Silver Linings

Character strength examined.

Drink Your Own Kool-Aid

A review of Pursuing the Good Life by Chris Peterson.

The central question of positive psychology is: "What makes life worth living?"’ Pursuing the Good Life, a book by positive psychology pioneer Chris Peterson, provides an excellent perspective on this all- important question. This compilation of 100 entries from his Psychology Today blog is particularly valued as it is the last book written before his death. Grouped according to eleven parts, these updated blog entries provide an informative review of positive psychology research married with interesting, real-world examples of living the good life. Equally appreciated is Peterson’s wise and entertaining editorial, including personal anecdotes that reflect his wisdom, humour, and genuine valuing of people.

In reading the book, I was reminded of the phrase “Drink the Kool-Aid” (Kool-aid, for the uninitiated, is a fruit-flavoured, "just-add-water" sugary-powdered drink that is predictably loved by kids and carpet cleaning-companies and abhorred by parents). This idiom refers to the unquestioned consumption and swallowing of ideas from others without critical thought. Pursuing the Good Life definitely avoids the Kool-Aid effect with its scholarly analysis and artful bridging between science and self-help. Appealing to everyday readers and academics alike, Peterson masterfully distills a breadth of positive psychology research into practical advice for everyday living without oversimplifying content or compromising scientific integrity.

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The book organizes blog entries into eleven parts which coalesce into four major themes. First, there is a big picture overview of positive psychology that includes findings on happiness; the role of love, work, play, and service; and a critique of the field. While summarizing findings such as the fact that most people are resilient and happy, Peterson responsibly communicates what positive psychology is not. It is not about ignoring the bad things in life. Nor should the predictors of well-being be interpreted as a prescription that guarantees a happy, meaningful existence. As an objective scientist genuinely focused on improving the human condition, he also suggests future directions for the field such as greater attention to the role of culture and the need for more case studies of people living "the good life."

Secondly, Peterson’s oft-repeated mantra of “Other People Matter” is powerfully communicated as he discusses the crucial role of families, workplaces, schools, and other "positive institutions." Furthermore, the book offers simple, practice advice such as the value of having “third places” in a community (for example, pubs) which allow people to connect beyond the realms of home and work. Particularly strong is the section on positive relationships where he discusses topics ranging from the pain of romantic breakup to the power of taking the time to express our gratitude to others. This collectivist viewpoint is well-integrated with a third theme of individual well-being which includes sections on positive emotions, experiences, traits, and talents. Entries on passion, hope, optimism, and savoring life particularly stand out.

Finally, he concludes with his personal perspective on the good life, including resonating rants such as “I hate e-mail." Overall, this informative and entertaining book provides a broad synthesis of positive psychology research that is brought to life with compelling stories and examples. The short entry format makes it the perfect "pick-it-up-at-any-moment" book when a dose of inspiration is needed at the end of a long day.

On a personal note, I was most impacted by the power of Chris Peterson’s voice as he communicated wonderful stories that bring a wealth of positive psychology research to life – real life. As I read, I kept remembering his voice of this humble, caring man whom I had twice had the privilege of hearing speak at conferences.

In the spirit of gratitude, the positive psychology community is fortunate to have captured the voice of an influential scholar with this book. Especially powerful are brief glimpses into Peterson’s character sprinkled throughout the book as he talks about his passion for teaching and research, not to mention his genuine connection with others. Building on his suggestion of case studies on the good life, I not only recommend that you read the book, but also that you read between the lines to savor the autobiographical nuggets of his character strengths of wisdom and love. His legacy is that of one who genuinely believed and modeled that “Other People Matter." Based on the outpouring of tributes since his passing, it is clear that he mattered to others too. So, in the spirit of third places, let’s take advantage of this public forum to drink a toast to the man who, instead of telling us to “Drink the Kool-Aid," leaves us with the quiet, powerful example of one who authentically drank his own Kool-Aid. Thank you, Chris.

Jacqui Synard is a Ph.D. candidate at University of Ottawa.

 

Jacqui Synard is a Ph.D. candidate in educational counseling at the University of Ottawa.

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