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Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology
Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology
Christopher Peterson
Oxford University Press, 2012
341 pp., 33.99

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Kevin Corcoran

Pursuing the Good Life

Memo: other people matter.

Christopher Peterson's Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology consists of bite-sized reflections on those characteristic psychological features of people you might describe as happy or satisfied or otherwise favorably disposed to life and the world. The majority of these pieces, which are gathered under eleven headings—ranging from "Positive Psychology and the Good Life" to "Positive Emotions and Experiences" and "Positive Relationships," and ending with "Pursuing the Good Life"—first appeared on the author's positive psychology blog, The Good Life. They appear in this volume "updated and revised."

Sadly, Christopher Peterson did not live to see its publication; the world lost a major contributor to and co-founder of the positive psychology movement when Peterson passed unexpectedly in October, just two months before the book's release.

There is much to like about this easy-to-read volume. Perhaps the biggest drawback is that, to my reckoning, we don't really learn anything about the "good life." Like nearly all authors in this genre that I have come across, Peterson treats "happiness," "positive emotions" and "the good life" as synonyms and uses them more or less interchangeably. Yet it's pretty easy to show that positive emotions, happiness, and the good life are not the same. But, we'll come back to that. Let's first look at a few examples of some of the interesting and illuminating material on positive emotions and happiness that make up the volume.

What people like Chris Peterson, Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, and others have been up to for roughly the past twenty years is using research psychology to reveal interesting features of human happiness. Among the things the psychological research has revealed, Peterson shares with us in the first chapter, is that "happiness leads to desirable outcomes at school and work, to fulfilling social relationships, and even to good health and long life." We also learn:

  • Other people matter mightily if we want to understand what makes life most worth living.
  • Work matters as well if it engages the worker and provides meaning and purpose.
  • Money makes an ever-diminishing contribution to well-being, but money can buy happiness if it is spent on other people.

It would do the reader good simply to sit with and dwell on much of what Peterson calls to our attention in these 100 brief reflections. For example, in the second reflection, "Parsing Positive Psychology," Peterson points out a characteristic feature of the happy person often either overlooked or downplayed by the ordinary run of adults, namely, play. Happy people are playful people. "What makes life worth living is not a psychological process. It is work, love and play."

Peterson references a study of 114 photographs from a late 1950s women's-college yearbook. Researchers studied the faces of the women pictured. All but a few were smiling, but of those who were smiling, only some showed evidence of what is called a "Duchenne" smile (named after Guillaume Duchenne, a French physician who discovered that smiles indicative of joy and happiness engage muscles around the eyes as well as those around the corners of the mouth; fake or forced smiles do not produce crinkles around your eyes like involuntary or Duchenne smiles do). Decades after the yearbook photos, researchers could predict which of the women were married and, of those, which were satisfied with their marriage. And yes, you guessed it: those who were both married and happy wore a Duchenne smile in their yearbook picture. Moreover, another study, this time of photographs of major league baseball players from the 1952 season, showed that those players who did not smile at all lived, on average, 72 years. Those who showed evidence of Duchenne smiles lived, on average, 80 years. Now, the claim is not that Duchenne smiling causes you to live longer. The claim is that a genuine Duchenne smile is an indicator of happiness and, apparently, longevity.

Yet another study Peterson shares concerns the effect of our happiness on others and theirs on us. It turns out, according to this study, that a happy person with whom we are socially linked increases our own sense of happiness by 9 percent, while an unhappy individual with whom one we're connected decreases our own happiness by 7 percent. So happiness appears to be a bit more powerful than unhappiness.

Christopher Peterson is said to have begun every course as a professor with the words, other people matter. And, from what I've read, this three-word phrase was often repeated throughout his lectures. Of course, there is a good deal of research to back up the claim that others matter to our own happiness and sense of well-being. One study, for example, that Peterson points to shows that living happily ever after involves having an emotionally stable (non-neurotic) marital partner, prioritizing altruistic/family goals, attending church, and balancing work and play.

In an early but especially sober reflection, "Positive Psychology and Bullshit," Peterson responds to criticisms which conclude that positive psychology is merely BS. Certainly there is no shortage of BS clogging up bookshelf real estate, promising the seven secrets to happiness or the seven easy steps to bliss. Peterson calls attention to the bad company positive psychology tends to keep, e.g., the "stupid company" (those who know the research literature and dumb it down for popular consumption), the "one trick pony company" (those who grab hold of a single positive psychology exercise and then tout it as "the cure" for all that ails us), and what Peterson refers to as "the complacent company" (those who treat the present findings of positive psychology as finished and fixed).

Peterson follows Harry Frankfurt in his now classic On Bullshit in regarding BS as indifference to truth. Peterson and those at the forefront of the positive psychology movement don't count as trafficking in BS insofar as what they recommend is grounded in their own research published in peer-reviewed journals and delivered with the requisite caveats customary for scholarly research.

That point is well-made. My biggest difficulty with Pursuing the Good Life, as I noted earlier, is that we're not given an account of the good life. The good life is assumed to be identical with happiness and life satisfaction. And while it's true that each of us is the expert with respect to our own happiness and sense of subjective well-being, it seems equally clear that the good life is not the same as the psychological state of subjective well-being or life satisfaction. Here's why.

Consider John and John's parents. John is a successful businessman, 30 years old. He is financially well off, has lots of friends, takes himself to enjoy many of life's pleasures, and, when he assesses his life as a whole, finds himself eminently satisfied. He enjoys, let us say, a sense of subjective well-being. The only thing is, John's considerable income derives from pornography, sex-trafficking, and drug-dealing. Now when John was a child and John's parents expressed their desire for their son to grow up and be happy, is this what they desired, that their son grow up to enjoy a sense of subjective well-being, no matter how he achieved it? Put yourself in the shoes of John's parents. Would you say that this is what you desired for John when you desired for him to grow up and be happy? If not, it is plausible to believe that you think there is more to the good life than either feeling happy or being happy in the sense of being satisfied with life as a whole.

When happiness is a by-product of our living the kind of life we are by nature aimed at, we have a sense that happiness is come by legitimately. When, on the other hand, a subjective sense of well-being comes in ways that we believe are inconsistent with our nature, we instinctively feel it is a stolen or ill-gotten happiness. Nearly all of the features that Peterson identifies with "the good life" or "happy life" are features that someone can possess without living the good life, i.e., the kind of life creatures like us are meant to live.

This, of course, is not meant to deny the main thrust of the positive psychology movement. The research literature is full of interesting, helpful, and sometimes surprising findings. For example, if you don't happen to be among the lucky ones whose brains are wired in such a way that you naturally embrace and savor life, welcome new experiences, are imaginative, exuberant, resilient, and optimistic or hopeful (like those who are dispositionally happy), you can engage in concrete exercises or practices that lay down new neural pathways or dig existing "happiness" pathways deeper. And because you can engage in practices and activities that do this, you can raise your happiness quotient or natural happiness set point. Of course, if you are dispositionally a "gloomy Gary," you will not be able to transform yourself into a sanguine Sally or exuberant Eddie. Even so, the research suggests that you can increase your over all sense of subjective well-being.

And that, I think, is an end worthy of pursuit. Of course there is also paradox here: happiness seems to be that sort of thing such that seeking it and pursuing it are sure ways not to find it. Instead, it is the seeking and pursuit of other things—practicing gratitude, pursuing a life of other-regarding love and concern, embedding yourself in deep, meaningful relationships—that seems to bring about happiness as a natural byproduct.

Kevin Corcoran is professor of philosophy at Calvin College.

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