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Obama, Positive Psychologist-in-Chief

Is Obama our only leader to believe that we all have "a reservoir of goodness"?

The morning after the election, a couple of reporters called to ask me about the best ways to cope with a stunning and (to many) heartbreaking event. I described at least three different reactions that my friends and colleagues (mostly Clinton supporters) were already showing—the minimizers/rationalizers (“it won’t be so bad”), the swearing panicked types (already fuming at the minimizers), and the looking-forward-with-compassion group (“we’ll focus on progressive social change with renewed determination”). A few weeks later, President Obama’s reaction appears to put him into a class all to himself.

As revealed in speeches and interviews eloquently described in David Remnick’s recent article in The New Yorker, the President, confronted with overwhelming evidence of bigotry and ignorance, has consistently focused on the “better angels of our nature” rather than sinking into cynicism, bitterness, and fury. He has spoken of a “reservoir of goodness” in the American people. He refuses to assume the worst about others because he has “seen the best so often.”

In light of the disgust, anxiety, and dispiritedness that many have felt since the election of Donald Trump, this perspective is admirable, inspiring, even breathtaking. Meeting with the White House staff in the Oval Office on November 9, Obama reportedly said, “It’s easy to be hopeful when things are going well, but when you need to be hopeful is when things are at their worst.” Of course, his stance may be strategic—an effort to reassure and calm anxieties, markets, and foreign heads. But it also appears to be his natural disposition.

My scientific field is often called “positive psychology” because it focuses attention on the positive side of individuals, families, communities, and nations. Instead of studying what is wrong in life, we turn our energies to what is right—why happy people are happy, why healthy people are healthy, and why productive people are productive. I submit that President Obama is our positive psychologist-in-chief, one who focuses on what is honorable and good in human nature rather than ruminating on our lesser instincts. He surely comes into contact on a daily basis with people who both adore and detest him, but he tells Remnick, “Every day, I interact with people of good will everywhere.” Like all of us, he must regularly be exposed to racism, sexism, and homophobia, but instead of wallowing in pessimism and mistrust, he focuses on the positive: “I’ve seen great decency among people who may, nevertheless, have some presuppositions or biases about African-Americans or Latinos or women or gays.”

Instead of investigating how to repair weakness and vice, positive psychologists investigate how to build strength and virtue. Instead of censuring and reviling dogmatists and bigots, Obama speaks of finding the worthiness and dignity in all human beings, while simultaneously acknowledging our common humanity and commonality. Yes, this means that he—and all of us—are likely to hold primitive impulses, much like some of our fellow citizens whom we currently abhor. Consider Obama’s post-election counsel to his daughters:

"...your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish."

The stateliness, poise, and charitable spirit of our 44th president is something to emulate, to be grateful for, and, when the time comes, as it soon will, to miss.


Lyubomirsky, S. (2016, December 11). President Obama—Our positive psychologist-in-chief. The Press-Enterprise.

Remnick, D. (2016, November 28). Obama reckons with a Trump Presidency. The New Yorker.

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