What is the role of positive psychology today?

In the wake of the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder and the national and international outcry about his death and so many other grave injustices stemming from racism, I am humbled and contemplative about how practitioners of positive psychology, myself included, can participate in this dialogue in a voice that sounds anything but trite or even inappropriate.  After all, positive psychology is the study of what is good and right in humans, which has such power in a world where we tend to focus on problems and deficits.  However, the greatest vulnerability of this loving and life positive movement is to step in prematurely with optimism and smoothing over of edges in moments that call for full expression of grief, solemn introspection and careful steps toward healing and reconciliation.

I am reminded of how adults say to children, when they are overcome by emotions like anger, frustration and sadness, “use your words.”  I am applying this advice to myself as a positive psychology practitioner, and telling myself, “use what I know, use my tools.”  And the first idea that comes to mind is character strengths.  Psychologists developed the concept of character strengths in the first years of this century to create a complementary language to that of mental disorders, and to offer a common vocabulary for talking about what is good and right in humans.  They looked to ancient cultures and across the globe to define virtuous and positive traits in people that span across time and place.  Character strengths are the foundational language of positive psychology.  When all else fails, I go back to these basic building blocks, to dig deep and strive to bring forth these traits in myself.  There are 24 character strengths in this model outlined on www.viacharacter.org, but eleven resonate most for me right now:

  • Judgment
  • Fairness
  • Humility
  • Bravery
  • Honesty
  • Perseverance
  • Kindness
  • Love
  • Social Intelligence
  • Spirituality
  • Hope

Under the virtue of wisdom is the character strength of judgment or our ability to see things from more than one perspective; it is our critical thinking that helps us weigh evidence fairly.

Under the virtue of justice is the character strength of fairness, the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and to show empathy and compassion.

Under the virtue of temperance is the character strength of humility, which allows us to see our limitations and to see ourselves for who we truly are.

Under the virtue of courage are the character strengths of bravery, honesty and perseverance.  Bravery gives us the energy to face challenges, threats and difficulties, overcoming fear.  Honesty means speaking truth about a situation and taking responsibility for our feelings and behaviors.  When we persevere, we continue despite obstacles and setbacks; it is foundational to making progress.

Under the virtue of humanity are the character strengths of kindness, love and social intelligence.  These highest strengths speak for themselves, with social intelligence bringing the powerful ingredient of understanding to our dialogue.

Under the virtue of transcendence are the character strengths of spirituality and hope.  Spirituality connects us to something larger than ourselves and helps us find meaning in the midst of hardship.  Hope allows us to dream of better days ahead and to believe that we can grow and learn and heal.

One thing becomes clear to me right now: while we are not all-powerful, we are in control of ourselves, our thoughts and our actions.  More than one hundred years ago, psychologist William James said, “the greatest revolution of our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”  I believe we are still discovering this truth today.  And I want to continue to hope that this change in attitude can allow us to see what is good and right in each other and to be guided by our character strengths, especially love, through this heartbreaking and turbulent time, so that we may come out stronger and better on the other side.  To me, that is what positive psychology is all about.