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Positive Psychology: Above and Below

written by Dana Arakawa 28 March 2007

Dana Arakawa, MAPP '06, has a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Hawaii. Before venturing into psychology, Dana graduated with honors from Georgetown University with a B.S. in International Economics, and spent a year in Buenos Aires, Argentina as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. Her research has appeared in the Gallup Management Journal and International Coaching Psychology Review, as well as in publications in Latin America. Full bio. Dana's articles are here.

Given my longtime interest in spirituality, my favorite chapter in Authentic Happiness was the last, on “Meaning and Purpose.”  Martin Seligman discusses his encounter with Bob Wright, author of NonZero, at a conclave of ten scientists, philosophers, and theologians gathered to discuss whether evolution has a purpose and a direction.  Seligman expressed to Wright his “concern that a science of positive emotion, positive character, and positive institutions will merely float on the waves of self-improvement fashions unless it is anchored by deeper premises.  Positive Psychology must be tethered from below to a positive biology, and from above to a positive philosophy, even perhaps a positive theology” (p. 251).  I remember heartily agreeing with this passage and highlighting it with vigor.  Little did I know then, that this passage would greatly affect where I am now.

The conclave was convened at the private estate of Sir John Templeton, who opened the meeting with questions: “Can human lives have noble purpose? Can our lives have a meaning that transcends the meaning we merely create for ourselves?  Has natural selection set us on this very path?  What does science tell us about the presence or absence of a divine purpose?” (251). 

I had highlighted these questions too.  Now a graduate of the MAPP program, I am fortunate to work at the John Templeton Foundation, where I have the opportunity to serve the Foundation’s mission to be a philanthropic catalyst for scientific discovery on these types of questions. 

I do not speak on behalf of the Foundation, but I personally believe that Sir John’s mission advances not only Positive Psychology itself (JTF has provided support for many notable Positive Psychology researchers and initiatives) but also knowledge on the “positive biology” and “positive theology” supporting it from below and above.  Here are three examples of JTF grants supporting Positive Psychology below, above, and in-between:

  • Positive Biology
    Evolution and Theory of Cooperation: Supported by a $2 million, three year interdisciplinary grant, Harvard professors Martin Nowak and Sarah Coakley are working together on a puzzle: why does natural selection, which is based on the concept of competition, also lead to unselfish behavior?  Examples of such cooperation include the way cells work with one another to create organisms all the way to the very day cooperation humans display in social groups.  Nowak, a world-class mathematical biologist, is using game theory to help unlock some of the mysteries of evolutionary cooperation.
  • Positive Theology
    The Role of Spiritual Development in Adolescence: Supported by a $1.5 million, three year grant, Tufts professor Richard Lerner is furthering the study of spirituality in youth by developing state-of-the-art measures to assess the nature of spiritual growth and psychological health, generosity and purpose across the adolescent years.  As the Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science at  Tufts, Lerner is intent on including ideas of spirituality and religiosity as important components of youth development, as “there is no other human characteristic we can specify that defined a human as human.”
  • In Between
    Institute for Unlimited Love:  Founded by a $8 million grant, the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (IRUL) has has put unlimited love on a public health platform, shifted academic research into the field of love and drawn national media to the topic.  Stephen Post, a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve and Director of IRUL, is interested in generating research on questions such as: How can we raise children who shape their lives around unselfish love?  How can love be made more lasting in marriage and family life?  Is it true that kind and benevolent people generally experience higher levels of well-being, happiness and health? 

My experience at the Foundation has expanded my awareness of the many researchers all over the world who are trying to discover more about what is good about being human—from our basic biological nature to our quest for higher meaning, and in our everyday actions in between. 

Above and below courtesy of Mutassim Billah

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Aaron Agassi 19 July 2009 - 2:37 pm

Is all of this scientific investigation, or merely dubiously prestigious propaganda think tank? Indeed, aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves? Is there any such thing as intrinsic let alone and transcendent meaning to begin with? And is there, as here also implicit, some sort of upper limit to personal meaning as created in the individual mind? In what way? How so? Why? http://www.FoolQuest.com/fooltrek_faq/fooltrek_faq_III_e_depth.htm#meaning

Evolution and Theory of Cooperation: Duh! This is uncontroversial. Cooperation is advantageous to survival and reproductive success.

The Role of Spiritual Development in Adolescence: Better question, exactly what is spiritual growth, and how if at all is it distinct from psychological development and well being? Indeed, is it absent or present in Atheists and Agnostics?

Institute for Unlimited Love: Is unlimited love even desirable? Certainly the expectation thereof continues to accrue naught but calamity, as for example wherein teachers are pressed to display boundless love as their puerile excuse for destructively patronizing disrespect. Remember how Cordelia professes to Lear only love as appropriate, while Reagan and Goneril swear the sun, the moon and the stars. When will we ever learn!


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