Instead of focusing on what goes on when people become anxious or depressed, a growing number of psychologists are saying it's high time to look on the bright side. "Our interest is emotional well-being, in what goes right for people who are happy and well-adjusted," says Christopher Peterson, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and a leader in the field of positive psychology, a new approach to the discipline. "What are the traits that allow people to lead fulfilled lives? What are the strengths and virtues that contribute to happiness?"
If that sounds more like the stuff of greeting cards than serious science, consider this: the distinguished Oxford University Press published Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, an 800-page scholarly text that categorizes and analyzes the 24 key traits associated with mental health and happiness. Edited by Peterson and University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, considered the guru of positive psychology, the book celebrates characteristics like love, prudence, creativity, and leadership. It's intended to be a counterpart to the traditional text of psychiatric medicine, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, with its gloomy chapters on troubling conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.
Analyzing the bright side was not as easy as you might think. Peterson and Seligman spent 3 years working with a team of experts to identify traits that are shared and valued across cultures. (Persistence just happened to end up on the list.) During that time, they pored over not only psychiatry journals but the works of philosophers and even classic religious texts.
Practicing another ideal on their list-humility-Peterson acknowledges that the classification system in Character Strengths and Virtues is a work in progress. "Our goal was to get the conversation started, to encourage people to begin to look at the strengths and virtues that contribute to emotional well-being," the psychologist says.
But the authors have higher aspirations, too (motivated, perhaps, by two more of the virtues they selected-kindness and leadership): They would like to help make everyone a little happier. To achieve this goal, Peterson and Seligman, who is also the author of Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, have created a 240-item questionnaire designed to identify strengths and virtues.
If you know that love of learning, kindness, and leadership are among your strong points, you might flourish in a job that involves teaching, for instance. If creativity and the appreciation of beauty and excellence are your virtues, you are likely to make the most of them with a career or hobby that gives you an opportunity to express yourself.
Research shows that you can also enhance certain character traits. In their classification system, Peterson and Seligman weighed the available evidence for each of the 24 attributes that they examined.
There's not much data to support the idea that you can become more prudent (one of the key virtues) or kinder, sad to say. But other qualities can be cultivated, sometimes by doing something as simple as taking a walk in the park, counting your blessings at the end of the day, or sitting down and writing a letter you may never send.