Christopher Peterson combined altruistic motivation with scientific and empirical rigor to contribute immeasurably to our fundamental understanding of positive psychology.
His research put in place a foundation which allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants as we continue to strive towards self-betterment and the betterment of those around us.
Rather than focusing on a specific dimension of positive psychology and the benefits therein, this article pays homage to this special contributor to the world of positive psychology, a man without whom the state of the field would not have reached the breadth and depth of expertise we are familiar with today.
While the achievements of Christopher Peterson can hardly be condensed into one solitary written piece, this article will outline some of Peterson’s vast contributions to the field. From his visionary work in the study of character strengths and virtues to the creation of new methods and measures for assessing individual differences, Peterson leaves behind a legacy of research that is both groundbreaking and significant.
Widely recognized as one of the founding fathers of the modern positive psychology movement, the following article serves as a celebration of Peterson’s extraordinary dedication to – and efforts in – founding, developing and promoting positive psychology as we know it.
This article contains:
- Who Was Christopher Peterson?
- Educational Background
- A Look at His Career
- His Untimely Death
- Peterson’s Contribution to Positive Psychology
- His Research on Character Strengths and Virtues
- Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman
- Other People Matter
- Projects Inspired by Christopher Peterson
- Published Books
- Other Works
- 9 Recommended Videos
- 21 Memorable Quotes
- A Take-Home Message
Who Was Christopher Peterson?
Many readers will already be familiar with Christopher Peterson’s work. Alongside Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Peterson is widely recognized as one of the most prominent and notable driving forces behind the modern field of positive psychology.
Described by those who knew him as innovative and productive, Peterson was named among the world’s 100 most widely cited psychologists over the past two decades by the Institute for Scientific Information – a testament to his extensive contributions to positive psychology. He was also the author and co-author of more than 350 scholarly publications and books including ‘A Primer in Positive Psychology’, ‘Character Strengths and Virtues’, and ‘Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology’.
On a personal level, Christopher Peterson was by all accounts a man of integrity, sincerity, and generosity. His favored axiom was, “Other people matter,” and that is precisely how he made people feel.
A former graduate student who studied under Peterson at the University of Pennsylvania recalled the way he treated his students with respect and optimism;
Chris Peterson didn’t just do research and teach research about what makes for a good life, he also role modeled it for us… he was one of those unique individuals who actually walked the walk, didn’t just talk the talk.
Born on February 18th, 1950 and raised in Niles, Illinois, Christopher Peterson initially studied aeronautical engineering. However an introductory psychology class taken during his sophomore year left him enthralled, prompting Peterson to change his major to psychology. He later graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1972.
Peterson went on to graduate from the University of Colorado in 1976 with a doctorate in social and personality psychology and learning. His dissertation research on learned helplessness in people was at that time a relatively unexplored topic.
For the next two years, Peterson joined the psychology department at Hamilton College, New York, where he taught until 1978. Later that year he took a postdoctoral respecialization in clinical psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he began his lifelong friendship and professional collaboration with Martin Seligman.
A Look at His Career
Christopher Peterson taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Virginia State University where he extended his research on learned helplessness in people to address physical health. He was the first researcher to show that optimism longitudinally predicted good health and long life (Peterson & Bossie, 1991).
At the age of 36, he joined the University of Michigan as a professor of psychology and organizational studies. During his tenure, he was awarded the Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship – a prestigious acknowledgment of faculty members who go above and beyond to create a rich and diverse learning environment. While teaching at the University of Michigan, he became director of the Positive Psychology Center and Director of Clinical Training.
Peterson was well recognized in his field and taught at the university for 26 years. During this time he regularly published with his undergraduate advisees, in his first ten years alone more than 20 of his undergraduate students co-authored articles in multiple psychology journals.
In September 2000, Peterson temporarily relocated from the University of Michigan to the University of Pennsylvania. For the next three years, he worked with Dr. Martin Seligman and an illustrious array of scholars and practitioners on the development of a groundbreaking classification of character strengths and virtues and ways in which they could be measured.
Described by many as an inspired, dedicated and wonderfully effective teacher, Peterson’s popularity among students was acknowledged when he was honored with the 20th Golden Apple Award for outstanding teaching in 2010.
Peterson was given the opportunity to deliver a traditional “last lecture” at the award ceremony – he chose instead to call the talk “The First Lecture”, stating that a first lecture is one that looks ahead and takes us into the future. At the event Peterson said while he had received many awards, the student nominated Golden Apple Award was the most meaningful to him.
During his tenure at Michigan, the university introduced themed semesters with the objective of providing intellectual and cultural immersion in a particular topic. In 2010, Peterson introduced ‘What makes life worth living?’ as the fall theme. During the semester students were invited to reflect upon the question and submit essays, short fiction stories, poetry, songs, videos, photographs, and other visual media.
The overarching message from those who participated was that love, compassion, and family are what make life worth living – a reinforcement that other people matter.
In addition to his legendary teaching and mentoring skills, Christopher Peterson contributed to an insurmountable number of studies and is among the world’s most frequently-cited psychologists. He has transformed major research areas during his career, including his work on attributional styles and their effects on behavior and mental health, and character strengths and virtues.
It would be almost impossible to list the full scale and impact of his research, however, suffice to say the range and importance of his contributions changed the landscape of positive psychology forever.
His Untimely Death
On October 9th, 2012 the world lost a major contributor to the positive psychology movement when Christopher Peterson passed unexpectedly – just two months before the release of his book “Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology”.
When Christopher died at the age of 62 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from sudden heart failure, we lost an esteemed scholar, an inspirational teacher, and by all accounts, an admirable human being.
The deluge of poignant tributes within hours of his death expressed the overwhelming sadness, affection, and appreciation felt by his friends, colleagues, and students – a testament to the impact he had not only in the field of positive psychology but also on the lives of those who knew him and those who followed his work.
Dr. Martin Seligman had this to say about his friend and colleague;
Although his scholarly contributions are significant, his lasting legacy will be what he shared with other people. So many of us are indebted to him for making us better researchers, better teachers, and better people.
On hearing of Peterson’s death, long-time collaborator and fellow psychologist, Nansook Park said,
He had a brilliance accompanied by love, generosity, a great sense of humor, humility, fairness, integrity, and genuineness. Simply put, he was a “Gentle Giant”. His premature death was not only a personal tragedy for those who loved him, but also a huge loss to the field of positive psychology.
Rather fittingly on October 5th, 2012 Peterson’s final “The Good Life” blog entry was called “Awesome: E Pluribus Unum” or “Awesome: Out of many, one” and he left us with this final message,
We are all the same, and each of us is unique, in death and in life.
Peterson’s Contribution to Positive Psychology
For Christopher Peterson, the value and purpose of positive psychology were to unite the disparate lines of theory and research about what makes life most worth living (Peterson & Park, 2003), and his contributions to the field did just that.
With research culminating in the creation of new methods and measures for assessing individual differences – including tests and content analyses for measuring explanatory style, character strengths, and well-being – Peterson’s contributions to positive psychology were both innovative and significant.
The Meaning and Measurement of Explanatory Style – (Peterson & Seligman, 1984)
The theory of explanatory style descended from the Reformulation of the Learned Helplessness Model (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978) – a model to account for the habitual positive (optimistic) or negative (pessimistic) explanations individuals impose on their world. This predisposing tendency to explain the cause of events was termed “explanatory style” by Peterson & Seligman (1984) and included three dimensions of internality, stability, and globality.
The explanatory style view of optimism taps into the immediate reactive optimistic or pessimistic tendencies which explain events and contribute to a person’s general optimistic or pessimistic coping response.
Since its conception, explanatory style across these dimensions has been examined in relation to optimism, well-being, pessimism, depression, self-blame, fatalism, and catastrophizing. For instance, individuals who attribute negative events to internal, stable, and global causes are likely to show emotional, motivational, and cognitive disturbances in their wake (Peterson, Seligman, Yurko, Martin, & Friedman, 1998).
Knowing an individual’s explanatory style can be used to predict depression, stress, achievement, and health, with a pessimistic style predicting poor outcomes (Zullow, Oettingen, Peterson, Seligman, 1988). Conversely, an optimistic explanatory style is associated with higher levels of motivation, productivity, achievement, and physical well-being and lower levels of depressive symptoms (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995).
The Attributional Style Questionnaire – (Peterson, Semmel, von Baeyer, Abramson, Metalsky and Seligman, 1982)
The Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) is the primary psychometric instrument for measuring individual differences in attributional style – that is how we arrive at causal explanations for events.
The ASQ is a self-report instrument comprised of 12 hypothetical events – half are positive events and half are negative events. The subject is asked to write down the one major cause of each hypothetical event and then to rate the cause along a 7-point continuum for each of the three causal dimensions:
- Personalization (Internal vs. External)
- Permanence (Stable vs. Unstable)
- Pervasiveness (Global vs. Specific)
The original ASQ was expanded in order to boost reliability (Peterson & Villanova, 1988), and then simplified to facilitate use with general population samples (Dykema, Bergbower, Doctora, & Peterson, 1996).
Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations – (Peterson, Schulman, Castellon, & Seligman, 1992)
The concept of explanatory style was developed to investigate how contemporary individuals differ in their ups and downs – their proclivity to helplessness (Zullow, Oettingen, Peterson, & Seligman, 1988). Considering the potential of explanatory style for diagnostic and predictive uses, Peterson et al. developed the Content Analysis Verbatim Explanations technique (CAVE) – a method by which explanatory style can be assessed.
CAVE allows for the extraction of causal attributions from any naturally occurring spoken or written materials from people who might otherwise be unavailable or unable to complete the ASQ. For example, in 1988 president Eisenhower’s optimistic explanatory style was measured from speeches made over 30 years prior in 1952 (Zullow, Oettingen, Peterson, & Seligman, 1988).
Although much more labor-intensive than the ASQ, CAVE is high in ecological validity and allows researchers to analyze verbatim materials in a non-intrusive way and predict various phenomena – including mental and physical health – that would take many years to complete through longitudinal research (Schulman, Castellon, & Seligman, 1989).
Orientations to Happiness and Life Satisfaction – (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005)
From Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia – living in accordance with reason and moderation, and aiming toward excellence and the realization of a complete human life – philosophers have long been concerned with ‘the good life’ and how it can be achieved. According to the eudaimonic view, true happiness entails identifying one’s virtues, cultivating them, and living in accordance with them.
Drawing on previous theory and research, Peterson, Park, & Seligman (2005) extended this approach by simultaneously examining three possible orientations to happiness: through pleasure, through engagement, and through meaning. Each of which individually predicted life satisfaction.
Orientations to happiness and their association with life satisfaction were investigated with 845 adults responding to an online survey. The results indicated that these orientations are individually associated with life satisfaction and distinguishable from the others and thus can be pursued simultaneously.
Furthermore, a distinction between the full life and the empty life was established and indicated that respondents with the fullest life were more likely to score highly on all three orientations. Conversely, those who were simultaneously low on all three orientations reported especially low life satisfaction.
5 Tests and Questionnaires Developed by Peterson
One of the major contributions Christopher Peterson made to positive psychology was his involvement in the study of character strengths and the development of the Values in Action (VIA) Survey of Signature Strengths.
On completion of the survey, your answers are sorted according to their scores; creating an ordered list from highest to lowest to indicate how these twenty-four character strengths appear within you currently. A higher score for particular statements indicates that you more strongly identify with a particular character strength.
You can access the Character Strength fact sheet which explains each unique character profile in detail. Character strengths are often shaped by the current situation you find yourself in. If these tests are taken regularly, you may discover that while many of your character strengths remain fairly consistent, others may change depending on the strengths you are drawing on in your current environment.
Developed by Peterson, the Approaches to Happiness test is comprised of 18 statements which measure your scores on:
- the Good Life (knowing what your signature strengths are, and then recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure, and parenting to use those strengths to have more flow in life);
- the Meaningful Life (using your signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are), and
- the Pleasant Life (having as many pleasures as possible and having the savoring and mindfulness skills to amplify the pleasures).
Higher scores on the Good Life and the Meaningful Life indicate greater overall life-satisfaction.
Peterson’s Authentic Happiness Inventory is a 24-statement test developed to measure overall happiness. While completing the test you are asked to pick a statement in each group that best describes the way you have been feeling for the past week. On completion, you will be given a score compared to others who have taken the test.
His Research on Character Strengths and Virtues
In 1998 Dr. Neal Mayerson, clinical psychologist and president of the Mayerson Foundation, connected with Dr. Martin Seligman to explore the newly forming field of positive psychology. As they examined what is ‘good’ about humans, they discovered that a key construct is character; specifically, those characteristics that define what is ‘best’ about people (VIA Institute on Character, 2019)
By 2000, Christopher Peterson became involved in groundbreaking research into the components of ‘good character’ and the creation of a coherent classification of character strengths and virtues along with reliable and valid strategies for assessing them.
Based on the premise that attention to good character can shed light on what makes life worth living, this research resulted in the formulation of methods by which these individual differences can be classified and assessed – providing a vocabulary for speaking about the good life and strategies for investigating it scientifically (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
With concerns that inadequate progress was being made from traditional problem-fixing approaches, it was recognized that an alternative empirical and scientific approach based on recognizing people’s strengths and aspirations might prove more effective. This large-scale study provided the framework for the VIA Classification of Character Strengths – designed to analyze and measure 24 ubiquitous strengths of individuals – and the publication of “Character Strengths and Virtues” (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
In this seminal book, Peterson & Seligman presented a theory of “what is good in a human being.” What is good were called “strengths,” and such a strength had to meet the following criteria (Seligman, 2013):
- A strength contributes to fulfillment and to the good life
- A strength is morally valued in its own right
- Displaying a strength does not diminish others
- Almost every parent wants their child to have strengths
- There are rituals and institutions within a society that support the strength
- Each of the strengths is universal, valued by almost every religion, politics, and culture – now and in the past.
The classification provides a framework and starting point for a comparative psychology of character. The ubiquitously-recognized character strengths are organized under six broader virtues of wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence (Peterson, Ruch, Beermann, Park, & Seligman, 2007).
Aristotle proposed that the purpose of life is happiness and that living in accordance with one’s virtues is how best to achieve happiness. So, are certain character strengths more associated with life satisfaction than others? Strengths of character are associated with living a satisfying life to the degree that they are linked to engagement, to pleasure, and to meaning, in other words, to a full life (Peterson et al., 2005).
Research suggests that individuals can increase their happiness by identifying and engaging in their signature strengths. The more we use these strengths, the more steadily we advance into the “Good Life” – a life of immersion, absorption, and flow (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). The first empirical study to use this strengths-based model was carried out by Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson (2005).
They discovered that the process of identifying and using one’s strengths resulted in increases in happiness and decreases in depressive symptoms; these gains remained evident after a six-month follow-up.
While the enactment of any and all character strengths can be regarded as fulfilling, it became clear that some positive traits more robustly predict happiness and life satisfaction than do others. Studies have shown that five positive traits (love, hope, gratitude, curiosity, and zest) correlate highly with well-being.
Furthermore, in longitudinal studies, these same strengths foreshadowed life satisfaction measured months later, even when their initial levels were controlled (Peterson, Ruch, Beermann, Park, & Seligman, 2007).
According to Peterson, Park, & Seligman (2005), understanding and using your strengths contributes to increased happiness and better relationships by providing the foundation for genuine self-confidence grounded in self-awareness.
The happiest people are those with the fullest lives, and the most satisfying character strengths seemed to be those that made possible a full life. Gratitude, for instance, was found to be the most robust predictor of life satisfaction in the United States while for the Swiss it was perseverance that predicted life satisfaction (Peterson, et al., 2005).
The character strengths consistently and robustly associated with life satisfaction were hope, zest, gratitude, love, and curiosity. In contrast, modesty, appreciation of beauty, creativity, judgment, and love of learning were only weakly associated with life satisfaction. However, the relationship between character strengths and life satisfaction indicated that excess on any one character strength does not diminish life satisfaction (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).
Peterson’s objective was to introduce “positive institutions” to the world, ones in which character strengths are recognized, developed and rewarded. Strength-based approaches are now common practice in many fields such as; education, offender rehabilitation, child and adult welfare, performance and organizational behavior, health and well-being, social research and policy development (Kewley, 2016).
Peterson (2006) argued that virtues should be present within individual members of an institution and at the collective level. More specifically, he identified ‘The Good School’ as one that fosters positive education and academic excellence whilst also contributing to moral fulfillment, arguing that schools should put in place practices that systematically build character and well-being at an early age.
Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman
Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman made an exceptional research partnership. Their first meeting at the University of Pennsylvania laid the foundations for decades of collaborations on a multitude of studies.
It would be a grand task to discuss all of their collaborative research over the years, thus we will look at just a few of the innovative studies involving the two stalwarts of positive psychology.
For Peterson, optimism was one of the important topics of interest in positive psychology. When the helplessness theory proved unable to account for the generality and chronic nature of depressive symptoms or for self-esteem loss in depression, it was revised along attributional lines. According to this reformulation, the boundary conditions of depression following bad events are determined by causal attributions about the events.
Peterson & Seligman (1984) examined causal explanations as a risk factor for depression using the Attributional Style Questionnaire. The six-part study found a clear relationship between a particular explanatory style and depression – the severity of depressive symptoms is often correlated with the habitual use of internal, stable, and global causes to explain bad events involving the self. Additionally, it was suggested that individuals at risk of depression could be identified by the way they explain negative events.
A later longitudinal study examined the pessimistic explanatory style as a risk factor for physical illness. More specifically, do our habits of explaining bad events when we are young predict our physical health in later life (Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillant, 1988)? Results from this thirty-five-year investigation indicated that pessimism in early adulthood appeared to be a risk factor for poor health in middle and late adulthood, with a pessimistic explanatory style predicting poor health and physical illness two and three decades later.
The Positive Health Initiative
The focus of healthcare systems around the world is on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease. However, health is more than the absence of disease. According to the World Health Organization (1946) “Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
While extensive research indicated that negative psychological factors such as stress, depression, and hostility increase the risk of various health problems, more recent evidence suggests that positive psychological characteristics and assets are significantly beneficial to health and longevity (Park, Peterson, Szvarca, Vander Molen, Kim, & Collon, 2014).
One such study that showed the possible link between positive psychological assets and health outcomes is known informally as The Nun Study (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001). Handwritten autobiographical essays were composed by 180 American nuns – with a mean age of 22 years – who had recently joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
Sixty years later, Danner et al. accessed the convent archives and scored the emotional content of the essays in terms of positivity, and investigated whether they were related to the mortality of nuns. Results suggested that positive emotional content was significantly related to longevity. In fact, the nuns who expressed more positive emotions in their essays lived on average 10 years longer than those expressing fewer positive emotions.
To put this into context, unhealthy behavior like smoking reduces life expectancy by around 3 years (Manuel et al., 2016).
It is clear from research that experiencing frequent positive emotions, having a sense of purpose, paying attention to what is positive in life, and living a more socially integrated life is associated with good health measured in a variety of ways.
A happy, engaged, and fulfilling life is not just a consequence of good health; it is what leads people to live a healthy and long life (Park, Peterson, Szvarca, Vander Molen, Kim, & Collon, 2014). Thus, helping people cultivate positive psychological and social assets in life has potential for leading to happier, more meaningful, and healthier lives.
With this in mind, the Positive Health Initiative focuses on the promotion of the strengths that contribute to a longer, healthy life. Co-led by Seligman and Peterson their mission was to identify assets that lead to better health by examining factors like life satisfaction, relationships, and low blood pressure.
Peterson, Seligman and a team of researchers worked to identify potential health assets and see if they may reveal a variety of potent, low-cost approaches to enhance well-being and help protect against physical and mental illness. The ultimate goal was to design interventions that can help build and sustain these assets to help people increase their chances of living a healthier, longer life.
Among the projects and research carried out by the Positive Health Initiative are:
- The Positive Cardiovascular Project – explores the epidemiology of cardiovascular health and its relation to psychological factors, looking at changes in tobacco smoke exposure, healthy diet score, physical activity, BMI, cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose from childhood into adolescence and throughout adulthood.
- Measurement of Flourishing – examines the association between well-being and physical health.
- Adolescent Positive Health Program – assesses the links between physical health and well-being during adolescence (Positive Health, 2013).
Positive Psychology Goes to College
According to Seligman (2003) positive psychology provides compelling evidence that happiness can be increased through the identification and engagement of signature strengths. The more we use these strengths, the more steadily we advance into the Good Life – a life of immersion, absorption, and flow.
Peterson, Seligman and fellow psychologist, Dr. John Dilulio developed a new course at the University of Pennsylvania which introduced students to the science behind positive psychology. The primary objective of the course went beyond imparting academic knowledge – they wanted to make students happier by learning how to identify their signature strengths and use these strengths to enhance their lives.
Through practical exercises, written observations and evaluations students were encouraged to give thoughtful, sustained attention to their positive experiences. The anecdotal evidence from students indicated the course had a positive impact on the lives of students. One attendee commented that they were not prepared for the emotional reaction they experienced;
At first I cried over the realization that for the past several years I have been utterly neglecting what used to be such an important part of my life. And then I cried out of relief because I know things will be different now.
Character Strengths and Virtues – The Unfinished Masterwork
As we have already discussed, Peterson and Seligman spent many years researching Character Strengths and Virtues, resulting in a ‘positive’ counterpart to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Used clinically, and to categorize patients using diagnostic criteria for research purposes, the DSM focuses on what can go wrong with mental health. Seligman and Peterson instead wished to investigate what can aid mental well-being in terms of character strengths and virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
Prior to his death, Peterson had suggested that the DSM’s categories consisted of mere congeries of symptoms and that it was missing an underlying theory of mental illnesses with a scientific framework (Seligman, 2013). While good psychological health is the presence of character strengths, some individuals are profoundly deficit in each strength.
Thus Peterson hypothesized that the real disorders are the absence, the excess, or the opposite of the strengths, and suggested that rather than just 24 strengths there were approximately 72 additional pathologies, dubbed ‘The Peterson Pathologies’ (Seligman, 2013). This theory suggested that while the twenty-four strengths are the “good” in a person, their absence, their opposite, and their excess are the “ill” in a person.
Peterson had tentatively labeled and categorized these additional pathologies but admitted that some needed further examination and refining in order to relate them to the DSM categories, a task he did not complete before his passing.
Seigman (2013) suggested Peterson’s categories were superior to the DSM categories in the following ways:
- They are theory based, systematically related to each other; they are not a laundry list of disorders.
- They are defined by universality and so lend themselves to cross-cultural psychopathology.
- They are purer, natural classes.
- They are not tied to a medical model, demanding symptoms, syndrome, and illness.
- They are not reductionistic and do not demand a biological basis as the ultimate criterion of completeness.
Other People Matter
Heartfelt appreciation, gratitude, and warm attachment to others were fundamental to Christopher Peterson’s reflections on positive psychology. Peterson believed in people. So much so that ‘other people matter’ was the way he chose to encapsulate positive psychology – it also epitomized his approach to living.
He put other people first. He made other people matter.
In his own self-deprecating way, Peterson admitted that the motto might sound like a bumper sticker slogan, but it is in fact the essence of what positive psychology research has shown about the good life.
Peterson asserted that it is in the company of others that we experience and savor pleasure. It is through the character strengths that connect us to others – like gratitude – that many of us find satisfaction and meaning in life. It is with other people that we work, love, and play.
One of Peterson’s greatest qualities was his ability to give so much time and attention to his students. When fellow researcher Nansook Park asked how he could give so much of himself to others, he replied, “Other people matter and we are all other people to everyone else.”
The concept of ‘mattering’ is by no means a new one, but one that was thrust into the spotlight by Peterson. Defined by sociologists Rosenberg & McCullough (1981) as the feeling that others depend on us, are interested in us, and are concerned with our fate, their research suggested that a sense of mattering is positively related to self-esteem and negatively correlated to depressive symptoms, anxiety, negative affect, and deviant behavior.
A multitude of studies has been undertaken in the wake of Peterson’s inspiring adage, each with an overarching emphasis on human relationships being imperative to well-being. Dixon (2007) examined the importance of mattering in later life and found that mattering to others is positively correlated to a sense of life purpose and overall well-being at a time in life when people can feel marginalized rather than included.
A recent study by Brutus & Vanhove (2017) found that making others feel like they matter is an important skill within effective leadership. A leader who can build and sustain relationships, where followers feel valued and supported by the organization, creates positive attitudes. This is mutually beneficial because when leaders meet the needs of others they grow by giving themselves to others; relationships improve when we serve human needs.
Additionally, educational institutions with a focus on mattering create an environment that encourages greater student involvement, increased motivation to learn, and higher retention (Schlossberg, Lynch, and Chickering, 1989)
Projects Inspired by Christopher Peterson
The Positivity Project
The Positivity Project was inspired by Peterson’s dedication to others. The ongoing project was designed to equip schools with the resources, training, and strategies to teach the 24 character strengths outlined by Peterson & Seligman (2004) with the objective of empowering students to build more positive relationships.
The program was developed to encourage positive relationships by creating citizens and leaders who will enhance our communities and country by internalizing the belief that “Other People Matter.”
Co-founder of the Positivity Project, Mike Erwin, was a student of Peterson’s at the University of Michigan and attributes the program’s development and success to his former mentor. Other People Matter is the essence of the movement and its’ adopted slogan.
Making children aware that every one of them has all 24 character strengths provides the foundation for genuine self-confidence grounded in self-awareness. At the same time, it helps children better understand that everyone is different and how to appreciate those differences. In 2017 – in the project’s second year – 188 schools in urban, suburban, and rural communities had joined the program.
Results from quantitative and qualitative research to measure The Positivity Project’s impact on students and educators indicated that:
- Students’ ability to recognize, articulate, appreciate others’ strengths increased by 24%
- Students’ ability to articulate their own strengths increased by 39%
- Students’ peer-relationships increased by 22%
- Students’ self-confidence increased by 20% (The Positivity Project, 2017).
The Christopher Peterson Gold Medal
Such was his influence on positive psychology that in 2013, the International Positive Psychology Association added the Christopher J. Peterson Gold Medal to their awards in honor of his contributions to positive psychology. In fact, this award represents the most important honor the IPPA bestows, granted only to members whose career exemplifies the very best of positive psychology at the personal, professional, and academic levels.
The 2015 Christopher J. Peterson Gold Medal was awarded to Nansook Park, for her contribution to the development of ways to assess character strengths among children and youth through cross-cultural investigations.
Inspired by the findings of Character Strengths and Virtues (2004), Character Day is a free annual global initiative that brings together millions of people of all ages to engage in conversation and action around character strengths.
School districts, organizations, families, and congregations of all sizes are encouraged to screen specially developed films on the science of character development based on the groundbreaking research of Peterson & Seligman. Participants are invited to join an online conversation around the importance of developing character strengths such as resilience, grit, empathy, courage, kindness.
Character Day started with the question: would groups around the world participate in watching a global premiere of a short film ‘The Science of Character’, all on the same day, and join a global conversation about the importance of developing character? The answer was a resounding ‘yes’, and since its tentative beginnings, the project has grown from 1,500 events to nearly 200,000 in 2018.
The main objectives of Character Day are to:
- Increase self-efficacy
- Increase value
- Enhance intent
The sixth annual Character Day will be on Sept 27-28th 2019 and will explore the relationship between character and technology, specifically how technology can both enhance our character and diminish it.
Co-written with psychologist and researcher, Lisa Bossio, ‘Health and Optimism’ is a comprehensive and critical account of the relationship between positive thinking, hope, and well-being.
By discussing the inadequacies of earlier reductionist formulations, Peterson & Bossio consider the role played by optimism in groups, individuals, and society as a whole, and they discuss the benefits that a shared sense of optimism may have for the group that parallels those for the individual.
Find it on Amazon.
Written by three widely recognized leaders in the field, this book summarizes and integrates the theory, research, and application of learned helplessness.
While learned helplessness is often recognized as an explanation of depression, Peterson, Seligman, & Maier discuss multiple aspects of the concept, including; attribution theory, biology, and how attributional reformation is correlated with negative emotional states and social problems.
Find it on Amazon.
The biopsychosocial approach systematically considers biological, psychological, and social factors and their complex interactions in understanding health, illness, and health care delivery.
With an emphasis on human diversity and applications of psychology, Peterson outlines the biopsychosocial approach to psychology, giving comprehensive coverage of evolutionary psychology.
Find it on Amazon.
Co-written by positive psychology pioneers, Peterson & Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues is a progress report of the effort by positive psychologists to develop a “classification of the sanities.”
Detailed reviews of 24 character strengths are provided in separate chapters along with psychometric evidence documenting its reliable measurement, showing that strengths and virtues can be measured in a scientific manner.
Find it on Amazon.
An excellent introduction to the area of positive psychology, A Primer in Positive Psychology examines the three interrelated dimensions that constitute the framework of positive psychology – positive subjective experiences, positive individual traits, and positive institutions – and how these can be aligned to facilitate development.
While providing insight into important themes such as pleasure and positive experience, happiness, and accomplishments, Peterson also recognizes that there is no easy route to optimizing insight, outsight, and virtuous action.
Find it on Amazon.
After Christopher Peterson’s untimely death in October 2012, Oxford University Press published a collection of posts from his blog The Good Life. ‘Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology’ is a witty and insightful assemblage of his own bite-sized contemplations on positive psychology.
His personal reflections cover every aspect of what it means to be human, to live a life worth living. Drawing upon decades of research, Peterson explores the meaning of the good life and how happiness is achieved in the workplace, academic institutions, athletics, and physical locations in a way that is both humorous and astute.
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Christopher Peterson and the US Army’s Global Assessment Tool
A pioneer in documenting empirical evidence of the link between optimism and physical health and longevity, Peterson was also the primary developer of the Global Assessment Tool, a method by which the psychological fitness of soldiers could be measured.
In the midst of prolonged military engagements around the globe, a major concern of the U.S. Army’s senior leadership has been the negative effects of trauma on the mental well-being of its’ soldiers.
Research has shown that deployment and exposure to combat result in an increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression, substance abuse, and functional impairment in social and employment settings. A recent study indicated that 17% of soldiers and Marines who returned from Iraq screened positive for PTSD, generalized anxiety, or depression, a prevalence nearly twice that observed among soldiers surveyed before deployment (Hoge, Castro, Messer, McGurk, Cotting, & Koffman, 2004).
In October 2009, the United States Army launched the Global Assessment Tool (GAT) – a self-report psychometric instrument taken by approximately one million soldiers annually. Led by Christopher Peterson, the tool was introduced to support a resilience development initiative known as the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program.
By measuring psychosocial fitness in emotional, social, family, and spiritual domains it was hoped that the importance of psychological fitness would be raised to that of physical fitness (Lestera, Harms, Herian & Sowden, 2014).
Now considered a front-line tool for comprehensive soldier fitness, the GAT is taken every two years or 120 days following contingency operation deployments. The 105-question online tool allows soldiers to assess their inner strengths and weaknesses, and how well equipped they are to deal with trauma and adversity.
Among the 13 attributes measured by the GAT are: problem-focused coping (planning or taking direct action, and positive reframing), emotion-focused coping (coping strategies that involve venting or displacement and disengagement), adaptability and flexibility (the ability to alter one’s course and perceived cognitive flexibility), and character strengths (uses single items to capture 24 character strengths that map onto the six character virtues).
Once completed soldiers are able to immediately begin comprehensive training that will help them enhance their performance and build resilience when coping with the psychological rigors of sustained operations (OCPA, 2009).
‘The Good Life’ Blog
In 2008 Christopher Peterson began writing his positive psychology column ‘The Good Life’ where he discussed recent research findings about the psychological good life and the most promising applications based on these findings.
From his candid reflections on the critics of positive psychology, “Positive psychology is fertile, but it is not fertilizer” to his light-hearted musings on what we think about in the shower, the ‘Good Life’ is both whimsical and informative.
The blog exquisitely conveys Peterson’s adept ability as an educator and his personality in ways that journals and books can’t – you can’t help but be inspired by his warmth and conviction that happiness and the Good Life can be found in the simplest of things.
The Future of Positive Interventions
Since the time of Aristotle, scholars, philosophers, and religious leaders have pondered the question, “How can we become enduringly happy?” Yet until recently, the primary question within clinical psychology and psychiatry has been, “How can we reduce suffering?”
Peterson suggested that the future mission of positive psychology should include not only reducing suffering but also increasing the total amount of happiness on the planet. After all, who would be wholly content just with being less depressed and less anxious and less angry?
Just as medical research shows that eating vegetables and exercising are ‘good’ for us, positive interventions assume that clients can adopt behaviors and mental habits that are ‘good’ for them (Gable & Haidt, 2005).
Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson (2005) compared five happiness interventions – the treatment methods or intentional activities aimed at cultivating positive feelings, positive behaviors, or positive cognitions – to a placebo control in a sizable random assignment experiment.
They discovered that three interventions – writing about three good things that happened each day and why they happened, using strengths of character, and the gratitude visit – increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for up to six months later.
Additionally, participants who continued to benefit from the exercises were those who continued to practice after the initial study had been completed. Conversely, participants in the placebo control group had returned to their baseline levels of happiness and depression symptoms within one week.
Since this exploration, a plethora of studies examining the clinical applications and potential benefits of positive interventions have been undertaken. Sin & Lyubomirsky (2009), for instance, conducted a meta‐analysis of 51 such interventions with 4,266 individuals and found that positive psychology interventions significantly enhance well‐being and decrease depressive symptoms.
An ever-increasing number of clinicians have incorporated positive psychology interventions into clinical practice, particularly for treating clients who are depressed, older, or highly motivated to improve (Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009).
9 Recommended Videos
Martin Seligman delivered this touching yet light-hearted memorial lecture dedicated to his close friend and colleague.
In this two-part interview with Peterson on what makes life worth living, he discusses the essential ingredients for a happy, satisfying life and how we can make choices to help build a life with meaning.
This video from Mike Erwin, co-founder of the Positivity Project, talks about carrying on Peterson’s legacy and how his motto ‘other people matter’ inspired and encapsulates the spirit of the program.
Researcher, keynote speaker, and positive leadership expert, Sue Langley talks to Martin Seligman about the work of Christopher Peterson and how he impacted his life throughout their years of friendship. – (View the video here)
The founders of Character Day explain the science of character based on Peterson & Seligman’s research and explore the science that shows we have the capacity to shape who we are, and who we want to be in the world.
This short film premiered on Character Day 2017 and explores the history of how humans have wrestled with the question of how to live life with meaning and purpose.
This video from the VIA Institute on Character looks at re-building a life by learning about and employing character strengths.
Discovering your strengths and applying them to your daily life can help bring out the best in us. The VIA Institute also produced this short video on how to use your strengths to be your best self.
21 Memorable Quotes
Other people matter. Period.
As a route to a satisfying life, eudaimonia trumps hedonism.
Days are long. Life is short. Live it well.
Other people matter mightily if we want to understand what makes life most worth living.
If positive psychology teaches us anything, it is that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. No one has it all, and no one lacks it all.
My work is not always or even frequently fun, but that’s okay. For fun, there’s always chocolate ice cream.
What matters is not “how old is old” but rather how one feels about being old.
Other people matter. But few of them are mind readers. Let them know that they matter. They might benefit. And you certainly will.
I spent my young adult years postponing many of the small things that I knew would make me happy. I would do all of these things when I had the time. I was fortunate enough to realize that I would never have the time unless I made the time. And then the rest of my life began.
Human goodness and excellence are as authentic as human flaws and inadequacies.
My persona is that of an extrovert, but that is just a way of behaving that I have adopted over the years in my roles as a teacher and a speaker. Deep down, at the level of my nervous system if not my overt actions, I am an introvert.
If you knew with certainty that you would die tomorrow, what would you do today?
Gratitude is what we call a strength of the heart because it forges an emotional bond between people. To be sure, not everyone expresses gratitude loudly and clearly, but we should listen hard for it, given how precious gratitude is.
What a wonderful world.
Other people matter and we can matter more to others if we matter less to ourselves.
The ‘heart’ matters more than the ‘head.’ Schools explicitly teach critical thinking; they should also teach unconditional caring.
Use the words carefully, and good answers to important questions will be possible.
Happiness is a cause of good things in life and not simply along for the happy ride.
Money makes an ever-diminishing contribution to well-being, but money can buy happiness if it is spent on other people.
It is in the company of others that we often experience pleasure and certainly how we best savor its aftermath. It is through character strengths that connect us to others – like gratitude – that many of us find satisfaction and meaning in life.
We are all the same, and each of us is unique, certainly in death but also in life. May we all stop and notice.
A Take Home Message
Christopher Peterson was more than a researcher, teacher, and psychologist. He was a man who inspired kindness in others.
While most of us didn’t have the opportunity to meet Peterson, perhaps the best way to honor his memory is to live as he lived – with magnanimity, optimism, and the understanding that other people truly matter. Rather than fixating on the negatives, we should instead strive to recognize our strengths and the strengths of others.
Peterson recognized the undeniable value of relationships with others above all else, for it is through these connections that we discover the greatest source of happiness.
Christopher Peterson said positive psychology could be summed up in three simple words “Other people matter”. Let other people know they have value. Let them know they matter.
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