The Pursuit of Happiness

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One of the students in my course at Marlboro College posted a link to Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, a work from positive psychology containing a taxonomy of traits that connect to the "good life." The student suggested that these might form the basis for defining human flourishing. I agree. The authors describe the work as:

The classification is the result of a thorough study of the philosophies of the antiquities, the major world religions, the distinctions offered by historic and current social organizations. Twenty four specific strengths under six broad virtues consistently emerged across history and culture: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Each strength was thoroughly examined in its own chapter, with special attention given to its meaning, explanation, measurement, causes, correlates, consequences, and development across the life span, as well as to strategies for its deliberate cultivation.

The work is an antidote for the well known Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the authority used by practitioners to diagnose and treat all sorts of mental disorders.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States. It is intended to be applicable in a wide array of contexts and used by clinicians and researchers of many different orientations (e.g., biological, psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, interpersonal, family/systems).

Positive psychology seeks to discover what makes people's lives "good," as opposed to traditional psychology that deals primarily with conditions that interfere with one's fully functioning. The apposition of positive and traditional psychology is analogous to the anti-parallelism of sustainability and unsustainability. The single largest cost in the US in that for medical treatment, most of which is remedial. There is no specific economic category for producing the good life. It is all lumped into some measure of wealth or consumption. This belief system has produced little of the positive traits I will enumerate shortly, but has succeeded in threatening the current way of life and the planet as well. Our culture seems to prefer fixing problems after the fact rather than preventing them in the first place by design.

The six virtues, with a short definition, are:

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge - Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge
  2. Courage - Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal
  3. Humanity - Interpersonal strengths that involve tending and befriending others
  4. Justice - Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life
  5. Temperance - Strengths that protect against excess
  6. Transcendence - Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning

I won't stop and list all the character strengths that fill out the classification scheme, but here are the entries for wisdom and knowledge:

  • Creativity [originality, ingenuity]: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; includes artistic achievement but is not limited to it.
  • Curiosity [interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience]: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering.
  • Judgment & Open-Mindedness [critical thinking]: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; not jumping to conclusions; being able to change one's mind in light of evidence; weighing all evidence fairly.
  • Love of Learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one's own or formally; obviously related to the strength of curiosity but goes beyond it to describe the tendency to add systematically to what one knows.
  • Perspective [wisdom]: Being able to provide wise counsel to others; having ways of looking at the world that make sense to oneself and to other people.

I have defined sustainability as the possibility of human [and all other life] flourishing, arguing further that the possibility depends on getting the whole socio-technical ecological system working in such a way that signs of flourishing become manifest more or less everywhere. In my book, I suggest one way of "defining" flourishing, that is, the satisfaction of a set of 11 canonical domains of concern, such as subsistence, family, or learning. There is a great deal of overlap between these and the above classification scheme.

In my recent teaching at Marlboro, I have presented the students with yet another scheme for determining how well a person is enjoying the good life. Based on the capabilities framework of Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum has developed a scheme with 10 capabilities necessary to build a fully functioning life upon. It is another way to describe a set of conditions that might be deemed "flourishing." A few of her categories are: life, bodily health, affiliation, and play. For the managers among us, it is critical to provide some metric enabling them to put any form of control or guidance system in play. Any of these three schemes or others would do that job, but that is not the essence of sustainability.

The challenge we all face is not the "management of Planet Earth," but figuring out how to make the system produce any of these constellations of properties constituting flourishing. The positive set of virtues is a good guide for knowing how we are doing, but has little value in guiding our collective journey into the future. I know little in detail about the science of positive psychology, but it seems to focus, not surprising, on the individual and on ways to intervene to create more well-being. Sustainability needs a "science" that looks outward at the world and discovers how to design the functioning of the cultural systems such that individual human beings live a fully functioning life.

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3 Comments

David M. Carter said:

Well, John, I just had to comment on this post. This topic is my current passion in life, built upon my master's degree in applied positive psychology (MAPP) from Penn. I spent several weeks learning face-to-face from Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman, the initiators of the character strengths and virtues lexicon and taxonomy.

My current career is applying the principles and interventions in positive psychology toward planetary stewardship and, ultimately, a sustainable society. As far as I have been able to ascertain, I am the only MAPP graduate to be exclusively focused on pro-environmental behaviors. Though my area of expertise, at the moment, is centered around how positive emotions can inspire environmentally responsible behaviors, I believe there is tremendous potential in applying the principles of the character strengths and virtues toward greater planetary stewardship. There is immense opportunity here for doctoral students wishing to do research.

As you point out, the positive set of virtues can be a good guide for knowing how we are doing toward sustainable flourishing. I would argue, however, that directed study and practice in the application of character strengths and virtues can also provide value in guiding our collective journey into the future. The primary reason for this is that positive psychology, as much as or more than any other scientific discipline, makes it clear that human well-being and Earth well-being are one and the same. Put another way, we can use the scientifically tested interventions from positive psychology to help individuals improve their well-being. As individuals take these interventions seriously and apply them to their own lives, they collectively create the kind of sustainable future we are seeking. Authentic well-being does not accept hyper-consumerism, materialism, narcissism, and a number of other conditions detrimental to the health of the environment, as possibilities. So, by default, we end up creating futures for ourselves and loved-ones that are more consistent with having a healthful relationship with the Earth.

John Ehrenfeld Author Profile Page said:

I did admit in my post that I was just a beginner in understanding positive psychology. I can easily see that negative traits like narcissism and hyper-consumerism are antithetical to the categories of positive psychology. But the statement that you made that the default position is that people will create a future in harmony with the Earth does not seem to me to follow directly. It will take more than a shift toward positive psychology to get there.

David M. Carter said:

Absolutely, it will take more than positive psychology to get there - it is just a piece of the complex puzzle that is humanity's relationship with the environment. At the point in the future when we are finally realizing the possibility of sustained flourishing for all life on Earth, I think we ("we" meaning humanity - not you and I) will honor positive psychology as the discipline that allowed us to understand that a lifestyle of acquisitiveness is not the road to well-being. Rather, positive psychology will have helped us recognize that our well-being is maximized by living in ways that allow all life on Earth to thrive simultaneously.

Thank you for covering this topic in your blog.