The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

The Last Lecture: A Positive Psychology Case Study

Randy Pausch has scored the hat trick of happiness.

My colleague Ben Dean and I recently conducted an Internet survey of 1464 adults interested in positive psychology that asked what they would most like to know about this new field. A large number wanted compelling case examples of actual people who lived life well, who embodied the strengths of character that we have been studying with quantitative methods. The world's greatest teachers, from Socrates and Jesus to the present, have always used parables to instruct and inspire others, and in the disciplines of business and law, the detailed examination of particular cases is the preferred method of teaching. Psychologists have also relied on cases, but these have been psychiatric histories that centered on people's problems. With exceptions, such as Howard Gardner's psychobiographies of exceptionally talented historical figures and Anne Colby and William Damon's multiple case studies of contemporary people of striking moral commitment, positive psychologists have made insufficient use of cases to understand what makes life most worth living.

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Here is another exception, a marvelous example of what it means to live well: Carnegie Mellon Computer Science Professor Randy Pausch, whose "last lecture" is all over the Internet (e.g.. www.randypausch.com). Lots of universities, including my own, feature an annual "last lecture" in which award-winning teachers are asked to imagine that they are near death and to convey their final thoughts to students. I hope we all have the decency to retire the title, because now there is but one last lecture, the one by Professor Pausch.

In case you have been living under a rock, at the time of the lecture and at the time of my writing, he is dying, the victim of an aggressive pancreatic cancer. His last lecture was not maudlin, not saccharine, not filled with false bravado. It was simply wonderful. Five minutes into my watching, I forgot that he was dying. What captivated me was how he was living.

I watched his last lecture wearing many hats. As a teacher, I was inspired. As a lecturer, I was filled with admiration. As a human being, I was proud.

Watch it yourself. No summary I could offer would do it justice.

I do want to make a few observations. Positive psychologists, including me, intone that there are multiple routes to happiness and fulfillment: through pleasure, through engagement, and through meaning. If so, then Randy Pausch has scored the hat trick of happiness. He is wickedly funny; he loves his work; and he contributes mightily to the larger world.

Other people matter to him, and he to them. When he received tenure at his university, he took his entire research team to Disney World to express his gratitude. One of his colleagues later asked him, "How could you do that?" His response: "How could I not?"

All of us who are instructors should teach the "case" of Professor Pausch. The best known cases in psychology should not be Little Hans and Little Albert.

It has been said, by Elizabeth Edwards and by others, that living is what you do until you die. Randy Pausch shows us that that living well is the right way to do it. Yes, we encounter brick walls, sometimes frequently. But as Professor Pausch reminds us, brick walls are there to remind us how badly we want something.

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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