“Other people matter. But few of them are mind readers. Let them know that they matter. They might benefit. And you certainly will.” —Chris Peterson
Sadly, many of my readers probably first got to know about Chris Peterson when I published some excerpts of his writing a few days after he had passed away. Chris Peterson was one of the founding fathers of positive psychology and the co-author (along with Martin Seligman) of the field’s quintessential Handbook and Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues.
He died (before his time) in his home earlier this year.
The good news is, Chris left us a gift . . . a published collection of his writings, Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology (culled from his Psychology Today blog) is being released to bookstores this week.
Chris was one of my professors in the Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. So in homage to Chris and to encourage people to buy his book, I thought I would share three homework assignments that Chris gave me that all changed my life in not-so-small ways:
1. Use your strengths. One of Chris’s favorite assignments was to ask students to take a strengths assessment and then “use a signature strength in new ways” for one week. At the end of the week, students would submit a paper about their experience.
I practiced my #1 strength, “love of learning,” by obsessively googling interesting topics that came up in conversation and following footnotes that appeared in my reading.
The awareness and strengthening of my top strength surely led to the creation of this blog, which has served as my “classroom” in positive psychology since receiving my degree.
2. Develop a weakness. Always one to have a balanced approach to the science, Chris also asked students to work on a “lesser strength.” My bottom strength in the assessment came out as “spirituality” (a point I argued with Chris and he agreed that what the test really measures is “religiosity.”)
For one week, I practiced being more religious by saying grace before every meal and saying a prayer every night before bed. These rituals, I quickly realized, are about more than simple obedience to church doctrine. They are about infusing moments of hope, appreciation and love into your daily life. This exercise gave me a new appreciation for religion and a new way of thinking about my own spirituality.
3. Let them know. Chris’s final assignment was for students to choose someone close to them and write them a “gratitude letter” outlining all the things they appreciated about them. My initial reaction was to roll my eyes at the cheesy lameness of this assignment. But respecting Chris as much as I did, I put aside my preconceived notions and got into the task.
I chose to write a letter to my uncle Jim, perhaps my closest relative after my immediate family. The letter flowed easily (I had much to be thankful for) and it was good. I mailed it to my uncle for his 60th birthday (I wasn’t able to be there in person,) instructing him not to read it until he had me on the phone. Once he was on the phone I read him the letter. We both cried.
He cried again when he read it out loud to the rest of his family and friends who gathered at his birthday party. The letter brought him a lot of joy and it brought him and me closer together.
I now realize that gratitude is not cheesy or lame. In fact, it may be one of the most powerful forces in the universe.
Hopefully these assignments give you a sense of the powerful wisdom that Chris had to share. His book is filled with it—100 short articles on “the Good Life” (what it is and how to get it.) Because I’ve been a fan of Chris’s blog for years, I had already, in essence, read most of the book. But the book is organized in an interesting way to give it a better flow. And the content is just as entertaining, (and the wisdom just as impactful) the second time around.
Chris Peterson’s passing adds a sense of poignancy and urgency to the teachings in his book. The good life is available, but it can also disappear when we least expect it to. If you’ve never written a gratitude letter, don’t wait. If you love someone, let them know. Life is too short and gratitude is far sweeter than regret.
References and recommended reading:
Peterson, C. (2012). Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.
I love the next generation. I think I will stick around a while and see what they will do. —Chris Peterson
Rest in peace Chris. I hope the next generation lives up to your expectations.
by Jeremy McCarthy
Follow me @jeremymcc on twitter.