Honouring Chris Peterson

Honouring Chris Peterson – a man who inspired the best in us

The mediocre teacher tells

the good teacher explains

the superior teacher demonstrates

the great teacher inspires

– William Arthur Ward

Chris Petersen was a great man. He died at the age of 62 late last year. He was one of the key pioneers in the field of Positive Psychology. “Other people matter”. That was his motto. He reckons it pretty much summed up everything that Positive Psychology was about. Other people matter. He burnt it into the minds of all who knew him. An economical truth!

Chris Peterson

Nansook Park, his close friend and collaborator, spoke at his memorial session at the World Congress of Positive Psychology. Her reflection of Chris’s contribution was just delightful. She is a diminutive woman with power in the package. She had us all laughing about how Chris always wore a particular woollen cap in winter. It had survived a season in lost and found after he took it there, presumably left behind in a classroom by a student. He kept wearing it inside – including at his work desk. All through winter. It even had a hole in it. Nansook offered to buy another on numerous occasions. He declined. He loved his hat.

I reckon it was his thinking cap! What a great symbol. One of the world’s recognised best teachers, in any field at all – not just psychology – has a thinking cap born of the people, a superficially worthless leftover of the common young man. I imagine he must have loved the state it put him in when he wore that cap. From Nansook’s pictures he certainly looked happy and comfortable and at home in it. And his mind beneath it conjured miracles that nonetheless somehow he made look ordinary. Nansook explained that he always taught each class in a different way. He never merely repeated it. He made it fresh – every single time. Now that’s class! No wonder he won the most prestigious award for teaching in any faculty at the University of Michigan.

But he had his foibles. We all do. In fact I believe that one of his foibles was perhaps the most delightful thing I learnt about him during Nansook’s presentation.

Chris had recently completed yet another book which, sadly, was not published before his death. Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology. But fortuitously he did get to see the front cover. And wow, was Chris ever excited when he saw the front cover! Or presumably at least a minute or so after. We know what excited him most about his book because Nansook told us. He rushed over to her house as soon as he had seen it because he was so excited.

Chris gushingly revealed to Nansook the source of his delight. The book cover had one hundred dots on it! That’s it. One hundred dots exactly. It is not that yet another of his books had been published. It is not that there was now a lasting repository for his latest thinking. The book cover had 100 dots on it. Not 99. Not 101. One hundred! “That’s fantastic”, he seems to have thought to himself. What delightful symmetry and pregnant meaning. At some later point he had the opportunity to ask the publisher about the hundred dots and the actual intended meaning behind them. There was none – at least according to the publisher. They reportedly exclaimed that no one counts the dots. That’s just how it turned out with the cover design.

Now, for a scientist practitioner teacher in the Positive Psychology mould – the field that earnestly and assiduously works at its scientific credibility – isn’t that a foible? Where is the logic, the reasoning, in that? Isn’t the field meant to be above superstition? Isn’t it transparently and naïvely prescientific to infer an intended meaning, and an exciting one at that, in an array of dots on a book cover? Especially without even checking first with the person who designed it?

Chris will forever be known, at least within the psychology field, as someone who educated us about the enlivening, vitalising, empowering impact of using our core character strengths. It is the activation of these strengths that most moves us. What strength was involved when Chris was at his most animated after one of his biggest life achievements? When he mistakenly jumped to a conclusion about intended meaning after viewing a reportedly random display of dots on his latest book’s front cover? He certainly would not seem to have been enervated by judgment or perspective or caution or even perhaps love of knowledge.

Surely there is an awkward conundrum for his positive psychology scientist peers to account for here. Was his actual behaviour in one of his finest hours not inconsistent with what he is meant to stand for? Doesn’t it contradict some of the field’s strongly held tenets? Wasn’t he seemingly animated at least as much by a mildly delusional and superstitious mistake as he ever might have been by any one of his character strengths? It raises questions about what truly motivates and energises us.

Yet I love that story. I reckon it is one of the best things about Chris Peterson that I have ever heard. Others in the audience seemed to love the story too. For whatever reason I find it playfully inspiring. I feel warm and happy inside when I remember that story – it gives me a sense of real fun. It is a wonderful attribute for a very prominent person to not take himself too seriously. There is a clear humility there, but I don’t think that is what got him rushing to Nansook’s house.

As Nansook told us Chris said to her, one of the most important things is to never be boring. Nansook made sure of that by wearing Chris’s holey thinking cap throughout most of her presentation. Fantastic!

There is so much irony in all of this. Chris was so loved. When Barbara Fredrickson stepped up to the stage to accept the inaugural Christopher Peterson gold medal, she explained how much she could feel the love in the room. She was a warmly popular choice, no doubt seen as a most deserving winner by all present. I suspect that all of us there really felt the love in the room. It was every bit as much there for Chris himself, albeit in his physical absence. Chris inspired other people so much. He knew what counted. Other people matter. He really got it and helped us get it too. He had joined the dots.

But when it comes to Positive Psychology’s future, I believe that Chris’s academic strength was also a weakness. He was a Positive Psychology scientist. As Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, explained, Chris had been working on a major further project which he had not been able to complete prior to his death. Chris was working on a typology of human functioning in terms of character strengths to supersede the pathology-oriented categories of DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The DSM has been a kind of a bible for psychiatry and clinical psychology alike. Chris had tried to explain mental illness in terms of the deficit or overuse or opposite quality of the 24 recognised and defined character strengths. He had got stuck. Marty acknowledge that he had got stuck too. These two great collaborating minds had not been able to solve the problem together. Marty expressed his wish that someone in the audience would take it further.

As Marty explained this in a late conference session I couldn’t help but think that there was little wonder they had become stuck. They were working on another typology. Academics love topologies. No doubt convincing sounding typologies get attention and provide recognition, lead to funding, help procure staffing and lead to advancement, perhaps even tenure. This is all above the primary and genuinely desired goal of providing a framework to learn and to teach something new. Any number of ways of characterising people can be useful, at least when backed up by evidence. But once you try to systematise things too far you can become too rigid and lose something.

Few very experienced clinicians, at least those outside an academic environment, are going to get overly hung up on a typology. They have simply experienced too many times when their karma has run over their dogma. One cannot then help but reach a point of going beyond typologies, albeit whilst being informed by them. You just sit and listen. The subtitles are there. The client tells you what to do. It is never the same, from one session to the next. That’s why it is never boring.

Trying to account for DSM pathology-oriented categories in terms of character strengths is merely trying to link one typology with another, albeit another which is vastly preferable. It ultimately won’t work. In using DSM as such an explicit reference point, there is a clear assumption that there is something inherently correct about it in the first place. But DSM, despite being far from random, is hardly correct. As Allen Frances, a primary contributor to DSM 3 and 4, and now one of DSM 5’s harsher critics attests, DSM is much too influenced by turf battles and drug company interests and ever more widely defined pathologies to be considered correct. As one example, it has long made a clear demarcation between anxiety and depression, but recent neurobiological science has shown many hundreds of the very same genes are implicated in both anxiety and depression. DSM offers a false categorisation in the first place. There is no point trying to align a new topology against something else which has tried to carve nature at its joints, with many motivations apart from mere truth.

A new DSM linked character strength typology might get attention, might get funding and might confer other advantages to those with academic leanings, but it would offer no particular hold on the truth merely by being related to DSM. We should not be surprised if experienced clinicians working with everyday people, day after day, continue to go on listening in their own way – compassionately and with no particular typology dominating their thinking or response. Considering a comparison between DSM and character strengths seems fruitful and interesting, but these two typologies do not have to fit together! If they had closely fitted together, character strengths might have been a relatively redundant notion in the first place. It can be useful to consider DSM categories whilst putting an optimistic spin on them and keeping in mind people’s profound capacity for change and growth. That’s what I and many others already do. Character strengths can be considered alongside DSM diagnostic concepts, but preferable not too closely aligned or something independently valuable could be diminished.

It is all about positive versus negative energy. As an experienced clinician I believe Marty and Chris have always been right (or as we Australians say – “Spot on!”) in their optimistic emphasis, all things being equal, and depending on the context. There are times when pessimism has some advantages, as Marty himself has clearly pointed out from the earliest days of Positive Psychology. But the balance of forces of positive and negative energy is ever flowing, ever-changing, ever malleable. In general it works best to go with the positive energy – in the moment – where you are – now! That’s the deal! Chris Peterson did this. Over and above that he did it with people. He had transformed himself from a painfully shy young adult, who we learnt would not speak to others for many days on end, into one of the warmest and most giving and most influential human beings on the planet. Anyone who was at his memorial session would have felt him keeping on doing this, even beyond his death.

Chris joined the dots. Other people matter. Now matters. The balance of positive and negative energy matters. Now. With other people.

Draw on whatever typology you like, because they can be very helpful. I draw on them much of the time to guide my work as a therapist. Many of them. But don’t hold them in mind too strongly or for too long when responding to a client. Let it go.

I was very fortunate to share Chris’s 60th birthday evening with him and Nansook and a few others at our hosts’ private dinner party. He changed my life. His influence will continue to change many lives, including many, many people in future who will never know his name. When my wife and I drove Chris and Nansook back to where they were staying we talked about the recently developed U.S. army project, the teaching of positive psychology in schools and whether the latter should be formally evaluated. I learnt so much from Chris, but that is an area where our opinions differed. He acknowledged his academic leanings in asserting his belief that things should be formally evaluated to help ensure that they are taken seriously. I disagree, at least in relation to the teaching of Positive Psychology in schools. I believe it is better to aspire to inspire, just as he did, and leave it at that. No doubt it is worth having awards and set tasks. That can motivate and energise and animate us. But don’t ever reduce it to a mark. That’s just counting the dots again. Dots are best when joined. At least mentally.

Posted by Chris.