The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Positive Psychology Down Under: Leave No Penguin Behind

In helping each, we help all, and that includes us.

I recently wrote about my visit to Melbourne to speak at The 2nd Australian Positive Psychology and Well-Being Conference. The conference was a good one, but I did some other things down under that were just as enjoyable as attending the conference, including in particular a day (and evening) trip to Phillip Island, south of Melbourne, to see what is called the penguin parade.

Phillip Island is home to little penguins (also called fairy penguins or blue penguins). They are the smallest of the various penguin species, little more than 15" tall when fully grown. They live in burrows some distance from the ocean, where they go to feed.

What makes little penguins so interesting to human onlookers (who on Phillip Island are fenced off from the penguins) is that they return from the ocean precisely at dusk, en masse. All at once, they emerge from the water and make their way ever so slowly and awkwardly across the beach to their respective burrows. They move in groups of several dozen at a time. Apparently moving together is an evolved behavior that serves their survival by making them less vulnerable to predators as they return to their burrows. (It also means that male penguins don't have to stop and ask for directions, which I am sure would be as humiliating for them as it is for human males.)

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If one penguin happens to be lagging behind its group, the others actually stop and wait for it to catch up. That was the magical thing for me, and I kept muttering to myself, "Leave no penguin behind." And the others never did.

 

I am not an ornithologist and cannot comment further on these birds. But I am a positive psychologist, and their behavior provided a good metaphor about what it means to leave no one else behind.

First, it's not enough to have this as a slogan. The principle is only wonderful when in action.

Second, for penguins - and I suspect for people - leaving no one behind does not benefit only the stragglers. It benefits all, including those leading the group. Perhaps we need to rethink out attitudes toward those we fear are being left behind and dismiss any thoughts about charity, condescension, or noblesse oblige. In helping each, we help all, and that includes us.

Third, the little penguins have a group-orientation deep in their DNA. People may or may not be wired this way, but we have something just as powerful: cultural norms. In some groups, there exists a strong and enacted consensus that no one is ever to be left behind. Consider the US Soldier's Creed, which states in part:

I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.

Or consider this example which I witnessed several years ago during my first visit to Australia. I had the opportunity to spend several days at Timbertop, a full-boarding coeducational school for 220 9th graders near Mansfield. Timbertop is an academic and outdoor education program, and it is one of the schools worldwide that has expressed interest in positive psychology, because of the congruence between the premises of positive psychology and the goals of the school.

Timbertop is rigorous, not just academically but physically. All students run every week. One of the signature events of the school year is a half-marathon over hill and dale (i.e., up and down mountains). The event is mandatory, not just for all students but for all teachers and assistants.

During my visit to Timbertop, I saw one of these half-marathons. I didn't run myself, but I helped by passing out cups of water throughout the day to those who did run. Some finished sooner than others, of course, but everyone finished.

The point: At the end of the run, everyone - and I mean everyone - waited until the last person finished. The weather was terrible, but everyone waited, patiently and happily. The last runner was cheered as heartily as the first runner, probably more so because after all who was there to cheer for the first person? And the cheering for the last few who finished was sincere.

I assume that most of you readers are neither penguins nor soldiers nor 9th graders at an elite boarding school. So I assume that most of you, like me, have some lessons to learn from these stories.

We all live, love, study, work, and play in groups. How do we treat one another in these groups? Are the stragglers - and we are all stragglers in some domains - cut loose, ridiculed, or pitied? Or do we take it as a given that no one should be left behind?

 

 

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

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