Never Before in PhiladelphiaWhile walking to join a few friends yesterday evening at dusk, I passed through a lush green park in the center of Philadelphia. I was lost in my own head, contemplating the many interesting topics presented at the First World Congress on Positive Psychology of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) this past weekend. As I stepped softly through the grass in the approaching darkness of the evening sky, a light suddenly caught my eye. Waist-level beside me, hovering in the summer air, was a firefly. Its body flashed, emitting a gorgeous amber light. It had been many years since I had seen one of these beautiful beetles and never before in Philadelphia. I was instantly reminded of innocent and perfect childhood summers, laughing while running through my backyard hand-in-hand with friends and girls I had crushes on, swimming in a sea of hundreds of fireflies that would appear for only a few weeks every June, and only for a short period at dusk. I nearly gasped as these memories came flooding back. As I stopped to savor the moment, I saw another, then two more behind me, and five others to my right. They were all around me creating an incredible pattern of softly glowing light. Fireflies use a process of bioluminescence to attract mates and can usually be found in packs like this one. I began to wonder how one firefly emitting its lone light and slowly attracting others turns into the radiating sea of beauty in my childhood memories.
The Lucifer Effect and Fireflies
The IPPA Congress this past weekend featured endless fascinating topics including passion, courage, the mind-body connection, and meaning. One of my favorite talks was given by Stanford psychologist Phil Zimbardo who discussed the research presented in his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil . Using images from his famous Stanford prison experiment and real-world examples including the horrific treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo explained the power of situational influences that push otherwise good people to do bad things. To say the presentation was disturbing is an understatement. Audience members around covered their eyes and groaned in protest. Weren’t we gathered to discuss the best of human qualities, not the worst?But just as fireflies use an enzyme luciferase to create their glow, Zimbardo believes there may a positive flip side to the Lucifer effect. His new research is focused on the processes involved when a person does the right thing despite the situational influences. He showed video of New York subway hero Wesley Autrey and photos of the famous Tank Man of Tiananmen Square and Lin Hao , the 9-year-old Chinese boy who rescued his classmates from the earthquake rubble of his school claiming, “I was hall monitor, it was my job to look after my classmates.” The audience wiped tears from their eyes. We all recognize heroes like these when we see them: individuals able to express the highest human strengths in times of crisis. Zimbardo calls this heroic imagination and stresses that the qualities of a hero must exist before the opportunity to express them is presented. We can all be heroes-in-waiting, ready to shine our light when the situation demands it.
Strengths in NumbersWhile heroes are archetypes of a VIA strength due to a combination of internal forces, what are the external social effects of a heroic deed? Walking through the park, the light from the initial firefly caught my attention immediately. And when we view an heroic act, we are struck with awe and elevation that encourages us to look more intently (see Kathryn Britton’s Awe and Elevation ). The experience of awe produces positive emotions that prepare us to broaden and build our resources, by focusing our attention on the heroic deed and motivating us to acquire the same abilities. As Kathryn points out, viewing a virtuous deed encourages people to act more virtuously themselves.
Marcial Losada’s research on high-performance teams is often cited for the 3:1 positivity to negativity ratio findings which are both fascinating and powerful. Losada observes this ratio as a result of the overall connectedness of the team. The more that individuals trust and communicate with each other, the more easily information can flow in the social system. When connectedness is high, information passing through a social group resembles fluid dynamics. Adaptations proliferate throughout the system and change can occur quickly. When connectedness and trust are very high, heroic deed begets heroic deed and, as the tonnage of character strength increases in the population, large-scale social change becomes possible.
David Cooperrider received a rousing standing ovation at the IPPA Congress for his talk on Appreciative Inquiry that outlined a mission for the study and creation of positive institutions. His talk highlighted three key components of a strengths-based approach to organizational and institutional change.
- The elevation and engagement of life-giving strengths at the human level
- The connected and combined magnification of collective strengths
- The refraction of our higher human strengths out into the world
Positive institutions, according to this breakdown, should grow strengths in individuals, encourage the sharing and synergy of strengths across the institution, and spread the collective strength to others. Cooperrider expressed a simple point that when our strengths connect, anything is possible. He told stories of business leaders sitting around tables with other business leaders pounding their fists on the table in reaction to the sustainable and inspiring practices of other companies. When we have access to better options, we usually take them. If we can create well-connected, fluid social systems, we have at our fingertips the capacity of all the collective human strength we can imagine. We can find an heroic solution for any situation.
Many species of firefly exhibit a biological synchronicity in the alignment of their flashing patterns when in large groups. They shine their light together and the result is an incredibly beautiful array of connected luminescence. The current research and practice is beginning to suggest that we work the same way when shining our strengths. As positive psychology continues to grow in both its breadth and its depth, flourishing positive institutions that support wide-scale strengths revolutions will serve as model research subjects and the heroes within them will continue to inspire us all.
Cooperrider, D. L. (2008). The 3-circles of the strengths revolution. AI Practitioner, Nov. 2008, 8-11. Retrieved June 22 2009 from http://www.innovationpartners.com/Portals/0/AIP_0811_SBO_Foreword_DCooperrider.pdf
Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2( 3), 300-319.
Haidt, J. (2004). Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. In C. L. M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived, pp. 275-289. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Losada, M. (1999). The complex dynamics of high performance teams. Mathematical and Computer Modelling , 30(9-10), 179-192.
Zimbardo, P. (2008). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil . New York: Random House.