Psi2As a continuation of my previous post on Happiness, I’ll talk a little bit about Positive Psychology (PP) and the lessons we can learn, as writers, from this emerging field (perhaps in a way you might not predict, though.)

In 1998, the American Psychological Association’s then-president, Martin Seligman, used the term “Positive Psychology” to describe a new trend in Psychology research: the study of how humans become and stay happy. Dr. Seligman was tired of mental illness being the sole purpose of Psychology research and practice; He wanted Psychology to study more of what makes and keeps people happy instead of only mending the sick. PP has been the trending topic in Psych since then. Graduate students are clamoring to study topics like resiliency, decision-making, sense of control, character strength and uplifting traits. Journals publish more and more studies about the effects of “learned optimism.” Books like Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert are topping New York Times’ bestseller lists.

Like with all emerging fields, PP has its critics. The biggest and strongest critique of PP is that the field isn’t regulated. Any person can stick the term “Positive Psychologist” on the end of their name and claim to know how to apply the concepts that certified scientists and counselors developed. This means that every “life coach” kook is all over the Web promoting themselves as a “PP Counselor,” and no law or national certification program is barring them from doing so.

Another critique that is of lesser strength but more relevant to us as writers is the type of personality PP seems to attract. Those kooks on the internet and late-night infomercials are the most slimy of the bunch, but from an outsider’s view it does seem that the PP people have drunk the kool-aid. PP people are very gung-ho and tend to be exuberant evangelists for the field. The majority of them are do-gooders at heart; they want people to be happy and they think they’ve found science that can help.

Do you know a person like that? A person who stresses the positive so adamantly that it becomes unbelievable or in the very least, annoying? Your answer to this question will probably have more to do with your own place on the cynical scale than with the PP-type you’re remembering, but nonetheless let’s take a look at that character more closely. This person isn’t a snake-oil salesman; they are what I call a Believer. For reasons they usually aren’t too familiar with themselves, Believers truly feel that their solution is the answer to many people’s problems. How does a first encounter with a person like this go? What are you thinking? What would by-standers think as they listened to your conversation?

One thing about people who are enthusiastic about life is that they are usually magnetic. They light up a room, they are always surrounded by a crowd. People naturally gravitate toward other people who are happy and seem in control. But what happens when you get close enough to see that they are just trying a tiny bit too hard to be legitimate? What if the consistency or substance isn’t there? How does that character keep up the charade? How do you see it? How, if there is truly no substance, do you as a reader discover it? Will it be in the Believer’s frayed pant leg or missing button? Will it be in the quick glance down she makes after every human encounter? Just like the emerging field of PP, every character must have cracks in the armor. Even the Truest-Happiest-Believer-of-All-Things-Positive has a ding in the shield. What is it? Does the critique of that person’s belief-system hold water? Could the character make a journey over time to mend the damage?

You need both positive and negative forces in opposing characters for your novel or work of fiction to be memorable. Chart which side, positive or negative, your character will fall on. No middle ground. You can make a sliding scale (using a common measurement tactic from Psychology), but you still must divide the scale into two halves. The scale can have two of any extremes (e.g. Grape Jelly Fan vs Strawberry Jelly Fan), but you need to put each of your characters on that spectrum.

If PP had its way with your characters, they would test them on a variety of scales to diagnose current states and predict future behaviors. PP would look at self-efficacy (which is like “agency” – the ability and belief that one can accomplish tasks and goals on their own), resiliency (the ability to bounce back from trauma) and perhaps even sense of humor and daily laughter rates. The science behind PP is the same as a lot of Personality, Developmental, and Behavioral Psychology, they are just choosing to measure different traits. As writers, we tend to go into the dark sides of characters; It’s almost easier to write drama than it is to write pleasantries. But having no happy characters, or people who are optimists that promote achievement and satisfaction in others, isn’t giving your novel the opportunity for some significant conflicts.

I am so sorry. I haven’t written in like a week and I know that goes against all my own rules. I haven’t written anything since that ill-fated trip to Boston and I guess what I like to call “the writer’s disease” was just kicking my butt. I mean I would like to know when this disease is going to get the hint that I will ultimately win. Sure, there have been some really rough or dark days and I thought I was a goner, but then I just get this inner strength to pull through and I am still here. Beaten a bit, but still breathing. I’m talking about depression for those of you who haven’t gotten it yet. If I weren’t writing this, I wouldn’t have gotten it. I would be thinking what writer’s disease and do I have it? What are the signs that you have it and is there a cream for it?

 

Anyhow, I started thinking about being honest and what that really means. Remember when you were a little kid and your mom would always tell you that honesty was the best policy? Normally my mom was saying it because she knew I was lying and was trying to guilt me into a confession. My mother was an odd woman. She would play with bubbles and she once told my sister if she didn’t stop playing with her belly button she would unravel. Sure, you are thinking, oh your mom just said that, but I tend to think that she really believed that kind of stuff. I wouldn’t say she was stupid, I think she was just a bit odd.

 

Let me back up a bit so you can get the whole picture. I have been having this recent all Michelle’s ex-boyfriends showing up thing happening in my life and it makes me question why. The other day I was at a Phillies’ game and then I saw that guy Steve that I had mentioned in another blog. I certainly went up to him and was like hey, how’s your day? Then I fluttered off not because I was cool like that but because I was shaking and freaking out. I wanted to hug him to see if he still smelled good. Sad, I know, but what can you do? I’m a girl who smells guys. But getting back to the importance of Steve…I started to think why am I seeing this guy when I haven’t seen him in like six years? I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason and signs are everywhere. So what was Steve’s sign?

 

Simply put, to be honest. I was never honest with Steve. Not that I cheated on him or anything, I just wasn’t honest with who I was at the time. In my life, I sometimes tell people things because I want them to feel bad for me and comfort me. I twist things in my head to pretend that telling someone that I am sick will make them run to me. In my mind I think goody I have this great illness and now you will come and sit with me. In truth, I know this doesn’t work because I know I am not being honest.

 

Recently I reached out to someone and was finally just honest. I am finally not looking for a hello back or anything (sure, it would be nice); I am just finally saying what is honestly in my heart. This is the same lesson we as writers have to put into our work. Before I have wrestled with the idea of changing things to meet market demands. I don’t think that will really work because we aren’t being honest. Kids can always smell when people are being fake and so can readers. We may be telling a story, but our story must be honest.

 

Sure, my mom was wrong about the belly button thing, but when she said honesty is the best policy…well, she was one hundred percent correct. When you are honest with yourself and your writing, people will pick up on it. You can’t have any regrets when you are honest. Absolutely tell a story, but tell an honest one.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 49 other followers