"I was drunk the day my Mom got out of prison, and I went to pick her up in the rain. But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck, she got runned over by a damned old train."
This is the final stanza from one of my favorite songs, You Don't Have to Call Me Darling by Steve Goodman. His goal was to write the perfect country song, but when he showed his first draft to his friend David Allen Coe, he was advised that the perfect country song needed to mention getting drunk, and mothers, and rain, and trains, and trucks, and prison, and death. Hence he added the final lyrics, which indeed make the song perfect ... perfectly silly.
I thought of this song during a recent conversation with Marty Seligman about whether positive psychology (or psychology itself) has natural categories, notions that "carve nature at the joints" as do constructs in the biological and physical sciences. My off-the-top-of-my-head response was "No, because psychology studies jointless jellyfish, and there is nothing to carve. All we can do is describe, and we do so from a given sociocultural perspective."
Not a bad answer, but Seligman went on to describe a critical experiment centuries ago by Newton that revealed the basic structure of white light by using one prism to break natural light into a rainbow and a second prism to reconstitute the rainbow into natural light.
That led me to muse about positive psychology. Research has broken the psychologically healthy person into various constituents and components. Many would agree that the components of a good life include:
• Experiencing more positive feelings than negative feelings
• Being satisfied with life
• Identifying and using talents and strengths
• Being engaged in activities
• Having close relationships with neighbors, colleagues, friends, and family members
• Being a contributing member of a social community
• Having meaning and purpose
There are no doubt gaps here, but this list seems a reasonable start to a positive psychology rainbow. Now do a thought experiment: Reconstitute a person from these components, and imagine what she would be like. (By the way, I would really need to be convinced that the reconstituted person would be a male.)
Is this creation credible, if not as a real person then at least as an ideal toward which we should strive? Would she be a composite of Mother Teresa and Angelina Jolie, or a caricatured Stepford wife, phony, boring, and downright creepy?
Positive psychology practitioners are trying - with success I believe - to cultivate the various components of the good life. Suppose we succeed beyond our wildest dreams and someday create the perfect person per positive psychology by building up in the same individual every identified component. Would the whole be greater than or equal to the sum of the parts or somehow less or just perfectly silly, like Steve Goodman's song? I suspect that the final possibility is the correct one.
Perhaps flaws and hassles are needed, if only to pose challenges and make us human as we fail to surmount them. Maybe "being human" should be added to positive psychology's list of the components of the good life, but doing so is a huge caveat that would render the other components neither necessary nor sufficient and leave us where we started, jellyfish in search of joints .
"I'll hang around as long as you will let me. And I never minded standing in the rain."