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Wacko Wednesdays: Positive Psychology

Psi2As a continuation of my previous post on Happiness, I’ll talk a little bit about Positive Psychology (PP) and the lessons we can learn, as writers, from this emerging field (perhaps in a way you might not predict, though.)

In 1998, the American Psychological Association’s then-president, Martin Seligman, used the term “Positive Psychology” to describe a new trend in Psychology research: the study of how humans become and stay happy. Dr. Seligman was tired of mental illness being the sole purpose of Psychology research and practice; He wanted Psychology to study more of what makes and keeps people happy instead of only mending the sick. PP has been the trending topic in Psych since then.  Graduate students are clamoring to study topics like resiliency, decision-making, sense of control, character strength and uplifting traits. Journals publish more and more studies about the effects of “learned optimism.” Books like Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert are topping New York Times’ bestseller lists.

Like with all emerging fields, PP has its critics.  The biggest and strongest critique of PP is that the field isn’t regulated.  Any person can stick the term “Positive Psychologist” on the end of their name and claim to know how to apply the concepts that certified scientists and counselors developed.  This means that every “life coach” kook is all over the Web promoting themselves as a “PP Counselor,” and no law or national certification program is barring them from doing so.

Another critique that is of lesser strength but more relevant to us as writers is the type of  personality PP seems to attract.  Those kooks on the internet and late-night infomercials are the most slimy of the bunch, but from an outsider’s view it does seem that the PP people have drunk the kool-aid.  PP people are very gung-ho and tend to be exuberant evangelists for the field.  The majority of them are do-gooders at heart; they want people to be happy and they think they’ve found science that can help.

Do you know a person like that?  A person who stresses the positive so adamantly that it becomes unbelievable or in the very least, annoying?  Your answer to this question will probably have more to do with your own place on the cynical scale than with the PP-type you’re remembering, but nonetheless let’s take a look at that character more closely. This person isn’t a snake-oil salesman; they are what I call a Believer.  For reasons they usually aren’t too familiar with themselves, Believers truly feel that their solution is the answer to many people’s problems. How does a first encounter with a person like this go?  What are you thinking?  What would by-standers think as they listened to your conversation?

One thing about people who are enthusiastic about life is that they are usually magnetic.  They light up a room, they are always surrounded by a crowd.  People naturally gravitate toward other people who are happy and seem in control.  But what happens when you get close enough to see that they are just trying a tiny bit too hard to be legitimate?  What if the consistency or substance isn’t there?  How does that character keep up the charade?  How do you see it?  How, if there is truly no substance, do you as a reader discover it? Will it be in the Believer’s frayed pant leg or missing button?  Will it be in the quick glance down she makes after every human encounter? Just like the emerging field of PP, every character must have cracks in the armor.  Even the Truest-Happiest-Believer-of-All-Things-Positive has a ding in the shield.  What is it?  Does the critique of that person’s belief-system hold water?  Could the character make a journey over time to mend the damage?

You need both positive and negative forces in opposing characters for your novel or work of fiction to be memorable.  Chart which side, positive or negative, your character will fall on.  No middle ground.  You can make a sliding scale (using a common measurement tactic from Psychology), but you still must divide the scale into two halves.  The scale can have two of any extremes (e.g. Grape Jelly Fan vs Strawberry Jelly Fan), but you need to put each of your characters on that spectrum.

If PP had its way with your characters, they would test them on a variety of scales to diagnose current states and predict future behaviors.  PP would look at self-efficacy (which is like “agency” – the ability and belief that one can accomplish tasks and goals on their own), resiliency (the ability to bounce back from trauma) and perhaps even sense of humor and daily laughter rates.  The science behind PP is the same as a lot of Personality, Developmental, and Behavioral Psychology, they are just choosing to measure different traits.  As writers, we tend to go into the dark sides of characters; It’s almost easier to write drama than it is to write pleasantries.  But having no happy characters, or people who are optimists that promote achievement and satisfaction in others, isn’t giving your novel the opportunity for some significant conflicts.

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  • Carol Grannick 8 July 2009, 7:45 am

    Hi, Christine:
    Very much enjoyed your post on Positive Psychology and writing. I’ve been writing about this for several years in the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind (www.intelligentlight.com/PrairieWind) and other pubs, and feel it’s essential for writers to learn these skills if we’re to manage the obstacles with resiliency.
    Thanks for spreading the word!

    • Christine Cavalier 8 July 2009, 7:01 pm

      Carol, thanks! And thanks for turning me on to SCBWI. I’m working on a children’s book now and I am looking to learn all I can about the industry. Also, I’m looking for an illustrator.

      And yes, resiliency is probably the only difference between published writers and unpublished ones, don’t you think?


  • Dave Shearon 19 July 2009, 4:05 am

    Interesting post, Christine! You’re right; someone who is “trying too hard” isn’t doing positive psychology. Maybe positive thinking, but not positive psychology. Positive psychology is about both the realization that “better” is possible and that “better” is enough. Tal Ben-Shahar’s books Happier and The Pursuit of Perfect may be the clearest expositions of these points. However, the reliance on these propositions is implicit in other books by researchers in the field — Seligman, Peterson, Diener, Fredrickson, Dweck, Reivich, Lyubomirsky, Kashdan, Segerstrom, etc.

    On the other hand, do characters with non-positive approaches actually create interest? Or are they simply aspects of the situation that the active characters have to manage. As an example, pessimists (of either type), don’t tend to take action. So, a pessimist in the main character’s circle of influence would require management, but a pessimist in the opposition would not be an active agent. A great deal of tension could arrise, however, from two resilient, good-natured, happy, individual with similar values, but with different and conflicting purposes and goals. For example, one school reformer focused on engaging teachers and another focused on raising standards. They could easily clash about policies, perhaps quite strongly, yet admire each other and sympathize with common experiences such as having an energy-absorbing pessimist on their side. Of course, Barb Fredrickson’s work suggests too such individuals, if both were very positive, would be able to see the good in each other’s position and work toward collaborative approaches, but perhaps circumstances or politics might force them toward a more oppositional relationship than they would otherwise have achieved.

    Any way, I’m way out of my league here as I am not a fiction writer. I did, however, enjoy your post and the opportunity to think about it a bit. Thanks!

  • Dave Shearon 19 July 2009, 4:08 am

    Yikes! Should have proofed that a bit better. Hope you catch my menaing!

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