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Pursuing the Good Life: Reflections on Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology and Christopher Peterson's precious gift to the world

“I love this game....any game....as long as it is played with others.” 

                                             Christopher Peterson, Pursuing the Good Life, p. 213

Christopher Peterson passed away in October 2012.  He was a regular contributor to Psychology Today, where he wrote for a blog titled “The Good Life” focused on positive psychology.  Oxford University Press has since published a collection of Peterson’s blog posts, Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology.  Below I reflect upon Peterson’s outstanding contribution.  

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In his wonderful book, Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology, Christopher Peterson has provided the world with a precious gift.  His wise, warm, witty, and insightful collection of reflections on positive psychology radiate the many strengths and virtues that are central to the field of positive psychology -- humility, bravery, love, kindness, humour, citizenship, love of learning, and much more.  By maintaining a regular blog, Christopher Peterson reveals the true power of an authentic search for meaning, not only for himself but for the larger team he is rooting for and vouching for – humanity.  With the lightest touch of a true master, Peterson surveys a vast territory of human experience, with blog posts on the critical focus of positive psychology, the nature of positive emotions and experiences, positive traits and talents, positive relationships, and the role of families, workplaces, schools, and geographical places in the good life.   Peterson also writes a collection of ‘rants’ that provide both humorous and insightful perspectives on troublesome aspects of life including e-mail overload, skewed bucketlist philosophies, the jarring nature of upspeak, people who want to ‘pick your brain’, and the lost craft of letter writing.

Peterson’s reflective stance provides a powerful bridge between objective and subjective experience.  For example, in refection 49, where he reflects upon the imbalance in the scientific literature between the strong focus on the role of mothers in child development and the weaker (but growing) focus on the role of fathers, Peterson not only contextualizes his analysis of the objective, empirical evidence linking Father’s accessibility, engagement, and responsibility with better physical, psychological and social functioning of children (Harris et al., 1998), he also sets the scene for a profound and emotional reflection in relation to his father and his own experience growing up.  Notably, his father worked 10 – 12 hours a day, commuting 60+ minutes each way from north to south Chicago and back -- and although not often around, when his father was around he provided Christopher and his brother with some of the most wonderful and memorable experiences of childhood: Easter egg hunts, visits to bookstores, countless shows and concerts ranging from classical ballet to raucous rock-and-roll.  Peterson closes his blog post by bringing the objective and subjective together in a simple and power act of appreciation:

“Looking back, I see that my father was always present, psychologically if not literally, and he was always involved.  Always.  Thanks Dad.  I love you.” (p. 163)

This heartfelt appreciation, love, gratitude, and warm attachment to others are central to Peterson’s outlook and it manifests in many different ways in his reflections on positive psychology.  For example, central to Peterson’s version of positive psychology is the simple motto, ‘Other People Matter’.  In reflection 37 Peterson describes how Nancy Makin reported losing 530 pounds after she made many new friends in online politics chat rooms – friends who loved and nurtured her and appreciated her voice and perspective. Makin’s online friendships were hugely important at a critical juncture in her life when she had become isolated and depressed and she wrote a book about her positive experience.  Peterson notes that if we are fortunate enough to have good parents and good friends, experiencing and expressing gratitude provides a powerful route to increased life satisfaction and social integration over time (reflection 38; Froh et al., 2010). Much like his own father might have reminded him as a boy, Peterson reminds us again:   

“Other people matter.  But few of them are mind readers.  Let them know that they matter. They might benefit.  And you certainly will”.  (reflection 38; p. 131)

Peterson also reflects upon his experience playing basketball with faculty members at Virginia Tech (reflection 64).  He describes research findings linking participation in team sports with higher life satisfaction and physical health amongst adolescents (Zullig, 2011) and he wonders if the shared identity, cooperation, and social communion associated with being a member of a team offer some unique benefits over-and-above the physical activity.  He recounts how, one year, his basketball team never won a game until the last game of the season.  Close to the end of the game, when they had a comfortable lead, their coach called timeout and advised them that, when the final whistle was blown to “please act like you’ve won before”, to which one player replied, “But we’ve never won before”.  The wise coach reflected, smiled, and said, “Okay.  You’re right.  Go crazy”. And they did.  Peterson tells us how being a member of this basketball team is one of his fondest memories

In reflection 75 he writes about the importance of happy places other than home and work, the third place – cafes, pubs, markets, etc. – where people meet to socialise and where everyone is welcome, everyone talks, and no one is in charge.  This is a powerful blog post on the importance of environmental design on wellbeing and the good life.  Peterson recalls all the bars he spent time in as a young adult, and although he later cut back on drinking on stops going along to the bars, he reflects that although he loves his home and his work, he thinks he also needs to find a new third place.  This reflection will resonate with many Irish readers like me, given how important these third places are in Irish culture – and not just the pubs!

In the context of discussing objective list theory (Nussbaum, 1992; Sen, 1985; reflection 71) and Nicolas Sarkozy’s goal to develop a national wellbeing index in France, Peterson not only highlights how different nations might well generate different objective lists of factors that influence national wellbeing, he also lists us some of the things that would appear on his personal list (e.g., whether or not, on any given day, he gave a good lecture, had a good meal, and had an engaging conversation with a friend).  The blog post serves to highlight the potential nomothetic/idiographic divide that makes ‘national accounting’ of wellbeing potentially difficult,  reminding us that insights from the nomothetic analysis of groups do not necessarily translate easily into our personal pursuit of meaning and the good life.

Understanding positive psychology implies understanding the people behind the movement.  Positive psychology is a movement that has been defined by a unique group of psychologists and the work they do. I have reflected broadly on aspects of positive psychology (Hogan, 2008, 2009a, b, c) and I have reviewed a variety of textbooks in the area (Hogan, 2005, 2007a,b).  However, I have never read anything quite so powerful on a personal level as Peterson’s collection of reflections.  When one compares a reflective blog post – and in this case, a series of 100 reflections presented in book form – with either a popular psychology book or an academic psychology text, the obvious difference is that the reflective writing brings the reader into direct contact with the author and their subjective experience of the science and its various applications.  Peterson is one of the founding fathers of positive psychology and a respected scientist.  In his reflections on positive psychology, Peterson’s knowledge and wisdom comes to life in a way that reveals his unique character and the profound depth of his search for meaning and the good life.  Peterson’s reflections also reveal the sources of his own happiness and unhappiness, and provide insight into the admixture of certainty and uncertainty that comes with a commitment to science and the pursuit of an enlightened happiness.

If you care nothing for psychology – like some of the sociologists I meet – then please read Peterson’s reflections.  If you despise positive psychology – like some of the psychologists I meet – then please read Peterson’s reflections.  If you abhor the application of science to the pursuit of the good life – like some of the mystics I meet – then please read Christopher Peterson’s book.  The reason I repeat the mantra “please read Peterson’s reflections” is because Christopher Peterson is first-and-foremost a human being who is clearly and deeply attached to other people and he does his best to understand other people, and himself, first-and-foremost as human beings in search of meaning and a good life.  There are no disciplinary boundaries, no schools of thought, no worldviews that can contain the honest, reflective human being in search of meaning and a good life, much like there are no conceptual or theoretical constraints that can contain our love and compassion for others. 

I highly recommend this book and I will read it again and again.  Sincere thanks to Christopher Peterson for his gift to the world.  May he rest in peace.

                                                                                     Michael Hogan

                                                          References

Froh, J.J., Bono, G., & Emmons, R. (2010).  Being grateful is beyond good manners: Gratitude and motivation to contribute to society among early adolescents.  Motivation and Emotion, 34, 144 – 157.

Harris, K.M., Firtenburg, F.F., Jr., & Marmer, J.K. (1998).  Paternal involvement with adolescents in intact families: The influence of fathers over the life course.  Demography, 35, 201 – 216.   

Hogan, M.J.(2005). The way of the positive psychologist. Review of William C. Compton “Introduction to positive psychology". PsychCRITIQUES – Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, (50) 44.

Hogan M.J. (2007a). The point below. Review of Peterson, C. "A Primer in Positive Psychology". PsychCRITIQUES – Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, 52(3).

Hogan, M.J.(2007b). Advancing the way of the positive psychologist. Ong, A.D. and van Dulmen M.H.M. “The Oxford Handbook of Methods in Positive Psychology”.  PsychCRITIQUES – Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books.

Hogan, M.J.(2008). Modest Systems Psychology: A Neutral Complement of Positive Psychological Thinking. Systems Research and Behavioural Science, 25, 717 – 732

Hogan, M.J.(2009a). Enlightened happiness and pragmatic systems science – positive psychology meets Colin Feltham’s anthropathology thesis. The Irish Psychologist, 35, 138 – 148

Hogan, M.J.(2009b). Mindfulness and Mindlessness. The Irish Psychologist. 53, 43- 49.

Hogan, M.J. (2009c). The Culture of Our Thinking in Relation to Spirituality. Nova Science Publishers, New York.

Nussbaum, M. (1992).  Human functioning and social justice: In defense of Aristotelian essentialism.  Political Theory, 20, 202 – 246.

Sen, A. (1985).  Commodities and capabilities.  Amsterdam: North-Holland.

Michael Hogan, Ph.D., is a lecturer in psychology at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

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