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Howard S. Friedman Ph.D.
Howard S. Friedman Ph.D.

Science and the Good Life

Stuff happens; how do you explain it?

When the pioneering positive psychologist Christopher Peterson died suddenly and unexpectedly this month, there was an outpouring of tributes to his character, his warmth, his genuineness, and his inspiration. Fittingly, the tributes were heartwarming. Dr. Peterson not only studied the positive qualities of living and thriving but tried to live them. I think it is important not to neglect a careful look at the study aspect. Can science point us towards the good life?

It is not news that one does not have to be a positive psychologist to be a positive human being of high character and positive influence. Indeed, we all know that deep wisdom and “guidelines for living” have emerged from centuries of philosophy, religion, history, and literature. Positive Psychology endeavors to add science to the mix.

Stuff happens. How do you explain the causes of such bad happenings? What are the consequences for your life? A while back, Chris Peterson and I and our colleagues conducted a research project on just this topic. Some people tend to blame themselves when something goes wrong. And they see problems as more permanent than is justified. They may also overgeneralize the problem. “This is forever and my life is a mess!”

These catastrophizers are hit by an acorn and conclude that the sky is falling. In our study, we identified such individuals by going to our files and pulling out answers participants wrote to questions about their own flaws and about the bad events they had faced; they were in their late twenties at the time. In particular, they were asked about their most serious faults of personality or character to date. They were also asked to describe disappointments, failures, bereavements, and unfriendly relationships with others. The participants were about 1200 bright Americans drawn from our Longevity Project, who were first examined as children around the year 1921.

We analyzed and coded these explanations that they had written as young adults. How much did each person catastrophize? We also gathered their death certificates and coded their causes of death. We then conducted the complicated statistical analyses needed to determine if there was a connection between a catastrophic outlook and longevity.

The results were clear. The catastrophizers died sooner. The difference was especially large for the men, and they were clearly more likely to die from accidents or violence. Those who believed that having one significant problem is a sign that lots and lots of bad things will follow put themselves onto risky paths, especially in terms of the likelihood of a violent early death. They blamed themselves for far too much and the results showed up in their death rates years later.

This was not necessarily the scientific result that Christopher Peterson and I were expecting. Many researchers in this field believe that the physiology of stress is the key to understanding individual differences in mortality risk and that avoiding the sins of selfish living is the clear corollary. That warmth, humor, and virtue are key to biological thriving. But that was not what we found. Instead, things are more complex and likely depend on the situations you select, enter, and create. But Chris (who was the lead author of the scientific journal article) carefully and dutifully reported the results as we found them. Just as a scientist should.

It is important not to confuse our values and our philosophical beliefs with our scientific understanding. This is easy to say but harder to do. Especially in a field like psychology—which straddles biology, philosophy, and social science—we should be especially alert when study findings seem to confirm those things we want to believe, and we should especially value new information that challenges our assumptions.

If you are interested, The Longevity Project was recently published in paperback edition.

Copyright © 2012 Howard S. Friedman, all rights reserved.

About the Author
Howard S. Friedman Ph.D.

Howard S. Friedman, Ph.D., is a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.

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