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The Three Bears

written by Dave Shearon 17 June 2007

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

Like Caroline Miller, I have recently had a son go through a major life transition.  My older son graduated from Emory a few weeks ago, moved to Louisville, and started his Masters in Teaching.  This fall, he will be teaching sixth grade science in a public school through the Teach Kentucky program.  And as we look forward with him to this change in his life, I have been thinking about what I have learned from Positive Psychology and about the advice I give to my sons based on that learning.  One key point is summed up in the following story my mother used to tell me.  I don’t know why she felt the need to tell it to me (again and again!), but through the years I’ve certainly found it useful.  It’s called, “The Story of the Three Bears”, and it goes like this: 

One day, the Three Bears came back from their walk and sat down to their porridge.  Pappa Bear, in a deep, gruff voice, said, “My porridge is too cold!”   Mamma Bear, in a high, whiny voice, said “My porridge is too hot!”  Baby Bear, in a quiet but clear voice, said, “Bitch, bitch, bitch – that’s all I ever hear!” 

Now, again, I have NO IDEA why Mom kept telling me that story.  But, I have found it useful over the years.  I’ve told it to my kids.   On occasion when she was in a very good mood and with a BIG smile on my face, I’ve told it to the beautiful and patient Teresa  (hey!  31 years of marriage means I must have made SOME good decisions!).  I’ve even shared it once in a while with my co-workers.  But today I think I understand the power behind that story better than ever. 

In my CLE presentations, I emphasize that the reason to try applying positive psychology is not just that it feels good, though there’s nothing wrong with that.  The reason to try it is that the evidence says it works.  This is the answer to what Karen Reivich calls the “WIIFM” question – “What’s In It For ME?”  Answer:  you get more of what you want.  Not every thing you want.  I’m not a television evangelist preaching the gospel of success.  But, yes, I can say that the evidence has convinced me that the effort of cultivating optimism, hope, resilience, savoring, active constructive responding, a growth orientation toward intelligence and other positive emotions and thought patterns can help us achieve more of “the good life”.  Applied within an organization, both as a shared approach among individuals and as a systemic orientation to organizational initiatives, these principles can supply a foundation for sustained high performance.  Specifically, in the domains on which I focus, positive psychology CAN help a school INCREASE TEST SCORES.  Okay, okay, I know and you know that high test scores aren’t the only thing that we want out of our schools – but I’m focusing on results here, and they are the measured results in education today. 

However, as the story of the three Bears illustrates, there are individuals who see life through the lens of a strong negative bias.  They find what is wrong in an individual, organization, or situation, not what is right.  As Teresa Amabile’s work at Harvard showed some years ago, many individuals have a tendency to perceive negative, critical individuals as “smart.”  Individuals with a strong opportunity orientation toward life, those who see positive aspects and possibilities, “the mighty oak in the acorn”, are often seen as fair game and easy targets by those with a more negative orientation.  Of course, when individuals with a possibility orientation and leadership skills are confronted with such behavior, they typically do not take it on directly.  Rather, they gently deflect it, emphasize the possible, and keep the enterprise moving forward.  When an effort is successful, the naysayers mutter to any who will listen, “Dumb luck!” 

So, like Pappa and Mamma Bear, we can go for a walk on a nice day with your family, come back to a warm, dry dwelling and a good meal and yet focus only on those aspects the experience that are not absolutely perfect.  When individuals bring up new ideas, we can find every possible obstacle and flaw (without working at solutions).  When others struggle, we can explain their difficulties in terms of permanent and pervasive shortcomings in their abilities or character.  When we struggle, we can do the same to ourselves.  Or, we can be mindful of the good things here today, savor the wonderful aspects of the experience, and see the possibilities ahead.  Our choice. 

However, if we choose to see the world through a negative bias, perhaps it is time for each of us to ask, “What’s in it for me?”  I am convinced that efforts to increase my levels of positive emotions, develop more frequent positive thought patterns, and cultivate positive relationships within positive enterprises help me get more of what I want in the world, including the achievement of meaningful objectives that benefit many others.  And it is certainly the approach I recommend for my son as he starts his new career.  It is what I hope that he will model and teach to his students.

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Jeff Dustin 18 June 2007 - 2:13 am

Hi Dave,

I agree with your Three Bears post.

The question that the whole optimism-pessimism continuum raises first to me is this:

How do pessimists rise to rank and influence in society when optimism is a superior strategy? Just how closely does optimism predict beneficial outcomes? Let’s say you take two people, identical twins and one is a pessimist and the other an optimist and you track them over the years, who will have better QOL on the CASIO? That’d be a neat little study.

Dave Shearon 18 June 2007 - 8:09 pm

Thanks, Jeff. What suggests to you that pessimists rise to positions of rank and influence in society. On balance, the data seems to suggest that those with a positive explanatory style succeed more regularly at most professions and occupations, live longer, are less likely to divorce, are healthier, etc. — all of which suggest greater success in our society. Of course, the ability to think flexibly and accurately regardless of style is best, but a tendency toward a positive explanatory style in ambiguous situations (ain’t they all?) seems to work best.

As for identical twins, the heritable component of explanatory style should be identical also. Thus, unless raised in families with different explanatory styles (especially the mother’s) or they experienced significantly different major life experiences, they would tend to have similar explanatory styles.

Angus 19 June 2007 - 1:40 pm

Love the three bears story Dave – very real.

good luck to your son

and best wishes to you


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