What was supposed to be a 30 minute frivolous “wind down” television program last week turned out to be a moving documentary and a poignant reminder of the central rationale of positive psychology.
In “Meet the Natives,” five tribesmen, or Melanesians, from Tanna (an island of Vanuatu) journeyed to England in the hope of meeting Prince Philip, who they believed was the Son of their God, and persuading him to return with them to Tanna. Hmm, you get my point about frivolity…
In the course of their month long stay in the United Kingdom (in which they did get their meeting with the Duke and the chance to ask him the “ultimate question”), they experienced hospitality at the hands of a multitude of British families. When asked to sum up their experience of a “civilised western society,” their spokesman – the genial artist – said:
“We live with love, respect and unity on Tanna and understand that the secret of happiness is sharing. I fear England is losing this, although it is still within their grasp. All they have to do is open their hands again, but their hands seem shut.”
Despite John-Paul Sartre’s protestations that “Hell is other People,” it appears that the evidence leans firmly towards Christopher Peterson’s summary of positive psychology that “Other People Matter” (2006):
- People who are sociable and extraverted experience more positive affect than those who are not.
- People who spend more time with others are happier than those who spend a lot of time alone.
- People who have many friends are happier than those who have only a few.
- And people who are married are happier than those who are divorced or widowed. A seven decade long Harvard study found that a good marriage at age 50 predicts healthy ageing better than does a low cholesterol level at 50 (George Vaillant, 2002).
Yet when Peter Warr and Roy Payne (1982) asked a representative sample of British adults what, if anything, had emotionally strained them the day before, their most frequent answer was “Family.” However, asked what prompted yesterday’s times of pleasure, the same British sample, by an even larger margin, again answered, “Family.” For most of us it seems that relationships provide not only our greatest heartaches but also our greatest comfort and joy.
For all of this, and as Robert Putnam (2000) has massively documented, we are becoming more, not less, individualistic with the ironic outcome that as we take individualism to an extreme, individual well-being suffers.
It occurs to me that in our quest for academic theories and scientific evidence in this emerging and complex discipline, it is easy to overlook the very simplicity of this notion – other people really do matter. I like Erich Fromm‘s (1956) point that our ideal in life should not be to “fall in love” but rather to “stand in love” – with love, relationships and happiness not heedless freefalls that just happen when gravity is on our side.
Just in case I needed one further prompt, Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood: How the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do (2007) was being interviewed this morning on the radio as I drove to work. Her new book is a polemic about the consumerism and stress surrounding our 7-11 year olds in the UK. “Children,” she stated, “are being sold the myth that happiness is Stuff. What they need is Presence, not presents.”
The interviewer scoffed at the triteness of the author’s latter statement in the same way that the field of Positive Psychology falls victim to accusations of banality, particularly from a sceptical, British audience. Yet as I watched the bewilderment on the faces of the tribesmen who came face to face with the true misery of six million, grey- suited, commuters on a grey London morning, I wondered what it will take for us to take on board Leonardo da Vinci‘s comment that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”?
Fromm, E. (1956, 2006). The Art of Loving. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics. 50th Anniversary edition.
Palmer, S. (2007). Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It. United Kingdom: Orion.
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Vaillant, G. E. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown.
Warr, P., & Payne, R.(1982). Experiences of strain and pleasure among British adults. Social Science and Medicine, 16, 1691-1697.