular character, the plot itself, the denouement which grabs you and stays with you long after you’ve finished the last page. In Pursuing the Good Life, for me it’s the unique combination of wisdom and humility (see point 9).
Yes there are some practical tips on how to achieve, and importantly, how to sustain a good life in Part 11, presented in Peterson’s trademark down-to-earth, yet often quirky style. But more than that I’m left with the lasting impression that there are some universal truths here which speak to everyone, and which deserve a wide audience. Another reason to send this book to a friend.
- It matters. Every reflection has an important message, and while some may say more to you than others, the overriding message seems to be to consider what you’re doing, whether it contributes to the good life and, if not, to change it.
None of us are perfect. Chris Peterson himself owned up to getting as bogged down as the next person in the daily minutiae and hassles of life (p289). Sometimes, he said, he spends a lot of time doing small things that don’t matter very much. Don’t we all?
He urges us to keep the bigger picture in mind, summing it up on page 290 as follows: “Days are long. Life is short. Live it well.” Nobody could have put it better.
Peterson, C. (2013). Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pictures of Chris were take from those posted in comments to You Mattered, Chris, published a few days after he died.
The others are via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses.
Christopher Peterson, Director of Virtue courtesy of Sulynn Choong
Smiling baby courtesy of Sergiu Bacioiu
Chris smiling courtesy of Debbie Swick
Chris and Nansook Park courtesy of Shari Young Kuchenbecker
Carved for the eye of God courtesy of pierre pouliquin