Book review: Pursuing the good life, by Christopher Peterson

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 4:38pm

Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology
by Christopher Peterson
Oxford University Press


Forget psychology's dark side - its armada of phobias, compulsions and other neuroses. In Pursuing the Good Life, University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson presents 100 meditations on a wealth of positive psychology subjects.

Each reflection is entertainingly titled. Think "Tears and Testosterone", "What Do You Think About in the Shower?" and "I Hate E-mail". Yes, in his 10th chapter devoted to rants, Peterson skewers bugbears, apparently keen to show that he is no Pollyanna. Still, the optimism peddled by positive psychology is justified, he reckons.

"Was Bill Gates unrealistic when he dropped out of Harvard to write software? Was Barack Obama unrealistic when he announced his presidential candidacy?" Probably yes, he writes.

"Bless the critics," the baby boomer writes, "but I wish they would zero in on stupidity as a problem for all of us, or greed, or sloth, or envy, or gluttony, and not brand positive thinking a deadly sin. The world is challenging enough, and no good is served by dismissing one of its most wonderful resources."

With a hint of bitterness, Peterson adds that he would have thought decades of research showing that hope and optimism are beneficial would have settled the question of positive psychology's worth. "On average, optimistic individuals are healthier because they take care of themselves; optimistic students earn better grades because they go to class; optimistic insurance agents sell more policies because they make cold calls; and so on."

The thrust of Peterson's pro-positivity argument seems sensible. But, apparently clouded by optimism, he skates over the oft-made claim that the 2008 financial crisis stemmed from "irrational exuberance" - a heightened state of speculative fervour.

Another failing of Peterson's guide is that his stabs at humour are repeatedly murdered by his insertion of variations on the phrase "no pun intended". No humour generated.

Worse, some of his reflections suggest he needs to get out more. Just look at his rosy reflection on the alleged magnetic allure of character.

"Character is sexy," he writes, "and if we can judge by what the personal ads say, good character actually trumps physical attractiveness and occupational achievement, both in what the advertisers proclaim about themselves and in what they are seeking in a romantic partner."

Good news for the obese if they believe Peterson's assurances, which reek of naivety.

Still, the blurb touts Peterson as one of the world's most highly cited research psychologists and a founder of the field of positive psychology. He blogs for Psychology Today, where many of the short essays under scrutiny first ran.

Peterson's style recalls British popular philosopher Alain de Botton, minus the agony. At heart, Peterson is an engaging thinker who presents ample quirkily entertaining research and has a nice line in self-mockery: "I wore a vivid pink polo shirt today. I bought it several years ago but never donned it until this morning. The mood finally struck me - and oh yeah, I hadn't done laundry in a few weeks.

"The shirt aroused attention and commentary from friends and colleagues because I don't do pink. The attention was nice, although I had to make more than my usual concerted effort to hold in my stomach because people were checking me out," he writes. Charming.

Even if you despise positive psychology, you might get a kick out of Peterson's guide if you read it as a string of peppy tangents. One of his best digressions defends cheap weddings held at mass market burger chain outlets.

"I think an inexpensive wedding makes sense for those of modest or even not modest means, and again, I say good for them," he writes.

Good for him.