The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

I Resolve To Take Benjamin Franklin Seriously

To make your resolutions happen, take Benjamin Franklin seriously.
Today is the last day of the year. Have you made any New Year's Resolutions? I just read an article on the most typical resolutions made by adults in the United States, and I was struck by how many of them embody the strengths of character that have been the subject of my research: spending more time with friends and family (love), saying no to cigarettes and alcohol (self-regulation), getting organized (prudence), learning something new (love of learning), helping others (kindness), getting fit and losing weight (perseverance), and so on. Another common resolution is climbing out of debt, which in today's world probably requires creativity coupled with good judgment.

If you want to make your resolutions happen, I suggest one more: Taking Benjamin Franklin seriously.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is of course widely acclaimed as a statesman and scientist, but he may also deserve credit as America's first positive psychologist. Not only did he enumerate thirteen praise-worthy character strengths (virtues), but he also took on the challenge of cultivating each of them, using himself as a research subject (Franklin, 1962).

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Franklin characterized each of the virtues of interest to him in terms of what he called their precepts. In modern psychological language, these precepts were behavioral markers of the virtue in question. For example, the precepts for industry were "lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions" and for temperance were "eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation" (p. 67).

From my perspective, too many of Franklin's precepts are phrased in terms of what a person should not do, reflecting his concern with what contemporary virtue ethicists call corrective virtues, those which protect against human inclinations to act in bad ways. But good character is not simply the absence of bad character. Just because people refrain from mean-spirited actions does not make them kind, anymore than being free from anxiety or depression necessarily makes people happy.

Nonetheless, the value of his precepts is that they are behavioral, observable and countable. The goals they represent are hard and specific, which modern psychologists know are more effective in motivating change than the vague "do your best" (DYB) goals that many of us have.

Franklin's own program of character cultivation was prescient. He recognized that exhortation would not suffice to change anyone, including himself, which is a point still not fully grasped by some proponents of today's character education. Merely hanging a character-relevant poster on a classroom wall (or for that matter, The Ten Commandments) will not lead to change.

I spent my elementary school years staring daily at the periodic table of elements, and that did not make me into a chemist or even into a passable student of chemistry. What is needed is a concrete strategy of changing behavior. Franklin believed, as do I, that most people want to be good and decent. The problem is that we may not know how to do it. One does not tell a depressed patient simply to cheer up or a person prone to procrastination to just do it. If they knew how to be cheerful or how to get things done, then they would do so. What is more helpful is to tell them how to do these things. The same point applies to the cultivation of strengths of character.

Franklin also recognized that it would be too daunting to attempt to strengthen all virtues at the same time, so he prioritized them and tackled them in order. He further observed that the strengthening of one virtue might help with the subsequent cultivation of other virtues. For example, Franklin reasoned that the virtue of moderation should facilitate the virtue of silence, given that the latter requires the skills involved in the former.

Anticipating the modern behavior change strategy of "objectively" monitoring progress, Franklin made a book, with one page for each of the virtues he wished to strengthen. He organized each page by the day of the week. At the end of each day, he would think back over his actions and make "a black mark" if he had failed in following the precept. Again, I gently criticize Franklin for emphasizing his transgressions rather than his positive accomplishments, but that followed from the way he defined the precepts for each virtue.

He resolved to address one virtue per week, in the order he had prioritized, so that in thirteen weeks he would have addressed all of them in succession. Then he would do it again, and in a year he would have completed four courses. Again, this is very modern, because Franklin anticipated the need for the maintenance of change.

His goal was to have a clean book, and to help him along the way, he included in his log relevant maxims and prayers, much as people today use Post-Its on their refrigerator to keep their goals front and center. For example, my own refrigerator door has a Post-It asking "Are you really that hungry?"

Franklin judged his program a success, in that he accorded himself fewer black marks as time passed. Still, some virtues were harder for him to strengthen than others. In particular, the strength of order gave him great trouble, as he was wont to scatter about his things and could typically rely on his good memory to know where things were amidst chaos. (Does this sound familiar to any of you readers?) In any event, he decided he was incorrigible with respect to this virtue and decided to accept the fault as part of who he was. From a positive psychology perspective, this is okay. No one can have it all, although to Franklin's credit, he tried to change before he accepted the less than desirable conclusion.

Franklin did fret that his "success" with respect to some of the virtues reflected changes in the appearance of the character strength rather than in its reality, but from my vantage, this is a difficult to maintain distinction if we regard character strengths as habits. "Fake it until you can make it" is one of the slogans of Alcoholics Anonymous, and it means that if we behave in a sober way, no matter how deliberate or stilted our initial attempts, then eventually we will be sober. We are what we do.

Appreciate that Franklin did all of this when he was 79 years of age!

Happy New Year.


Reference

Franklin, B. (1962). The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Touchstone. (originally published 1791)

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

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