Neal H. Mayerson, Ph.D. 12/26/10
I was having Christmas Eve dinner at a friend's house. As a wine enthusiast, he was sharing some of his knowledge about the pinot noir grape that was the star of the wine we were drinking with pleasure. He described how the very same grape raised in different conditions comes to produce vastly different tasting wines.
Terroir is the term he said is used to describe the gravelly, sandy, claylike soil where the pinot noir grape is often cultivated in France, and contrasted it with the richer soil usually found in California. In terroir, he said, the grape has to struggle more to survive, and as a result it takes on a richer character - one more nuanced and dimensional - resulting in much finer wine. That got me thinking (of course) about the role of struggle in the development of human character.
In his book of the same title, Tom Brokaw referred to my parents' generation as "The Greatest Generation." This generation experienced both a world war instigated by a foreign attack on American soil and the Great Depression. This on top of the ordinary struggles of life - loves lost, budgets squeezed, personal disappointments and hurts, broken promises, and dreams dashed or forgotten. How does such struggle effect character development?
Chris Peterson published a study looking at self-reported experience of trauma and character strengths and found a correlation, suggesting that stress may lead to growth of character. I think of my father, who in addition to experiencing the Depression and World War II, also experienced life -threatening melanoma as a young husband and father of two small children. The best the medical doctors could do at that time was to basically say, "Let's see how you do over the next ten years. If you survive, we may have gotten it all." So, he lived the decade of his thirties under the threat of dying from recurrence.
His character is both complex and strong. Prudence, optimism, fairness, perseverance, bravery, humor, spirituality and love have been forged together into a character alloy of amazing strength, utility, and beauty. I am certain that the alchemy of character has many elements, some genetic and some experiential. Of the latter, there are the nurturing experiences of safety, positive modeling, and reinforcement; and there are the stressful challenges - what Hans Selye referred to as "eustress" - the kind that lead to growth instead of destruction. To know my father is to experience the complexity of his character. You feel its formidable presence - his presence. You see it in his actions - from the acts of kindness and love in his philanthropy, community service, and best-friend marriage of more than 65 years, to the grit it takes to compete successfully for more than 50 years in the dog-eat-dog world of business. He has truly flourished.
Positive psychology, while emphasizing the importance of positive experience, must also recognize and embrace the important role of negative experience. A life well lived is one that creates and savors the positive, as well as one that applies and derives character strengths in the course of struggling well.
And with that said, I think I will go open a bottle of that pinot noir from Burgundy and savor this beautiful evening.