Neal H. Mayerson, Ph.D.

Neal H. Mayerson Ph.D.

Quite a Character

The Contagion of Character: Building a Better Society, Not Just a Better Self

Character: Focus on the Self or Focus on Others? Is it Contagious?

Posted Feb 05, 2010

I have been sympathetic to some criticisms of positive psychology as being too "self"-centered - focusing on how individuals can make themselves happier or otherwise improve their own lives. It can appear that positive psychology is a continuation of a "me-me-me" egocentric, self-indulgent culture. There may well be those who are consuming information from this new discipline in that spirit - to feed their ego. I got into this whole endeavor, though, to improve the world and there is reason to be hopeful.

Albert Bandura (1969; 1986) made a foundational contribution to psychology in explicating the phenomenon of social learning. We learn so much by observing others around us and we do much of this automatically. As I have read findings such as the recent study by Fowler and Christakis (2008) on the spread of happiness in social networks, or Haidt's (2006) research on the phenomenon of "elevation," I have wondered to what degree social learning is at work.

Is it true that if we are happy we make others around us happy? If we act altruistically does it cause others to be more likely to do the same? Aren't we wired to look around and mimic the behaviors and mannerisms that seem to be valued in our immediate culture and that seem to produce desired outcomes? Though, as conscious beings with free will, we may choose otherwise, we all tend to find our own social cultures to which we then adapt by adopting cultural values and behavior.

This is the basis upon which I have hoped that a focus on building and broadening individuals' use of character strengths will improve not just individual lives, but the lives of those around them. From the beginning, the VIA Institute focused on identifying the basic elements of personality that account for most of what's best about human beings. And, speaking for myself only, I had in the back of my mind that building up and building upon character strengths would spread throughout the world via this process of social learning. Each time a person strengthens his or her expression of character, that person sends a ripple effect to the social world around them. In that way, building a better world is not simply accomplished one person at a time, but instead is a process that leverages social networks and social learning.

Additionally, the VIA Institute is not simply depending on this individuals-based process of contagion for improving human behavior but also is interested in building better organizations and communities through a focus on character strengths. David Cooperrider (2009), the founder of Appreciative Inquiry, has been pioneering this work with businesses, helping them consider the character strengths of their employees as they pursue their business goals and aspirations. And, community organizers are exploring the extension of John McKnight's asset-based community development work by integrating VIA's character strength work.

Applying knowledge of character strengths to personal growth, organizational development, and community organizing are ways that positive psychology is aiming far beyond ego-centrism to the broader vision of creating a better world.

Bandura, A. (1969). Social learning of moral judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 11, 275-279.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cooperrider, D. (2009). The discovery and design of positive institutions. Presented at the International Positive Psychology Association conference on June 20, 2009.

Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network:
Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. BMJ, 337, 1-9.

Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books.