Today the Positive Psychology airways are buzzing with sadness and grief after learning of the passing of one of the great pioneers of the field, Dr. Chris Peterson. I remember the second semester of MAPP (Masters of Applied Positive Psychology) at the University of Pennsylvania. Chris Peterson assigned a paper to the class: write about the 25th character strength. Those familiar with the Values in Action Classification know that there are 24 strengths on the list and with the amount of time and effort Chris spent researching character strengths—he literally wrote the book—this was not an easy task. In our class discussion there were many contenders for the 25th strength like grace or passion. But we were each charged with writing convincing arguments using the same criteria that he and Martin Seligman used to whittle down the list.
Upon reflection, I understand that the exercise was not so much about determining the 25th strength, but more about building a skill set for analyzing the criteria and being able to effectively evaluate and debate as I applied the science in the larger world. Today, my argument has changed and I am convinced that Chris Peterson may in fact be that 25th Character Strength I was seeking. He was an architect who studied, sketched, designed, erased, reconfigured and built the structure of Character Strengths and Virtues that is widely used in Positive Psychology circles to pull people into the future. He was a paragon of the whole thing and his commitment to Positive Psychology and Character strengths was stable regardless of his audience: scholar or undergraduate student. He was and is universally valued, morally valued in his own right and institutions have been formed to target the study of his legacy- character strengths. He is distinct and cannot be subsumed by any other strength on the list. And if I could have Chris Peterson’s constellation of humor, zest, love and curiosity as my signature strength, I would be personally fulfilled. One of Chris Peterson’s hallmark phrases was “Other People Matter”, but the language of character strengths and virtues exists because Chris Peterson mattered.
At the time of my grandfather’s passing, one of my older sisters reflected on his life by saying that he was more than just a person. He was a feeling. The simple thought of him would conjure up feelings of love and compassion. I had a feeling this morning when I read of Chris Peterson’s passing: humor, love, curiosity and humility. May he rest in peace.