By John Langhorne / Guest Editorial
Positive psychology is a flip-flop – rather than study the dysfunctional, you study people who have lived exemplary lives.
A leader in this area is Martin Seligman, a psychologist who did seminal work on optimism more than 20 years ago. He has also collected data on successful people, making it possible to identify three types of “lifestyles.”
It is important to note that the number of people who have one or more of these lifestyles is currently not known. However, it is clear from day-to-day experience that many people have never considered the possibility of acting proactively to improve their lives.
What is interesting is that Seligman, a man who produced definitive studies of successful individual behavior, has not integrated his findings with those showing the impact of leadership on our lives. With this article I hope to connect these dots. First, let’s briefly explore each of the three lifestyle profiles.
The first life is the “pleasant life.” These are people who have what might be called a very high happiness quotient. They live their lives in such a fashion so that, compared to the rest of us, they are overtly very happy.
There are two issues with this lifestyle. The first is the pleasant life seems to be mostly heritable, which means it is resistant to being learned. The second characteristic is experiences of this type of happiness are, as Seligman notes, “like French ice cream.” The first few bites are great but the experience satiates very rapidly. The resulting happiness in short-lived and has little effect long-term on well-being. If this is their only lifestyle, such people may become happiness seekers.
The second lifestyle is what Seligman labels the “good life.” This is a lifestyle that has been explored in-depth by many who study the behavior of people in organizations. People who live the good life identify what their core strengths are, and then seek to find or develop situations where they can maximize those strengths as they minimize their weaknesses.
This is a characteristic of high-performance people in all walks of life, no matter how esteemed or mundane. The base belief here is to choose what you are doing (in so far as you can), and then do it as well as possible. That rather sounds like a definition of an entrepreneur.
Living a fine life is a little like playing cards. You are dealt a hand by nature and nurture, and to play that hand – that is, maximize your effectiveness – you need to read the cards, your strengths, and act in ways to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.
One definition of personal effectiveness is having a robust repertory of roles and knowing when and how to enact them. Enacting the good life produces “role satisfaction.” This strategy for living, most often applied in the workplace, produces significant personal satisfaction – the term psychologists use to define and study happiness. For more on this, go to http://bit.ly/CBJmotivation.
The third lifestyle is the “meaningful life” and is anchored in its core consequence. The meaningful life is the altruistic life. This research shows something we have known for some time – doing good creates a positive effect for the person enacting the behavior.
In a fascinating study, Seligman dramatically illustrates this effect by asking people to identify a person who has had a powerful and positive effect on their lives, and then write a “gratitude letter.” He then asks them to deliver and read the letter to the person. The result is dramatic, with a positive emotional effect on the enactor (learn more about Seligman’s experiment and these lifestyles in his TED talk, available at http://bit.ly/SeligmanTED). Clearly “doing well by doing good” is an effective lifestyle practice.
Recent research on leadership has largely discounted the idea that leadership is a set of characteristics. The core characteristic of leaders is there is no core characteristic. Seligman’s work shows that we have the learned capacity to improve our lives. The second two of these lifestyles are dynamic personal processes such as assessing and enacting our strengths or developing our capacity for altruism.
Such an introspective process is developmentally adaptive throughout our lifetimes. Those of us with a few decades of living know that we are not the same person we were when we left school. This is good news for most of us, because it recasts leadership from some mythical attributes to a process of developing self-awareness and using this information to enhance our functioning.
The fact that both the good life and the meaningful life are learned behaviors means that the application of these tools to our personal behavior can have a profoundly positive effect on the quality of our lives. Thus, we sometimes speak of “leading a great life.”
John Langhorne is owner and principal of Langhorne Associates www.langhorneassociates. His most recent book is Beyond IQ: Practical Steps to Find the Best You is available digitally at Amazon.