Tao of Positive Psychology

            Positive psychology textbooks typically begin their discussion of human strengths and virtues with fairly recent efforts to categorize and measure such psychological phenomena.  There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but one unfortunate consequence is that it perpetuates the misconception that positive psychology is a fairly new field of study.  However, the foundations of positive psychology were laid quite early, in particular with Alfred Adler, the man whom both Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow credit with inspiring their pursuit of the field of humanistic psychology.  Indeed, Maslow studied with Adler personally, after Adler settled in New York City to escape Nazi Germany prior to World War II.

            The work of Adler, Rogers, and Maslow is particularly important because it suggests that fundamentally positive psychological phenomena are the basis for, and the driving force underlying, healthy personality development.  In other words, we have within us, from a very early age, both the drive and the ability to become a psychologically healthy individual.  Once we’ve taken a look at some key elements of the work of these pioneers, we’ll turn our attention to the more recent perspectives on this topic.

Adler's Individual Psychology

            Adler developed the concept of Individual Psychology following his observation that psychologists were beginning to ignore what he called the unity of the individual:


     A survey of the views and theories of most psychologists indicates a peculiar limitation both in the nature of their field of investigation and in their methods of inquiry.  They act as if experience and knowledge of mankind were, with conscious intent, to be excluded from our investigations and all value and importance denied to artistic and creative vision as well as to intuition itself. (pg. 1; Adler, 1914/1963)


            To summarize Individual Psychology briefly, children begin life with feelings of inferiority toward their parents, as well as toward the whole world.  The child’s life becomes an ongoing effort to overcome this inferiority, and the child is continuously restless.  As the child seeks superiority it creatively forms goals, even if the ultimate goal is a fictional representation of achieving superiority.  Indeed, Adler believed that it is impossible to think, feel, will, or act without the perception of some goal, and that every psychological phenomenon can only be understood if it is regarded as preparation for some goal.  Thus, the person’s entire life becomes centered on a given plan for attaining the final goal (whatever that may be).  Such a perspective must be uniquely individual, since each person’s particular childhood feelings of inferiority, creative style of life, and ultimate goals would be unique to their own experiences (Adler, 1914/1963).

Social Interest and Cooperation

            Adler believed that the right way to achieve superiority was through social interest and the cooperation that naturally follows.  This is not some high-minded philosophy, however, but simple reality.  According to Adler, “we are in the midst of the stream of evolution.”  As such, the human species as a whole has sought superiority, just as each individual seeks their own personal superiority (Adler, 1964).  The individual’s weakness causes them to seek support from others, by living within a society:


            All persons feel inadequate in certain situations.  They feel overwhelmed by the difficulties of life and are incapable of meeting them single-handed.  Hence one of the strongest tendencies in man has been to form groups in order that he may live as a member of a society and not as an isolated individual.  This social life has without doubt been a great help to him in overcoming his feeling of inadequacy and inferiority.  We know that this is the case with animals, where the weaker species always live in groups…On the other hand, gorillas, lions, and tigers can live isolated because nature has given them the means of self-protection.  A human being has not their great strength, their claws, nor their teeth, and so cannot live apart.  Thus we find that the beginning of social life lies in the weakness of the individual. (pp. 60-61; Adler, 1929)


            This evolutionary perspective provides an explanation for the paradox that Individual Psychology is focused largely on social relationships!  Once again, we know (though perhaps unconsciously) that alone we are weak and inferior, but together we can accomplish great things.  Adler’s hopeful vision for the future is that someday humanity’s social feeling will overcome everything that opposes it, and people will live in harmony.  In the meantime, however, he acknowledges that many things still oppose it, and work to destroy the social feelings and social interest of children:  sexism, racism, poverty, crime, the death penalty, suicide, greed, mistreatment of the poor, the handicapped, and the elderly, and all forms prejudice, discrimination, and intolerance (Adler, 1964).  It is not an easy challenge facing humanity, but Adler suggested that the path toward harmony lies, in part, in recognizing the three main ties that every person must take into account.  First, we are tied to this one world, the earth.  We must learn how to survive here, given whatever advantages and disadvantages that means.  Second, we are not the only member of the human race.  Through cooperation and association we can find strength for all, and we can ensure the future of humanity.  Finally, we must accept that there are two sexes.  For Adler, this last tie is resolved primarily through love and marriage.  While this may sound like a product of Adler’s cultural upbringing, it also implies caring for and respecting members of the other sex.  Otherwise, love is a word used without meaning.  Adler proposed that if we give meaning to life through the recognition of these three ties to our environment, then others can share in our meaning of life, and the benefit will then return to us (Adler, 1931).

            In more practical terms, social interest is evident in cooperation.  In order for an individual to overcome their own feelings of inferiority they must know that they are valuable, which comes only from contributing to the common welfare.  Adler felt that those who seek personal power are pursuing a false goal, and they will eventually disappear from life altogether.  However, by contributing to family and society, either through raising children or contributing to the success of one’s culture or society, one can claim a sense of immortality.  Individual psychology is based on the premise that when a person realizes that the common good is essential to the development of humanity, then they will pursue personal development that is in accord with the greater good.  They will recognize both the good and the challenges that come their way as belonging to all, and they will cooperate in seeking to solve the challenges.  They will not ask for anything in return, since they recognize that whatever they do to benefit others is ultimately to their own benefit as well (Adler, 1933/1964).  This perspective is surprisingly close to Eastern philosophies and the concepts of interbeing and karma, though Adler’s religious references are primarily Christian (though born Jewish, Adler later became a Christian).

The Creative Power of the Individual and Fictional Finalism

            The science of Individual Psychology developed out of the effort to understand that mysterious creative power of life - that power which expresses itself in the desire to develop, to strive and to achieve - and even to compensate for defeats in one direction by striving for success in another. (pg. 32; Adler, 1929)


            Adler believed that we are all born with a creative force:  the creative power of the individual.  He did not reject the concepts of heredity, temperament, or disposition, but he emphasized that it not so important what we are born with, but rather what we do with it (Adler, 1932a/1964).  As noted above, infants are inferior, so everyone begins life with feelings of inferiority.  This leads to the striving for superiority, and the development of a style of life, which is aimed toward some goal.  The nature of that style of life is unique because it is created by the child, and it is done very early in life.  This is not a deterministic perspective, this creation of the style of life is just that, creative, and therefore it must be unique (hence, Individual Psychology).  Since Adler believed that all thought and behavior was oriented toward some goal, there must be some goal that underlies the manner in which the style of life is created.  Since a child cannot see into the future and create a specific goal in life, Adler proposed that we are guided by a fictional goal, the so-called fictional finalism (Adler, 1914/1963, 1928, 1929, 1932a/1964; Lundin, 1989; Manaster & Corsini, 1982).

            The fictional final goal involves the sentiment of superiority, or at least the elevation of the personality to an extent that makes life seem worth living (Adler, 1928).  Thus, it does not need to be precisely defined, which is important for our consideration that it is created by a young child.  And yet it exists within the child’s mind, it provides the framework within which the style of life is creatively formed, and it serves as the child’s goal in life (though it remains primarily unconscious).  It is also important to recognize that although this goal is fictional, it is entirely positive, it is a healthy and natural motivational force (Lundin, 1989).

            The fictional finalism should definitely not be mistaken for fictive superiority.  Fictive superiority is the imagination, or false belief, that one is actually superior.  It is a typical neurotic symptom that stems, primarily, from having been pampered.  A pampered child is superior, at least in the sense that everything is done for them.  However, adult life no longer sustains that delusion, yet the child has never learned how to adapt to life’s challenges, their style of life is set in the expectation of challenges being solved for them.  A healthy child, on the other hand, has learned to face challenges, and to strive toward overcoming them.  Thus, the healthy child develops a style of life that incorporates the process of facing and overcoming life’s obstacles, and this carries over into a healthy adulthood (Adler, 1932b/1964).

Humanistic Psychology and Self-Actualization

            The humanistic psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, both of whom had very positive outlooks on people and the field of psychology, focused their careers on studying how people do just that:  fulfill their potential, i.e., self-actualize.  As noted above, they both credited Adler with laying the foundation for their positive outlook, and Maslow had joined a study group which Adler ran in his apartment in New York City in the mid-1930s (following the Nazi takeover of Austria).

            Although Rogers discussed self-actualization as the driving force underlying personality development, and he made it the desired outcome of client-centered therapy and person-centered personal growth programs, it was Maslow who studied self-actualization itself in great detail.

Carl Rogers and the Actualizing Tendency

            Carl Rogers grew up on a farm west of Chicago, IL, in a fundamentalist Christian family.  Their life was rather austere, and he was not the healthiest of children, so Rogers spent a lot of time studying.  He went to college to study scientific agriculture, but soon thereafter attended a World Student Christian Federation conference in Peking, China.  Consequently, he decided to devote his life to the church.  He did attend Union Theological Seminary for a time, and spent a summer as the pastor at a small church in Vermont.  However, two things had altered his perspective on religious dogma.

            First, the professor who inspired his renewed religious devotion, Prof. George Humphrey, was a facilitative leader who encourage students to make their own decisions.  Second, his travels throughout the Far East resulted more in a fascination with the indigenous culture than with any desire to compel them to become Christian.  Add to that the fact that Union Theological Seminary was quite liberal, and Rogers began to seek another path.  He transferred to Teachers’ College of Columbia University and began studying psychology.  The rest, as they say, is history.

            Rogers believed that each of us lives in a constantly changing private world, which he called the experiential field.  Everyone exists at the center of their own experiential field, and that field can only be fully understood from the perspective of the individual.  This concept has a number of important implications.  An individual’s behavior must be understood as a reaction to their experience and perception of the field.  They react to it as an organized whole, and it is their reality.  One’s perception of the experiential field is limited, however.  Rogers believed that certain impulses, or sensations, can only enter into the conscious field of experience under certain circumstances.  Thus, the experiential field is not a true reality, but rather an individual’s potential reality (Rogers, 1951).

            The one basic tendency and striving of the individual is to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing of the individual or, in other words, an actualizing tendency.  Rogers borrowed the term self-actualization, a term first used by Kurt Goldstein, to describe this basic striving.


     The tendency of normal life is toward activity and progress.  For the sick, the only form of self-actualization that remains is the maintenance of the existent state.  That, however, is not the tendency of the normal…Under adequate conditions the normal organism seeks further activity. (pp. 162-163; Goldstein, 1934/1995).


            For Rogers, self-actualization was a tendency to move forward, toward greater maturity and independence, or self-responsibility.  This development occurs throughout life, both biologically (the differentiation of a fertilized egg into the many organ systems of the body) and psychologically (self-government, self-regulation, socialization, even to the point of choosing life goals).  A key factor in understanding self-actualization is the experiential field.  A person’s needs are defined, as well as limited, by their own potential for experience.  Part of this experiential field is an individual’s emotions, feelings, and attitudes.  Therefore, who the individual is, their actual self, is critical in determining the nature and course of their self-actualization (Rogers, 1951).

            The details of Rogers’ perspective on personality development are better covered in a personality course, but simply put, if a person receives unconditional positive regard from their parents and other caregivers, facilitating the growth of their real self toward their ideal self, then the individual will experience what Rogers called congruence.

            Individuals who have experienced congruence become, according to Rogers (1961), a fully functioning person.  He also said they lead a good life.  The good life is a process, not a state of being, and a direction, not a destination.  It requires psychological freedom, and is the natural consequence of being psychologically free to begin with.  Whether or not it develops naturally, thanks to a healthy and supportive environment in the home, or comes about as a result of successful therapy, there are certain characteristics of this process.  The fully functioning person is increasingly open to new experiences, they live fully in each moment, and they trust themselves more and more.  They become more able and more willing to experience all of their feelings, they are creative, they trust human nature, and they experience the richness of life.  The fully functioning person is not simply content, or happy, they are alive:


     I believe it will become evident why, for me, adjectives such as happy, contented, blissful, enjoyable, do not seem quite appropriate to any general description of this process I have called the good life, even though the person in this process would experience each one of these feelings at appropriate times.  But the adjectives which seem more generally fitting are adjectives such as enriching, exciting, rewarding, challenging, meaningful.  This process…involves the courage to be…the deeply exciting thing about human beings is that when the individual is inwardly free, he chooses as the good life this process of becoming. (pp. 195-196; Rogers, 1961)

Abraham Maslow and Self-Actualization

            Abraham Maslow grew up in difficult circumstances.  They moved often, his father’s business struggled and then went bankrupt, his parent’s marriage was not happy, and his mother was mentally disturbed and extremely cruel.  Indeed, his mother once killed two kittens that Maslow had found by crushing their heads against a wall right in front of him!  He grew to hate his mother, and everything she stood for (including religion – he became a proud atheist), and even refused to attend her funeral.  In addition, there were many anti-Jewish gangs, making the area where they lived dangerous.  Nonetheless, Maslow did well in school and in college, and he worked with some renowned scientists, including Harry Harlow and Edward Thorndike, and developed a relationship with Max Wertheimer (Gabor, 2000; Hoffman, 1988; Maddi & Costa, 1972).  He was particularly impressed with Wertheimer, one of the founders of Gestalt psychology, and who helped to lay the foundation for positive psychology:


     “Are there not tendencies in men and in children to be kind, to deal sincerely [and] justly with the other fellow?  Are these nothing but internalized rules on the basis of compulsion and fear?” he asked rhetorically.  (pg. 159; Wertheimer, cited in Gabor, 2000)


            After Adler had settled in America, Maslow was one of the first to study with him.  He was quite impressed with Adler’s work helping academically-challenged children to succeed despite their low IQ scores.  He also studied with Ruth Benedict, an anthropologist who encouraged Maslow to gain some field experience.  She sponsored a grant application that Maslow received to study the Blackfoot Indians.  During the summer of 1938, Maslow examined the dominance and emotional security of the Blackfoot Indians.  He was impressed by their culture, and recognized what he believed was an innate need to experience a sense of purpose in life, a sense of meaning.  A few years later, shortly after the beginning of World War II, Maslow had an epiphany regarding psychology’s failure to understand the true nature of people.  He devoted the rest of his life to the study of a hopeful psychology (Gabor, 2000; Hoffman, 1988; Maddi & Costa, 1972).

            Maslow began his studies on self-actualization in order to satisfy his own curiosity about people who seemed to be fulfilling their unique potential as individuals.  He did not intend to undertake a formal research project, but he was so impressed by his results that he felt compelled to report his findings.  Amongst people he knew personally and public and historical figures, he looked for individuals who appeared to have made full use of their talents, capacities, and potentialities.  In other words, “people who have developed or are developing to the full stature of which they are capable” (Maslow, 1970).  His list of those who clearly seemed self-actualized included Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Addams, William James, Albert Schweitzer, Aldous Huxley, and Baruch Spinoza.  His list of individuals who were most-likely self-actualized included Goethe (possibly the great-grandfather of Carl Jung), George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Harriet Tubman (born into slavery, she became a conductor on the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War), and George Washington Carver (born into slavery at the end of the Civil War, he became an agricultural chemist and prolific inventor).  In addition to the positive attributes listed above, Maslow also considered it very important that there be no evidence of psychopathology in those he chose to study.  After comparing the seemingly self-actualized individuals to people who did not seem to have fulfilled their lives, Maslow identified fourteen characteristics of self-actualizing people (Maslow, 1950/1973, 1970), as follows:

            More Efficient Perception of Reality and More Comfortable Relations with It:  Self-actualizing people have an ability to recognize fakers, those who present a false persona.  More than that, however, Maslow believed they could recognize hidden or confused realities in all aspects of life:  science, politics, values and ethics, etc.  They are not afraid of the unknown or people who are different, they find such differences to be a pleasant challenge.  Although a high IQ may be associated with this characteristic, it is not uncommon to find those who are seemingly intelligent yet unable to be creative in their efforts to discover new phenomena.  Thus, the perception of reality is not simply the same as being smart.

            Acceptance (Self, Others, Nature):  Maslow believed that self-actualizing people accept themselves as they are, including their faults and the differences between their personal reality and their ideal image of themselves.  This is not to say that they are without guilt.  They are concerned about personal faults that can be improved, any remaining habits or psychological issues that are unhealthy (e.g., prejudice, jealousy, etc.), and the shortcomings of their community and/or culture.

            Spontaneity:  The lives of self-actualizing people are marked by simplicity and a natural ease as they pursue their goals.  Their outward behavior is relatively spontaneous, and their inner life (thoughts, drives, etc.) is particularly so.  In spite of this spontaneity, they are not always unconventional, because they can easily accept the constraints of society and find their own way to fit in without being untrue to their own sense of self.

            Problem-Centering:  Self-actualizing individuals are highly problem-centered, not ego-centered.  The problems they focus on are typically not their own, however.  They focus on problems outside themselves, on important causes they would describe as necessary.  Solving such problems is taken as their duty or responsibility, rather than as something they want to do for themselves.

            The Quality of Detachment; the Need for Privacy:  Whereas social withdrawal is often seen as psychologically unhealthy, self-actualizing people enjoy their privacy.  They can remain calm as they separate themselves from problematic situations, remaining above the fray.  In accordance with this healthy form of detachment, they are active, responsible, self-disciplined individuals in charge of their own lives.  Maslow believed that they have more free will than the average person.

            Autonomy, Independence of Culture and Environment:  As an extension of the preceding characteristics, self-actualizing individuals are growth-motivated as opposed to being deficiency-motivated.  They do not need the presence, companionship, or approval of others.  Indeed, they may be hampered by others.  The love, honor, esteem, etc., that can be bestowed by others has become less important to someone who is self-actualizing than self-development and inner growth.

            Continued Freshness of Appreciation:  Self-actualizing people are able to appreciate the wonders, as well as the common aspects, of life again and again.  Such feelings may not occur all the time, but they can occur in the most unexpected ways and at unexpected times.  Maslow offered a surprising evaluation of the importance of this characteristic of self-actualization:


            I have also become convinced that getting used to our blessings is one of the most important nonevil generators of human evil, tragedy, and suffering.  What we take for granted we undervalue, and we are therefore too apt to sell a valuable birthright for a mess of pottage, leaving behind regret, remorse, and a lowering of self-esteem.  Wives, husbands, children, friends are unfortunately more apt to be loved and appreciated after they have died than while they are still available.  Something similar is true for physical health, for political freedoms, for economic well-being; we learn their true value after we have lost them. (pp. 163-164; Maslow, 1970)


            The “Mystic Experience” or “Oceanic Feeling;” Peak Experiences:  The difference between a mystic experience (also known as an oceanic feeling) and a peak experience is a matter of definition.  Mystic experiences are viewed as gifts from God, something reserved for special or deserving (i.e., faithful) servants.  Maslow, however, believed that this was a natural occurrence that could happen for anyone, and to some extent probably did.  He assigned the psychological term of peak experiences.  Such experiences tend to be sudden feelings of limitless horizons opening up to one’s vision, simultaneous feelings of great power and great vulnerability, feelings of ecstasy, wonder and awe, a loss of the sense of time and place, and the feeling that something extraordinary and transformative has happened.  Self-actualizers who do not typically experience these peaks, the so-called “non-peakers,” are more likely to become direct agents of social change, the reformers, politicians, crusaders, and so on.  The more transcendent “peakers,” in contrast, become the poets, musicians, philosophers, and theologians.

            Maslow devoted a great deal of attention to peak experiences, including their relationship to religion.  At the core of religion, according to Maslow, is the private illumination or revelation of spiritual leaders.  Such experiences seem to be very similar to peak experiences, and Maslow suggests that throughout history these peak experiences may have been mistaken for revelations from God.  In his own studies, Maslow found that people who were spiritual, but not religious (i.e., not hindered by the doctrine of a specific faith or church), actually had more peak experiences than other people.  Part of the explanation for this, according to Maslow, is that such people need to be more serious about their ethics, values, and philosophy of life, since their guidance and motivation must come from within.  Individuals who seek such an appreciation of life may help themselves to experience an extended form of peak experience that Maslow called the plateau experience.  Plateau experiences always have both noetic and cognitive elements, whereas peak experiences can be entirely emotional (Maslow, 1964).  Put another way, plateau experiences involve serene and contemplative Being-cognition, as opposed to the more climactic peak experiences (Maslow, 1971).

            Gemeinschaftsgefuhl:  A word invented by Alfred Adler, gemeinschatfsgefuhl refers to the profound feelings of identification, sympathy, and affection for other people that are common in self-actualizing individuals.  Although self-actualizers may often feel apart from others, like a stranger in a strange land, becoming upset by the shortcomings of the average person, they nonetheless feel a sense of kinship with others.  These feelings lead to a sincere desire to help the human race.

            Interpersonal Relations:  Maslow believed that self-actualizers have deeper and more profound personal relationships than other people.  They tend to be kind to everyone, and are especially fond of children.  Maslow described this characteristic as “compassion for all mankind,” a perspective that would fit well with Buddhist and Christian philosophies.

            The Democratic Character Structure:  Self-actualizing people are typically friendly with anyone, regardless of class, race, political beliefs, or education.  They can learn from anyone who has something to teach them.  They respect all people, simply because they are people.  They are not, however, undiscriminating:


            The careful distinction must be made between this democratic feeling and a lack of discrimination in taste, of an undiscriminating equalizing of any one human being with any other.  These individuals, themselves elite, select for their friends elite, but this is an elite of character, capacity, and talent, rather than of birth, race, blood, name, family, age, youth, fame, or power. (pg. 168; Maslow, 1970)


            Discrimination Between Means and Ends, Between Good and Evil:  Self-actualizers know the difference between right and wrong.  They are ethical, have high moral standards, and they do good things while avoiding doing bad things.  They do not experience the average person’s confusion or inconsistency in making ethical choices.  They tend to focus on ends, rather than means, although they sometimes become absorbed in the means themselves, viewing the process itself as a series of ends.

            Philosophical, Unhostile Sense of Humor:  The sense of humor shared by self-actualizers is not typical.  They do not laugh at hostile, superior, or rebellious humor.  They do not tell jokes that make fun of other people.  Instead, they poke fun at people in general for being foolish, or trying to claim a place in the universe that is beyond us.  Such humor often takes the form of poking fun at oneself, but not in a clown-like way.  Although such humor can be found in nearly every aspect of life, to non-self-actualizing people the self-actualizers seem to be somewhat sober and serious.

            Creativeness:  According to Maslow, self-actualizing people are universally creative.  This is not the creativity associated with genius, such as that of Mozart or Thomas Edison, but rather the fresh and naive creativity of an unspoiled child.  Maslow believed that this creativity was a natural potential given to all humans at their birth, but that the constraints on behavior inherent in most cultures lead to its suppression.


            As desirable as self-actualization may seem, self-actualizing individuals still face problems in their lives.  According to Maslow, they are typically not well adjusted.  This is because they resist being enculturated.  They do not stand out in grossly abnormal ways, but there is a certain inner detachment from the culture in which they live.  They are not viewed as rebels in the adolescent sense, though they may be rebels while growing up, but rather they work steadily toward social change and/or the accomplishment of their goals.  As a result of their immersion in some personal goal, they may lose interest in or patience with common people and common social practices.  Thus, they may seem detached, insulting, absent-minded, or humorless.  They can seem boring, stubborn, or irritating, particularly because they are often superficially vain and proud only of their own accomplishments and their own family, friends, and work.  According to Maslow, outbursts of temper are not rare.  Maslow argued that there are, in fact, people who become saints, movers and shakers, creators, and sages.  However, these same people can be irritating, selfish, angry, or depressed.  No one is perfect, not even those who are self-actualizing (Maslow, 1950/1973, 1970).

            Maslow had something else interesting to say about self-actualization in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature:  "What does self-actualization mean in moment-to-moment terms?  What does it mean on Tuesday at four o'clock?" (pg. 41).  Consequently, he offered a preliminary suggestion for an operational definition of the process by which self-actualization occurs.  In other words, what are the behaviors exhibited by people on the path toward fulfilling or achieving the fourteen characteristics of self-actualized people described above?  Sadly, this could only remain a preliminary description, i.e., they are "ideas that are in midstream rather than ready for formulation into a final version," because this book was published after Maslow's death (having been put together before his sudden and unexpected heart attack).


            What does one do when he self-actualizes? Does he grit his teeth and squeeze?  What does self-actualization mean in terms of actual behavior, actual procedure?  I shall describe eight ways in which one self-actualizes. (pg. 45; Maslow, 1971)

  •  They experience full, vivid, and selfless concentration and total absorption.
  • Within the ongoing process of self-actualization, they make growth choices (rather than fear choices; progressive choices rather than regressive choices).
  • They are aware that there is a self to be actualized.
  • When in doubt, they choose to be honest rather than dishonest.
  • They trust their own judgment, even if it means being different or unpopular (being courageous is another version of this behavior).
  • They put in the effort necessary to improve themselves, working regularly toward self-development no matter how arduous or demanding.
  • They embrace the occurrence of peak experiences, doing what they can to facilitate and enjoy more of them (as opposed to denying these experiences as many people do).
  • They identify and set aside their ego defenses (they have "the courage to give them up").  Although this requires that they face up to painful experiences, it is more beneficial than the consequences of defenses such as repression.

Being and Transcendence

            Maslow had great hope and optimism for the human race.  Although self-actualization might seem to be the pinnacle of personal human achievement, he viewed Humanistic Psychology, or Third Force Psychology, as just another step in our progression:


            I should say also that I consider Humanistic, Third Force Psychology to be transitional, a preparation for a still “higher” Fourth Psychology, transpersonal, transhuman, centered in the cosmos rather than in human needs and interest, going beyond humanness, identity, self-actualization, and the like…These new developments may very well offer a tangible, usable, effective satisfaction of the “frustrated idealism” of many quietly desperate people, especially young people.  These psychologies give promise of developing into the life-philosophy, the religion-surrogate, the value-system, the life-program that these people have been missing.  Without the transcendent and the transpersonal, we get sick, violent, and nihilistic, or else hopeless and apathetic.  We need something “bigger than we are” to be awed by and to commit ourselves to in a new, naturalistic, empirical, non-churchly sense, perhaps as Thoreau and Whitman, William James and John Dewey did. (pp. xl; Maslow, 1964/1999)


            Although Maslow wrote about this need for a Fourth Force Psychology in 1964/1999, it was not until the year 1998 that APA President Martin Seligman issued his call for the pursuit of positive psychology as an active force in the field of psychology.  Maslow believed that all self-actualizing people were involved in some calling or vocation, a cause outside of themselves, something that fate has called them to and that they love doing.  In so doing, they devote themselves to the search for Being-values (or B-values; Maslow, 1964, 1967/2008, 1964/1999).  The desire to attain self-actualization results in the B-values acting like needs.  Since they are higher than the basic needs, Maslow called them metaneeds.  When individuals are unable to attain these goals, the result can be metapathology, a sickness of the soul.  Whereas counselors may be able to help the average person with their average problems, metapathologies may require the help of a metacounselor, a counselor trained in philosophical and spiritual matters that go far beyond the more instinctoid training of the traditional psychoanalyst (Maslow, 1967/2008).  The B-values identified by Maslow (1964) are an interesting blend of the characteristics of self-actualizing individuals and the human needs described by Henry Murray:  truth, goodness, beauty, wholeness, dichotomu-transcendence, aliveness, uniqueness, perfection, necessity, completion, justice, order, simplicity, richness, effortlessness, playfulness, self-sufficiency (Murray, 1938).

            Transcendence is typically associated with people who are religious, spiritual, or artistic, but Maslow said that he found transcendent individuals amongst creative people in a wide variety of vocations (including business, managers, educators, and politicians), though there are not many of them in any field.  Transcendence, according to Maslow, is the very highest and most holistic level of human consciousness, which involves relating to oneself, to all others, to all species, to nature, and to the cosmos as an end rather than as a means (Maslow, 1971).  It is essential that individuals not be reduced to the role they play in relation to others, transcendence can only be found within oneself (Maslow, 1964, 1964/1999).  Maslow’s idea is certainly not new.  Ancient teachings in Yoga tell us that there is a single universal spirit that connects us all, and Buddhists describe this connection as interbeing.  The Abrahamic religions teach us that the entire universe was created by, and therefore is connected through, one god.  It was Maslow’s hope that a transcendent Fourth Force in psychology would help all people to become self-actualizing.  In Buddhist terms, Maslow was advocating the intentional creation of psychological Bodhisattvas.  Perhaps this is what Maslow meant by the term metacounselor.

Recent Efforts to Categorize and Measure Strengths and Virtues

            One of the principles that sets the field of positive psychology apart from the humanistic approaches with which I began this section (e.g., self-actualization) is that positive psychologists are committed to empirical research (see Peterson & Seligman, 2004).  We will now look at two approaches in which psychologists have attempted to categorize human strengths.

            These two approaches differ in their emphasis, but share the same goal.  Indeed, the individual behind the first approach, Donald Clifton, was on the board of advisers for the program that resulted in the second approach.  Clifton is known as the father of strengths-based psychology (Rath, 2007), the forerunner of modern, empirically-based positive psychology.


            The StrengthsFinder program was developed from the work of Donald O. Clifton, a Gallup researcher who realized that we had plenty of ways to describe what was wrong with people but insufficient ways to describe what was right with people (Rath, 2007).  The original Clifton StrengthsFinder identified 34 themes that were described as distinct talents.  It must have been quite an undertaking, since the data included over 100,000 talent-based interviews with a wide range of successful professionals.

            The idea, however, was relatively simple.  Working with a simple formula, Talent x Investment = Strength, we easily see that you can maximize your strengths by focusing your investment (time and energy) in those areas where you have more natural talent.  In other words, if you invest a lot of time and energy in something you either aren’t good at or just don’t like, your strength in that area will be limited.  Conversely, if you invest little time and energy in something you are good at, you will waste your talent.  But if you invest your time and energy in areas where you are already talented, then you have the potential to excel (Rath, 2007).

            Some years ago, our department coordinator here at Lansing Community College received a small grant for those of us in leadership positions (or wanting to be in leadership positions) in our department to take the StrengthsFinder 2.0 test.  Her proposal included the suggestion that if we discovered the different strengths of the people in the department we could maximize performance by assigning people to the tasks they were best suited for.  It was a wonderful idea, but it didn’t quite work out.  The problem, however, was not the StrengthsFinder 2.0.  My results fit me very accurately.

            My top five strengths according to StrengthsFinder 2.0 were, in order:  Learner, Input, Activator, Command, and Intellection.  Numbers 1, 3, and 5 should not be at all surprising for a college professor who used to conduct biomedical research and now spends a lot of time writing – I love to learn, to collect new information and interesting objects (including old books), and I like to think (and debate).  However, I was astonished to find out that few of my colleagues shared those traits!

            Strengths 4 and 5 really emphasized the conflict I often find myself in when trying to work with many of my colleagues.  I like to take charge (command) and get things done (activator).  These strengths served me well when I served in the U.S. Marine Corps.  Colleges, however, like committees and meetings and consensus and blah, blah, blah… (LOL!  I never expected to get sarcastic in an academic text, but there you have it).  Even when I’m interested in gathering data and thinking about innovative ways to implement a new plan (which fits with my other strengths), I’m only willing to do so when there is a clear expectation of moving forward, and doing so soon.

            The Clifton StrengthsFinder was developed with an eye toward the business environment, which is more like the military in many ways (often a clear command structure, with the “boss” in charge).  So although the department coordinator and I agreed that my profound differences in strength-based traits was a problem for working with my colleagues, she and I were good friends.  And she, along with the department chair at the time, knew that when something needed to get done in a hurry, I was the one they could turn to.

            It also worked out with my colleagues in certain ways.  Whenever program review rolled around, and a lot of data needed to be crunched, they basically turned it over to me.  They don’t like that kind of work anyway, and they were more than happy to let me do my thing, and then turn over my recommendations to them.  And I began practicing mindfulness.  So I would turn over my recommendations, and then let go of any expectations that what I wanted done would ever get done.

            Over time, curiously enough, some of my colleagues began to see things my way.  So, in a sense, taking the StrengthsFinder 2.0 did appear to help our program (the psychology program) to work together toward our common goals:  of providing a quality education for the students majoring in psychology, and providing interesting psychology classes for those taking them as electives.

            For anyone interested in reading the list of the 34 themes identified by the StrengthsFinder Program, here it is:


     achiever, activator, adaptability, analytical, arranger, belief, command, communication, competition, connectedness, consistency, context, deliberative, developer, discipline, empathy, focus, futuristic, harmony, ideation, include, individualization, input, intellection, learner, maximizer, positivity, relator, responsibility, restorative, self-assurance, significance, strategic, and woo (pg. 35; Rath, 2007)

Values in Action

            The Values in Action Institute (VIA) was founded by the Mayerson Foundation in order to facilitate an understanding of the good side of human behavior and character.  Martin Seligman was appointed as the scientific director, and he asked Christopher Peterson to be its project director.  The primary result of their initial work was the extraordinary book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

            Whereas the Clifton StrengthsFinder was based on interviews with professionals, thus making its applicability more appropriate for business and other professional settings, the VIA classification system was more akin to an academic version of a thought experiment.  Initially a core group of scholars (Donald Clifton, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Ed Diener, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Robert Nozick, Daniel Robinson, Martin Seligman, and George Vaillant) created a tentative list.  That list was elaborated by Christopher Peterson, presented at numerous conferences for discussion and refinement, and then compared to the results of work by the Gallup organization (the source of the Clifton StrengthsFinder) as well as by other sources addressing good character (i.e., youth development, philosophy, psychology, and psychiatry).

            Another method used to validate the list was to compare it to historical inventories of strengths and virtues, including such wide ranging sources as Charlemagne (who happens to be my great38-grandfather), Benjamin Franklin, the Boy Scouts of America, Hallmark greeting cards, the Klingon Empire, and the school for wizards known as Hogwarts (seriously; see Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

            It was determined that a virtue was a core characteristic valued by moral philosophers and religious thinkers, and that they were universal, likely grounded in biology as the result of evolutionary processes.  Character strengths are the psychological aspects of the virtues.  Although each strength is unique, several different strengths represent varying aspects of each of the core virtues.

            When it came to defining the strengths themselves, the initial determination consisted of 10 criteria, which was later reduced to just seven (Peterson, 2006b).  A strength needs to be manifest in the range of an individual’s behavior, it contributes to the fulfillments that comprise a good life, it is morally valued in its own right, its display does not diminish other people, its cultivation will be supported by institutions and rituals in the greater society, its existence is consensually recognized by paragons of virtue, and it is arguably unidimensional (i.e., it cannot be broken down into other strengths).

            The six core virtues, and their corresponding strengths are as follows (Peterson & Seligman, 2004):

            Wisdom and Knowledge

                        Creativity (Originality, Ingenuity)
                        Curiosity (Interest, Novelty-Seeking, Openness to Experience)
                        Open-Mindedness (Judgment, Critical Thinking)
                        Love of Learning
                        Perspective (Wisdom)


                        Bravery (Valor)
                        Persistence (Perseverance, Industriousness)
                        Integrity (Authenticity, Honesty)
                        Vitality (Zest, Enthusiasm, Vigor, Energy)


                        Kindness (Generosity, Nurturance, Care, Compassion, Altruistic Love, “Niceness”)
                        Social Intelligence (Emotional Intelligence, Personal Intelligence)


                        Citizenship (Social Responsibility, Loyalty, Teamwork)


                        Forgiveness and Mercy
                        Humility and Modesty
                        Self-Regulation (Self-Control)


                        Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence (Awe, Wonder, Elevation)
                        Hope (Optimism, Future-Mindedness, Future Orientations)
                        Humor (Playfulness)
                        Spirituality (Religiousness, Faith, Purpose)

            When looking at my own results from the VIA Survey of Character Strengths (which can be taken online by going to www.positivepsychology.org and then going to the Authentic Happiness website), there are some clear similarities to my results on the StrengthsFinder 2.0, as well as some differences.  My top five VIA strengths are:  wisdom, spirituality (sense of purpose and faith), love of learning, open-mindedness (judgment and critical thinking), and curiosity (interest in the world).  Just like my results on the StrengthsFinder 2.0 the majority of my top five strengths are related to the acquisition and contemplation of knowledge.  No surprise there.

            However, whereas my other two top strengths on the StrengthsFinder 2.0 were related to taking charge and getting things done, my other top five strength according to the VIA Survey was spirituality.  The StrengthsFinder test does not include anything like spirituality, so I can’t say where I might have scored on that dimension on that test.

            On the VIA Survey there are items somewhat related to command and activator.  The closest is probably persistence (including perseverance and industriousness).  That comes in as my 11th ranked strength.  It is interesting to note that persistence is a strength under the virtue of courage.  Two other strengths under the virtue of courage are integrity and bravery, which happen to be my 5th and 6th strengths, respectively.  So the evaluations of my personal strengths are clearly compatible, confirming for me the validity of these two different approaches to measuring strengths (i.e., convergent validity).

            Since an important goal of the development of this list was to identify universal virtues, their cross-cultural validation was critical.  As expected, Peterson & Seligman (2004) present evidence confirming the validity of these virtues in such disparate cultural traditions as Confucianism and Taoism (China), Hinduism and Buddhism (India, China, Japan, Korea, southeast Asia, Indonesia, and others), Athenian virtues (ancient Greece; e.g., Aristotle and Plato), Judeo-Christian virtues, and Islamic virtues.

            Peterson (2006b) has gone on to propose that these virtues and strengths could form the basis for a new categorization of human behavior that might replace the DSM system and its emphasis on psychological abnormality (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).  He suggests that since all psychological traits exists on a continuum from its opposite to its exaggeration, the same can be said for each human strength.  To wit:

            opposite → absence → strength → exaggeration

            If we then consider each virtue as a category of human behavior, we can consider disorders of behavior accordingly.  For example, a disorder of humanity might be represented as this continuum:

            cruelty → indifference → kindness → intrusiveness

Similarly, a disorder of wisdom and knowledge might be:

            triteness → conformity → creativity → eccentricity

            This fascinating new way of looking at human behavior provides us with the potential for a whole new approach to evaluating psychological adjustment and, therefore, adjustment disorders.  What is most significant is that it views each person’s psychological makeup, their personality to a large extent, within a context that includes the positive perspectives.

            Such an approach is very different than the traditional evaluation as to whether you are mentally ill or not.  Including on the continuum a description of those areas in which you are psychologically healthy, or what might be the best path to get there, is the beginning of fulfilling the goals of positive psychology.

Measuring Strengths and Virtues in Children

            Before the VIA categorization of strengths was available, there were robust programs studying positive youth development.  In particular, Peter Benson at the Search Institute and his colleagues have identified 40 development assets that are related to the psychological health and well-being of children (Benson, 2007; Benson et al., 1998; Leffert et al., 1998).  These assets are broken down first into external vs. internal assets, and then grouped into similar categories.  The list is as follows (Benson, 2007; Benson et al., 1998; Leffert et al., 1998):

            External Assets
                                    1. Family support
                                    2. Positive family communication
                                    3. Other adult relationships
                                    4. Caring neighborhood
                                    5. Caring school climate
                                    6. Parent involvement in schooling
                                    7. Community values youth
                                    8. Youth as resources
                                    9. Service to others
                                    10. Safety
                        Boundaries and expectations
                                    11. Family boundaries
                                    12. School boundaries
                                    13. Neighborhood boundaries
                                    14. Adult role models
                                    15. Positive peer influence
                                    16. High expectations
                        Constructive use of time
                                    17. Creative activities
                                    18. Youth programs
                                    19. Religious community
                                    20. Time at home
            Internal Assets
                        Commitment to learning
                                    21. Achievement motivation
                                    22. School engagement
                                    23. Homework
                                    24. Bonding to school
                                    25. Reading for pleasure
                        Positive values
                                    26. Caring
                                    27. Equality and social justice
                                    28. Integrity
                                    29. Honesty
                                    30. Responsibility
                                    31. Restraint
                        Social competencies
                                    32. Planning and decision making
                                    33. Interpersonal competence
                                    34. Cultural competence
                                    35. Resistance skills
                                    36. Peaceful conflict resolution
                        Positive identity
                                    37. Personal power
                                    38. Self-esteem
                                    39. Sense of purpose
                                    40. Positive view of personal future

            When children have an abundance of these assets, they are significantly more likely to thrive.  In other words, they will:  be successful in school, help others, be generally healthy and avoid danger, value diversity, be able to delay gratification, and overcome adversity.  Children who lack these positive developmental assets are more likely to be involved with drugs and violence, and they are at greater risk for psychological disorders (e.g., antisocial behavior or depression/suicide) and having problems at school (Benson, 2007).

            Just to cite a few examples of how Benson and his colleagues have demonstrated the important of these developmental assets, they studied some 148,000 public school students in grades 6-12, and categorized them as having 0-10, 11-20, 21-30, or 31-40 of the assets (see Benson, 2007).  Comparing the lowest (0-10 assets) to the highest group (31-40 assets), the lowest group of students were more likely to drink alcohol (45% - 3%), use other illicit drugs (38% - 1%), be depressed/suicidal (44% - 5%), be engaged in violence (62% - 6%), or have problems in general in school (skipping school and/or poor grades; 44% - 4%).  Conversely, the highest group was more likely to be successful in school (grades of A- or better; 54% - 9%), to help others (96% - 62%), to maintain good health (88% - 27%), and to exhibit leadership (87% - 48%).

            In comparing the 24 character strengths from the VIA Survey to the internal developmental assets identified by Benson and colleagues, Peterson & Seligman (2004) suggested a “very rough correspondence” between them.  Be that as it may, programs that help to foster either assets or strengths in children are likely to be beneficial.  As noted in the preceding paragraph, having an abundance of assets is good.  We’ll examine programs to help foster such assets later, but for the moment consider work reviewed by Peterson & Seligman (2004) that suggests how those programs should be implemented:

·         more is better – programs should be intensive and long-term
·         earlier is better – it is best to start early in childhood
·         broad is better – effective programs target multiple systems (e.g., home and school)
·         sophisticated is better – consider the person dynamically in their environment

            For working with children, the VIA Survey was modified to produce the VIA Inventory of Strengths for Youth (see Park & Peterson, 2005, 2008, 2009).  Numerous studies have examined the relationships between character strengths in children vs. adults and as predictors of childhood well-being (for review see Park & Peterson, 2008, 2009).

            Similar to adults, most youth have developed a set of character strengths, with gratitude, humor, and love usually at the top of the list.  Youth are more likely than adults to demonstrate the strengths of hope, teamwork, and zest.  Strengths that are more common in adults, likely due to a need for maturation, include appreciation of beauty, honesty, leadership, forgiveness, and open-mindedness.

            For all ages, life satisfaction is predicted by love, hope, and zest.  For children in particular, the most robust predictors are the three just listed along with the addition of gratitude.  Among young children, those described by their parents as having these strengths are also viewed as being happy.

            In school, popular students tended to score highly on strengths such as leadership, fairness, self-regulation, prudence, and forgiveness.  As for grades in school, after controlling for IQ, the strengths of perseverance, fairness, gratitude, honesty, hope, and perspective predicted end-of-year grade point average.

            Since the latter point demonstrates that nonintellectual factors are important for academic success, Park & Peterson (2008, 2009) suggest that schools should focus more attention on measuring character strengths and implementing programs to promote their development.  Indeed, of particular importance for school counselors, in addition to these important academic considerations the strengths of hope, zest, and leadership are significantly related to fewer internalizing problems (e.g., depression or anxiety), and the strengths of persistence, honesty, prudence, and love were related to fewer externalizing problems (e.g., aggression).  Thus, counselors could utilize both measurement of strengths and application of programs to enhance their presence to improve the well-being of children in school and, hopefully, overall.

            Above, I discussed how some colleagues in my department attempted to use the StrengthsFinder 2.0 to pursue ways in which we might improve and maximize the efficiency of our working relationshps.  McGovern & Miller (2008) have suggested a promising way to use the VIA Survey of Character Strengths in an integrative strategy for faculty development.  They offer three modules centered on examining individual differences, refining the teachers’ behaviors, and examining the character strengths and virtues in detail.  Their hope is that procedures such as these will lead to greater reflection on one’s role as a teacher and, subsequently insightful learning and behavior change for the better.

Strengths and Virtues in Conflict

            I suppose this is something I could, or perhaps should, have discussed in the journal, but I wanted to put it here along with the discussion of the strengths and virtues themselves.

            We tend to think of strengths/virtues as something we have or don’t have, or we have to some extent or to a great extent.  But they don’t exist in isolation.  Consequently, they can come into conflict.  On August 26th I attempted to hike to the summit of Wheeler Peak in Nevada.  This was a very meaningful hike for me, since my oldest son is named after Wheeler Peak in New Mexico.  Yes, they are both named after George Montague Wheeler, a U.S. Army captain who explored much of the west.  I’ve been to the summit of Wheeler Peak, and my experiences there led to naming my son after the mountain in NM (his middle name is Wheeler).  I also have Wheeler Peak, NM tattooed on my right shoulder.

            I had been to Wheeler Peak, NV once before, with my son, who is somewhat afraid of heights.  So, we didn’t attempt going to the summit.  Now, I had my chance to head up there and tag the summit.  Unfortunately, the wind was brutal.  I went well above tree line, to the last spot before the final summit ridge, and assessed the conditions.  Since rising above the tree line, the wind had picked up from what I figured was a steady 30 mph to something more like 40 mph with gusts over 50 mph.  I expected the winds on the summit to be significantly higher.

            So what two strengths came into conflict?  Courage vs. wisdom!  Courage happens to be my #6 strength, and it suggests a simple solution to the issue:  just climb the ridge to the summit.  It’s that simple, nothing more to think about it.  What are you waiting for?  Go!

            However, my #1 strength is wisdom.  I’ve been in the mountains in high winds before.  Once, on Mt. Washington in NH, on a day that was quite similar (though it was in the winter), and a gust of wind lifted me cleanly off the ground, flipped me over, and then dropped me onto the ground in a heap.  Here, on Wheeler Peak, I already had to lean into the wind to be able to walk forward.  Each time I lifted one of my feet or one of my hiking sticks the wind would blow it to the side.  That’s right, the wind would blow my feet to the side as I tried to take steps.  And I figured the wind would be stronger on the ridge and summit above me.

            I have two artificial hips, and one of the consequences of that is that I move my feet slowly.  My hips just don’t respond like they used to, so my footwork is clumsy.  Not the sort of thing you want to experience while climbing a mountain ridge in howling winds.

            So there I was, realizing that to continue up the summit ridge was simply dangerous, but feeling like a coward for not simply going up regardless.  After giving the matter some serious thought, I came to two conclusions:  that I would be so nervous going up the ridge that I wouldn’t have any fun, and that the only value/reward of making it to the summit was whatever I created for myself in my own mind.

            So wisdom won the day.  I decided it was too dangerous for no real reward, so I headed back down.  Up to that point it had been a spectacular hike, and that’s how I’m able to remember it now.  Because I made the safe choice, and because my hips had held up much better than expected on the hike I had accomplished.  After all, a few years ago I would not have been able to even get up to where I was and have that difficult decision in the first place.  So it was a good day.

A Closer Look at Wisdom and Courage (and Generosity)

            I had intended to cover just two of my favorite topics here in greater detail.  However, while taking a class at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, I met Barbara Bonner, who has written a book which includes a variety of inspirational quotes regarding courage.  Unfortunately, that book isn’t yet available (it will be soon, and I’ll likely add it later on).  Then I learned that she has also published a book entitled Inspiring Generosity (Bonner, 2014). So, it seemed appropriate to add the section on generosity.


            There are two reasons I find the topic of wisdom particularly interesting.  First, on the VIA Survey of Character Strengths, wisdom is my top strength.  Second, one of the well-known researchers on the topic of wisdom is Gisela Labouvie-Vief (e.g., Labouvie-Vief, 1990).  She was a professor at Wayne State University when I was in graduate school there, and she served as a member of my oral qualifying exam committee.  Unfortunately for this discussion, in graduate school my major was physiological psychology and my minor was clinical neuropsychology, so she was the “outside” member of the committee.  Thus, I had no particular interest in wisdom back then, and never had a chance to talk to her about it.

            Wisdom is greatly admired and valued, yet it remains difficult to define.  Peterson & Seligman (2004) created a bit of a challenge for themselves when they identified “Wisdom and Knowledge” as the first of their six core virtues.  Among the five strengths that represent different aspects if this virtue, one of them is what most of us think of as wisdom (the others being creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, and love of learning).  So they used the term perspective as an alternative to wisdom.  Keeping this in mind, for simplicity I will only use the term wisdom.

            Wisdom is a complex combination of experience and knowledge that is used for the good of oneself and others.  Consequently, we see rather complicated definitions, such as:


            The present authors view wisdom as an emergent property of an individual’s inward and external response to life experiences.  A wise person has learned to balance the opposing valences of the three aspects of behavior:  cognition, affect, and volition.  A wise person weighs the knowns and unknowns, resists overwhelming emotion while maintaining interest, and carefully chooses when and where to take action. (pp. 331-332; Birren & Fisher, 1990)


            Hence we define this core virtue as knowledge hard fought for, and then used for good.  Wisdom is a form of noble intelligence – in the presence of which no one is resentful and everyone appreciative.  The strengths that wisdom encompasses are those entailing the acquisition and use of knowledge into human affairs, such as creativity, curiosity, judgment, and perspective. (pp. 39-40; Peterson & Seligman, 2004)


            Wisdom is defined as the application of successful intelligence and creativity as mediated by values toward the achievement of a common good through a balance among (a) intrapersonal, (b) interpersonal, and (c) extrapersonal interests, over (a) short and (b) long terms, in order to achieve a balance among (a) adaptation to existing environments, (b) shaping of existing environments, and (c) selection of new environments… (pg. 152; Sternberg, 2003)


            Given his extensive research on aging, it is only natural that Vaillant (2002) has also examined wisdom.  From his perspective, one needs to be at least 30 years old in order to develop wisdom.  However, beyond the age of 50 it does not necessarily grow any deeper.  Vaillant notes that among those who appear to have reached the pinnacle of wisdom are Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammed, Abraham Lincoln, Leo Tolstoy, and William Shakespeare.  Later in life, around the ages of 65-75, although some studies show a deepening of wisdom, others show a loss of function.

            For those who do demonstrate wisdom as one of their personal strengths, Vaillant (2002) considered five key factors:  maturity, common sense & sound moral discernment, appreciation of context, intelligence, and emotional intelligence.  When it comes to a specific definition, however, he offers something a bit simpler than the others:


            Two of the very best definitions of wisdom that I have encountered came from young relatives.  My wise young niece, Marian Wrobel, provided one definition:  “Wisdom consists of many rich experiences that have been reflected upon until they can be empathically communicated to others.”  My wise young son-in-law, Michael Buehler, noted that what all definitions of wisdom “have in common is the capacity and the willingness to step back from the immediacy of the moment – whether it is an affect, a judgment, or a conflict – in order to attain perspective.” (pg. 251; Vaillant, 2002)


            Labouvie-Vief (1990) has suggested that the reason why age is important for wisdom is not merely due to the accumulation of knowledge and experience, but rather it’s part of a developmental process that turns back upon the cognitive processes described by Jean Piaget.  Whereas the early stages of cognitive development proceed toward rationality, what Labouvie-Vief refers to as logos, in adulthood we need to achieve a balance between logos and mythos, which is more holistic and based on close identification between the self and the object of thought (which is more similar to an early childhood self-centered perspective of the world).

            However, Labouvie-Vief cautions that the movement toward balance between rational and holistic ways of thinking is not wisdom per se.  It does, however, provide an essential cognitive base.  The adult then proceeds through three stages.  In the intrasystemic phase the person is able to coordinate the elements that comprise one abstract system (abstract thought was the highest level according to Piaget, which begins as a person enters biological adulthood – following adolescence).  Then comes the intersystemic level, during which multiple systems are acknowledged.  Finally, at the integrated level, “historical change and contextual diversity are valued, resulting in an open flexibility tempered by responsibility and self-reflection.  Self-chosen principles result in the potential for mature action and self-regulation.” (pg. 69; Labouvie-Vief, 1990).

            Although Labouvie-Vief considered this cognitive process to be natural, she acknowledges that most people do not become wise.  Thus, in agreement with Vaillant (2002), the development of wisdom is not directly associated with growing older.  Nonetheless, for some people, wisdom will always be associated with aging.  For example, in most African cultures the tribal elders are respected for the wisdom they have accumulated over a lifetime, and the “living” dead are kept alive by the tribe’s oral historian (Jahn, 1972; Parham et al., 1999; Sofola, 1973; Tembo, 1980).  Erik Erikson described wisdom as “a detached and yet active concern with life in the face of death” (Erikson, 1968).

            According to Erikson (1968), wisdom allows one to maintain and convey the integrity of one’s lifetime of experience, despite the gradual physical decline of the body.  Wise people are able to pass on an integrated heritage to the next generation.  When Carl Rogers was 75, he wrote an essay entitled Growing Old: Or Older and Growing? (Rogers, 1980).  From the age of 65 to 75 years old he had been very productive, publishing numerous books and articles.  He also led many workshops and encounter groups, including some that required him to travel around the world.  Professionally he began to take many risks, experimenting with his theories and workshops in ways he might never have considered earlier in his career.  Ten years later, as he turned 85 years old, Rogers wrote another essay, On Reaching 85 (Rogers, 1989).  Once again, he had been very productive during the 10 years between being 75 and 85 years old, most notably leading a number of peace conferences that led to his nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.  He felt deeply privileged to have lived long enough to see the great international influence of his work.  There can be little doubt that when his life ended, which was actually before this essay was published (he wrote the essay, turned 85, and died 1 month later), he had experienced integrity and wisdom:


            I hope it is clear that my life at eighty-five is better than anything I could have planned, dreamed of, or expected.  And I cannot close without at least mentioning the love relationships that nurture me, enrich my being, and invigorate my life.  I do not know when I will die, but I do know that I will have lived a full and exciting eighty-five years! (pg. 58; Rogers, 1989)


            Labouvie-Vief (1990) is not the only one to consider wisdom to be a balance amongst various cognitive factors.  Kramer (1990) has theorized that cognitive and affective (emotional) development interact in a reciprocal fashion to produce wisdom-related skills and processes which then allow the person to effectively resolve the many challenges of adult life (e.g., making important decisions in life, engaging in spiritual reflection, and advising others).  This process is ongoing, and wisdom should deepen over time.  A person who becomes wise will then be able to successfully manage five basic functions of wisdom:  resolving dilemmas and making life decisions (“life planning”), advising others (important for generativity), managing and guiding society, reviewing one’s life, and questioning the meaning of life.  These functions are not separate, but rather highly interrelated (Kramer, 1990).

            Kitchener has developed a model of wisdom based on reflective judgment (see Kitchener & Brenner, 1990).  The Reflective Judgment model considers an individual’s assumptions about what can be known, how we can know it, and how certain we can be about our knowledge.  Our beliefs, and consequently our decisions, are then justified in terms of our certainty or lack of certainty regarding the situation.  Of course, people in the early stages of reflective judgment would not necessarily be wise, as that would require development and refinement over time.  Therefore, we see once again that although wisdom is not synonymous with older age, it is something that develops over time and is unlikely to appear early in life.

            Sternberg (2012) raises an interesting question by asking whether or not personal wisdom should be a goal of psychotherapy.  Do wise individuals experience higher levels of subjective well-being?  While there is some evidence that wisdom is associated with higher levels of well-being and life satisfaction (see Sternberg, 2012), there is also evidence that wisdom leads to what Paul Baltes has called “constructive melancholy” (see Kunzmann & Stange, 2007; Sternberg, 2012).  Wise people see both the joy and the sadness in life, so wisdom may be desirable for dealing with life in realistic and necessary ways (which may be essential for overall well-being), but it will not necessarily lead to happiness (for more on Baltes’ perspective on wisdom see, for example, Baltes & Smith, 1990 and Baltes et al., 2005).

            As some people see it, whether or not there is an issue of psychological distress and/or potential psychotherapy, there should be a practicality to our understanding and application of wisdom.  For Soccio (2016), wisdom refers to fundamentally understanding reality in relation to living a good life.  Wisdom, therefore, is both reasonable and practical, and involves making good judgments.  Schwartz & Sharpe (2010) echo the concept of practical wisdom, attributing its early discussion to none other than Aristotle.  For Aristotle, and others, wisdom is necessary for attaining happiness and well-being in life.  Knowing the right thing to do in complex situations helps us all to be happy (see also Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001; Long, 2015; Vaillant, 1993).  One problem, however, is that it can sometimes be difficult to understand the writings/teachings of someone who is wise.  The enigmatic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is such a man.

            In Joyful Wisdom, Nietzsche (1882/1960) addresses a wide range of philosophical topics, several of which I have chosen to share here.  The first one is fairly clear, the others somewhat deeper.


     …There is, of course, here and there on this terrestrial sphere a kind of sequel to love, in which that covetous longing of two persons for one another has yielded to a new desire and covetousness, to a common, higher thirst for a superior ideal standing above them:  but who knows this love?  Who has experienced it?  Its right name is friendship. (pg. 53; Nietzsche, 1882/1960)

     Animal Criticism. – I fear the animals regard man as a being like themselves, seriously endangered by the loss of sound animal understanding; - they regard him perhaps as the absurd animal, the laughing animal, the crying animal, the unfortunate animal. (pg. 200; Nietzsche, 1882/1960)

     Wisdom in Pain. – In pain there is as much wisdom as in pleasure:  like the latter it is one of the best self-preservatives of a species.  Were it not so, pain would long ago have been done away with; that it is hurtful is no argument against it, for to be hurtful is its very essence…as soon as pain gives its precautionary signal, it is time to reduce the speed… (pg. 247; Nietzsche, 1882/1960)


            *NOTE:  Joyful Wisdom holds a special place in the history of philosophy, since it happens to be where Nietzsche first recorded his most famous thought, that god is dead.


     New Struggles. – After Buddha was dead people showed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave, - an immense frightful shadow.  God is dead:  but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow. – And we – we have still to overcome his shadow! (pg. 151; Nietzsche, 1882/1960)


            Having mentioned Buddha, let’s briefly examine wisdom from a Buddhist perspective.  Simply put, wisdom from a Buddhist point of view is to understand the essence of the Four Noble Truths and the three fundamental characteristics of the human life:  suffering, impermanence, and selflessness (Bhikkhu Bodhi, 1994; Dudley-Grant et al., 2003; Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001; Hayes, 2003).

            Once a person has learned to let go of all attachment, including attachment to mistaken ideas and concepts which lead to suffering, the result is peace, wholeness, and joy.  In other words, the individual is able to awaken, which is the meaning of the word “buddha.”  In a personal translation of a section of the Majjhima Nikaya, Andrew Olendzki (whom I’ve had the honor of studying with at the BCBS) offers the following view on wisdom:

     When ignorance is abandoned and true knowledge has arisen,
            one no longer clings to sensual pleasures,
            one no longer clings to beliefs,
            one no longer clings to a doctrine of self.
     Without clinging, one no longer torments oneself.
     No longer tormenting oneself, one inwardly awakens.
            (pg. 121; Olendzki, 2012)

            The combination of wisdom and compassion inherent in the practice of Buddhism, particularly through meditation and mindfulness, lends itself ideally to meaningful psychotherapy.  The preceding quote is from a chapter in Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy (Germer & Siegel, 2012), which includes among its chapter authors numerous well-known scholars in both positive psychology and Buddhist psychology and psychotherapy.  We’ll come back to a number of these chapters in Section IV, when we take a closer look at positive psychotherapy


            Courage, like wisdom, is one of the core virtues identified by Peterson & Seligman (2004).  Included within it are the strengths of bravery, persistence, integrity, and vitality.  Bravery is what most of us normally think of when we think of courage – they are generally considered synonymous.  An important aspect of this virtue, what makes a given action virtuous, is the manner in which the action is taken (Fowers, 2005).  Those who study courage generally address two main types of courage, with some proposing a third type given various names depending on the author’s perspective.

            Lopez et al. (2003a) distinguished between physical courage, moral courage, and vital courage.  Putnam (1997, 2004) also recognized physical and moral courage (as do various other authors; see, e.g., Kidder, 2003; Miller, 2000; Rachman, 1978; Staub, 2015; Walton, 1986), but referred to a third type which he called psychological courage.  In each of these perspectives, physical courage refers to bravery in the usual sense, whereas moral courage pertains to doing the right thing while maintaining integrity and authenticity.

            Examples of physical courage are evident every day, particularly in the examples of first-responders.  Firefighters who enter burning buildings, police officers who apprehend dangerous criminals, smoke jumpers who respond to forest fires, and Coast Guard crews (especially the swimmers) who help rescue men and women in danger at sea are among those we greatly admire.  Of course, there are also the other military personnel (since the Coast Guard is military too) who serve our nation in times of conflict or war.  Our nation’s highest award is the Congressional Medal of Honor, and many of those who have earned it lost their life in the process (though they saved the lives of others – making the ultimate sacrifice).

            Moral courage can, at times, be as dangerous as situations which call for physical courage.  When peaceful civil rights activists attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 they were viciously attacked by armed police and a local posse who opposed equal rights for blacks.  This event led most directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  Another famous example from the civil rights era is Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat in the “colored section” of a bus to a white passenger who was unable to find a seat in the “white section” of the bus.  She was then arrested for violating Alabama’s segregation laws.  Moral courage, of course, can occur in less dramatic ways, such as when someone stands up against injustice in ways in which the consequences are serious, but not life threatening (such as losing one’s job, or facing public ridicule and/or being ostracized).

            As I write this, there is still a fascinating movie playing in theatres which portrays the true story of Desmond Doss.  Doss was a conscientious objector during World War II, who nonetheless volunteered to serve in a rifle company in the U.S. Army.  He refused to carry a weapon in combat, since it went against his religious beliefs, so he became a combat medic.  When the Japanese fighters on Okinawa repelled a U.S. assault on Hacksaw Ridge, Doss remained in the line of fire while attempting to aid and remove wounded comrades.  He was credited with saving at least 75 men, ultimately being wounded four times himself, and consequently received the Medal of Honor!

            When we compare psychological courage to vital courage it appears they are similar.  Putnam (1997, 2004) describes psychological courage as facing the fear of losing one’s psychological stability.  It involves escaping emotions that can hold us in “bondage,” such as fear and anxiety, and finding ways to cope so that the stability of our mind itself is protected.  For Lopez et al. (2003a), vital courage is at play when a person is challenged by a life-threatening illness.  Certainly, the danger of losing one’s mind, to anxiety or other psychological stressors (in the extreme, e.g., to delusions and hallucinations) is as threatening to the integrity of the ego as the loss of life itself.

            In studies involving chronically ill adolescents and adults, the process of vital courage involves identifying and acknowledging the very real threat, accepting it, finding successful ways to cope with life’s changes and challenges, and gaining insight regarding personal relationships.  A similar process may be helpful to those who work with such patients as well, encouraging the willingness to take risks despite an unclear outcome (see Lopez et al., 2003a).

            When we think of people who exhibit vital courage, those who are facing death, we typically think of adults, not of children.  However, the reality is that many young children face terminal illnesses (see, e.g., Epstein & Horwitz, 2003; Kübler-Ross, 1983).  Children often process the possibility of impending death better than their parents, and Kübler-Ross (1983) shares a number of poems written by children in her book On Children and Death.  In If I Get to Five, pediatric neurosurgeon Fred Epstein (Epstein & Horwitz, 2003) shares the story of the title of his book, and it offers a striking portrayal of vital courage.  In between surgeries to remove a brain tumor wrapped around two arteries which had already caused bleeding inside her cranium, with her head still covered in bandages from the first surgery, four-year old Naomi would greet Dr. Epstein each day with a new pronouncement:

            “If I get to five, I’m going to learn to ride a two-wheeler!”
            “If I get to five, I’m going to beat my older brother at tic-tac-toe.”
            “If I get to five, I’m going to learn to tie my shoes with a double knot!”
            “If I get to five, I’m going to jump rope – backward!”
                        (pg. 2; Epstein & Horwitz, 2003)

            Reflecting on the determination of Naomi, who never asked if she would live to make it to five years old, Dr. Epstein had this to say:


            Naomi taught me that the child’s determination to embrace the next stage in life, to become more powerful and master new skills, can be a lifetime asset.  She reminded me that whenever I ran up against a tumor that had “inoperable” stamped across it, I needed to focus on the child whose life was on the line.  That was crucial lesson for me at a formative stage of my career.  It strengthened my resolve never to give up on a child, no matter how daunting the course appeared. (pg. 3; Epstein & Horwitz, 2003)


            When we compare the categorization of virtues and strengths identified by Peterson & Seligman (2004) with those of Putnam (1997, 2004) and Lopez et al., (2003a), they line up fairly well.  All three recognize bravery as one type of courage.  Vitality clearly corresponds to vital courage, and as noted above psychological courage appears to be quite similar to vital courage.  So how do persistence and integrity (the two remaining strengths in Peterson & Seligman’s virtue of courage) compare to moral courage?  Integrity is further characterized as authenticity or honesty, and in definitions of moral courage we typically see words such as integrity and authenticity.  And moral courage often requires persistence.  For example, the civil rights movement took a long time, and even today we are seeing a backlash that demands continued effort if we are ever to achieve real freedom and equality in the United States of America.  So there is fairly good correspondence between these classification schemes.

            As noted above, persistence is one of the strengths listed under the virtue of courage by Peterson & Seligman (2004).  Angela Duckworth and her colleagues (see Duckworth, 2016; Duckworth et al., 2007) have been examining a specific personality trait which they call grit, a topic that has become somewhat popular in higher education.  Grit is defined as the perseverance and passion necessary to accomplish long-term goals.  In particular, it refers to the ability to continue striving toward those goals despite temporary failure, adversity, and plateaus in one's progress.

            We used to believe that individuals who become experts in a particular area (whether it's math, playing a musical instrument, playing chess, or competing in athletic events, etc.) had some innate ability or talent for their skill.  However, Anders Ericsson proposed and studied a different theoretical framework.  Although an individual may show some early talent in a particular domain, what resulted in their becoming an expert, or a star athlete, was the intensive deliberate practice that followed, often taking many years before the individual truly excelled (Anders Ericsson, 2004; Anders Ericsson et al., 1993).  Working together, Duckworth, Anders Ericsson, and a few of their colleagues showed that deliberate practice is the key to success in an academic competition that tends to fascinate many people because of just how difficult it is:  the National Spelling Bee (Duckworth et al., 2010).

            Whether it's grit, persistence, or the associated behavior of deliberate practice, those who continue to strive toward their goals tend to succeed not only in school, but also in most aspects of life, including life satisfaction and earning a good income (Duckworth & Carlson, 2013; Duckworth et al., 2012).  Although it appears that life stress in early adolescence can significantly impair one's ability to strive toward a positive and fruitful future (Duckworth et al., 2013), what factors are associated with the development of grit?  First, there are internal factors, such as interest, practice, purpose, and hope (Duckworth, 2016).  If you follow your passion in life, you’ll naturally be inclined to stick with it.  The type of hope is important as well.  For those with grit, hope is related to the belief and the intention that the person will continue to keep trying and keep working to make things better next time, with success as the expected outcome.

            It’s also helpful to have had the right conditions for developing grit.  Being involved in extracurricular activities can be beneficial, especially if they create a culture of grit.  However, one of the most important factors is parenting, and those parents should be both supportive and demanding.  Interestingly, “parenting” does not necessarily have to come from only your parents:


     What can I do to encourage grit in the people I care for?... Sometimes it’s a coach who asks; sometimes it’s an entrepreneur or a CEO…. I’ve had army generals and navy admirals toss me this question, too, but most often it’s a mother or father who worries that their child isn’t close to realizing their potential.

            All the people quizzing me are thinking as parents would, of course – even if they’re not parents.  The word parenting derives from Latin and means “to bring forth.”  You’re acting in a parentlike way if you’re asking for guidance on how to best bring forth interest, practice, purpose, and hope in the people you care for. (pg. 199; Duckworth, 2016)


            A curious situation arises when we begin to look at fear and the measurement of courage.  For some authors, fear is essential to identifying a given act as brave or courageous, since a person who is simply fearless has no reason not to act.  Consequently, their action is essentially no different than any other behavior, though perhaps it would be viewed as reckless (Fowers, 2005; Rachman, 1978; Walton, 1986).  However, Woodard & Pury (2007) are not so sure.  Woodard (2004) initially developed a scale for measuring courage that took into account the willingness to take action and the fear that then resulted from taking action.  In the more recent analysis, however, they find that courage and the situations in which it may be called for are indeed complex and varied.  Thus, as is often the case in psychology, further research is warranted.

            One of the challenges in measuring courage is the variability in the definitions of it.  A variety of self-report measures have been developed for research, covering such topics as existential courage, social courage, civil courage, panic-specific courage, and courage in general (see Snyder et al., 2011).  Some studies have shown differences in physiological responses between those who have experienced a courageous act and those who have not, or conducted interviews with courageous individuals or regarding views on what is courageous behavior (see Lopez et al., 2003a).  After reviewing various studies, Staub (2015) suggests that courage can be developed.  To help children develop moral courage, Staub suggests allowing them to participate in decision-making at home and at school, encouraging them from a young age to act on their values and empathic feelings, and developing their capacity for “critical consciousness” or independent judgment.

            It can be somewhat difficult to gain an understanding of courage in the Buddhist sense, since many books refer to courage, but then what they discuss does not fall into our typical understanding of courage.  Generally, the closest some works come is to address what it is we fear, and how meditation and mindfulness can help us to face and overcome our fears.

            So, what is it that we fear?  More often than not, it is ourselves that we fear, or rather, how others will view us given our perceived inadequacies and failings.  This fear results in all manner of anxieties and, consequently, attempts to overcome this anxiety and fear by doing or getting something that will make our lives better (Jinpa, 2015; Trungpa, 2009).  And yet, the teachings of the Buddha, to be aware of ourselves and accept with compassion the truth (the concept of the clear mirror), provides a way to let go of this fear.  The value of such a philosophy may be most important when a person’s anxieties and life challenges have reached such a level that the person has sought psychotherapy (Pollak et al., 2014; Wegela, 2009).

            Mruk & Hartzell (2003) have applied Zen principles in the practice of psychotherapy, including the principle of fearlessness (courage).  Fear is manifested in a variety of ways, such as anxiety, or a sense of inability or incompetence.  While it may seem natural to avoid fear and anxiety, when we do so we are avoiding reality.  Thus, we can’t deal with it effectively.  As Mruk & Hartzell point out, we know how to fear, but we don’t know how to be fearless, or to go beyond fear.  Only by facing and accepting our fears can we see what they truly are:  attachments to our past and to our desires for the future.  It turns out to be a great irony, for both Zen and psychotherapy, that our fears typically turn out to be nothing more than that – just ghosts, not monsters (Mruk & Hartzell, 2003; see also Putnam, 2004).

            There is a marvelous story in the Buddhist literature that exemplifies true bravery.  It is a Jataka tale, the Nigrodhamiga-Jataka, from an earlier life incarnation of the Buddha (Cowell, 1895/1993).  It is the story of the Banyan Deer, and a wonderful retelling of the story has been published by Rafe Martin (2010).  The Banyan Deer was the king of his herd, when his herd and another were trapped in an enclosure to be hunted and killed.  The kings of the two herds agreed to hold a lottery, so that only one deer would be harmed at a time, since many deer were harmed trying to escape each time the hunters came.

            Eventually, the lottery fell onto a doe (from the Branch herd) who was carrying a fawn.  She begged her king to let someone else take her place until her fawn was born and could survive on his own, but her king said no.  So she went to the Banyan king, and he agreed that her life should be spared.  He went in her place to be killed.  When the human king learned of this, he was amazed and spared the Banyan deer (the king and all his herd).

            However, the Banyan king refused to go until the other deer were spared.  And so it was.  Yet he refused to go again, stating that he could not abandon the birds, and the process was repeated, and yet again for the fish.  In the end, the human king ordered that all the people would become vegetarians, and the Banyan king and his herd went on their way, in peace (Cowell, 1895/1993; Martin, 2010).

            There is a wonderful, and rather well-known, book entitled The Courage to Be, written by the renowned existential theologian Paul Tillich (1952).  Echoing the Buddhist perspective that we are afraid of our own perceived weaknesses and inadequacies, Tillich takes it to a deeper level:  we fear the irrelevance of our own existence (the existential perspective that we are anxious throughout life because we know we will die someday).  However, when we embrace life despite the reality of death:


            The courage to be is the ethical act in which man affirms his own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation. (pg. 3; Tillich, 1952)


            Tillich considered fear and anxiety to be essential as motivating factors in living one’s life fully.  However, there must be a balance between courage and fear, for if we acted without regard to the warnings provided by fear and anxiety we might very well end up engaging in directly self-destructive behavior.  The strength to engage in this pursuit of life despite the realities of challenge and danger in the world is what Tillich referred to as vitality, or life power.  Vitality is not merely related to courage, however, since it cannot be separated from the totality of one’s being, including language, creativity, and a spiritual life (Tillich, 1952).


     Courage, in this view, is the readiness to take upon oneself negatives, anticipated by fear, for the sake of a fuller positivity…  A life process which shows this balance and with it power of being has, in biological terms, vitality, i.e. life power.  The right courage therefore must, like the right fear, be understood as the expression of perfect vitality. (pp. 78-79; Tillich, 1952)

* * *

            One of my prized possessions is a signed copy of Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach (Palmer, 1998).  I received it from him personally as a prize to accompany my Faculty/Staff Community Service-Learning Award from the Michigan Campus Compact in 1998 – he was the keynote speaker that year at their annual conference.

            Why does it take courage to teach?  In this book, he isn’t talking about the bravery it may sometimes require to enter into inner-city schools.  I’ve been to schools in the city of Detroit, and the environment can be both frightening and depressing – at least at first glance.  It’s a shame that we have so many bad schools in bad neighborhoods in America.  But Parker Palmer is talking about courage in a different sense, in a sense that may be particularly salient in those underprivileged schools.

            When most people begin teaching they are full of hope and high expectations.  However, you will never be able to reach every student.  So, do you revel in your many successes and brush off the handful of failures?  Actually, it’s just the opposite!  Teachers who really care will obsess over even a single apparent failure.  They will take it to heart, painfully, and often blame themselves.  It takes a special kind of courage to do this over and over again, be it each school year or each college semester.  Simply put, Palmer (1998) suggests that a good teacher will never be happy, because there will always be a recent student you just couldn’t help/reach.  And there’s no way around it.

            So, is there any hope for those of us who find ourselves in this trap?  My answer has been Buddhist mindfulness and the perfection of equanimity.  By accepting the nature of reality, and understanding both my role and the students’ role in their success, I’m able to accept things as they will be.  It’s still disappointing when even one student fails, but I accept it and move on, vowing to do my best next time, come what may.


          Generosity is an aspect of the strength kindness, under the virtue of humanity, and it is different than giving.  Generosity expects nothing in return.  It is freely given (Bonner, 2014; Fowers, 2005).  In that sense it fits with well with a Buddhist perspective, generosity is giving with no attachment to the outcome of having given, and it contains an element of compassion.

“He who gives when asked has waited too long.”
(pg. 13; Seneca, cited in Bonner, 2014)

            Blaine Fowers (2005) makes the interesting argument that we need constructs like virtue in our lives to give meaning to strengths like generosity.  Otherwise, there is no way to conceptualize the joy people feel when giving to others with no expectation of getting anything back.  Whether someone is generous, or loyal, or brave, it is our concept of virtue that lends meaning to the activity.

            There appears to be a connection between positive emotion in general, and a variety of prosocial behaviors, including helpfulness, generosity, and social responsibility (Isen, 2003, 2005).  Likewise, responsible generosity is an example of practical wisdom (Fowers, 2005).  So we often find that individuals are not merely virtuous in one area, but rather, they are indeed virtuous people.

            In different schools of Buddhist thought, there are different lists of what are known as the paramitas, or perfections.  The great sage Shantideva (an 8th century Indian Buddhist monk) listed six perfections, with the first one being generosity (Ettele, 2011; Michie, 2012).  There are generally four ways that one can be generous, in the Buddhist tradition:  giving materially (e.g., money), being generous with love by giving happiness to others, generosity of protection when saving other beings, and practicing generosity of the Dharma by sharing what we understand with others who sincerely ask (Michie, 2012).


            If wishing to relieve a mere headache of another person brings
immeasurable merit,
            what then of wishing to eradicate suffering and bring happiness
to every being?
            This intention is an extraordinary jewel of mind and its birth
an unprecendented wonder.
            It’s the cause of happiness for beings, a remedy for their sufferings.
            How can its qualities be measured?
            As poverty still exists, how is giving perfected?
            Through a mind with the sheer wish to give everything.
                        (pp. 4 & 27; Shantideva as translated by Feusi, 2015)


            In the year 2000, Thich Nhat Hanh met with many Nobel Peace Prize winners to discuss ways in which they might transform violence in the world for the good of children everywhere.  The result was something they called the Manifesto 2000, and it helped lead to the United Nations declaring the decade 2001-2010 as the International Decade for the Promotion of the culture of Nonviolence and Peace for the Children in the World (Thich Nhat Hanh, 2012).  The third principle begins, “Share my time and material resources in a spirit of generosity…”

A Final Note on Virtue

            Some of this book was written while taking some classes and a personal retreat at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, MA.  It was a wonderful return after having done the same thing 7 ½ years ago.  At that point in time I had been there several times, but I hadn’t been back since.

            BCBS is very close to the Insight Meditation Society (they are loosely affiliated, and many people visit both centers), where I have done a 10-day retreat in noble silence.  On that retreat I had the privilege of meeting one of our retreat leaders, the renowned Jack Kornfield.  In addition to having trained as a Thai forest monk, he is now a clinical psychologist.  His writings have been particularly insightful in my own education/training.

            In A Path With Heart (Kornfield, 1993), he shares the Insight Meditation Teachers Code of Ethics.  Simply, this is a recitation of the five Buddhist precepts.  To address possible problems and misconduct there is an established ethics committee (one on each coast, east and west).  After reciting the five precepts, they chant the short verse that follows.  Note that it specifically identifies the goal of being virtuous (pp. 341-343).


            We undertake the precept of refraining from killing.
            We undertake the precept of refraining from stealing.
            We undertake the precept of refraining from false speech.
            We undertake the precept of refraining from sexual misconduct.
            We undertake the precept of refraining from intoxicants that cause
                    heedlessness or loss of awareness.

            The five precepts of nonharming
            Are a vehicle for our happiness,
            A vehicle for our good fortune,
            A vehicle for liberation for all.
            May our virtue shine forth.


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