Wacko Wednesdays: Positive Psychology

Writing Tips

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.

Wacko Wednesdays: Fathers

Writing Tips
***Wacko Wednesdays: Each Wednesday, I’ll outline a human quirk or phenomenon in the study of Personality Psychology, or perhaps talk about a specific type of research into personality. I’ll provide information, links, and my own experiences to help you along in your goals of writing memorable characters.***


Writers don’t write about mothers much. I was at a writing conference where the speaker asked the audience to call out something they’d read that examined the mother-child relationship. No-one spoke up. The speaker had made her point. The mother/child relationship is very complex and close to the heart. Even Disney likes to kill off moms so they don’t have to deal with trying to navigate those murky-mommy-issues waters. Fathers, on the other hand, abound in fiction. Father’s Day is this Sunday. Because we know all psychosis comes from our parents (not!), for today’s Wacko Wednesdays, let’s talk about at writing about the father/child relationship, or writing a character as a father.

For decades, psych research focused on the mother’s parenting as pathology for mental illness in children. More and more, researchers are looking at the father’s influence (especially with the area of girls and eating disorders). The father’s attitudes and behaviors toward parenting would influence your main character (MC). The father’s raising of your MC will probably all be backstory that happens offstage (i.e. not in the novel), but it is perhaps the most important character detail that fuels your MC’s current motivations. Let’s take a look at how some psych research examines how a father’s behaviors influence his children.

In the book, “The Role of the Father in Child Development” (.pdf of intro here), Editor Michael E. Lamb outlines the 3 areas that many researchers concentrate on when researching the father/child relationship: Engagement, Accessibility, and Responsibility.

“Whether and how much time fathers spend with their children are questions at the heart of much research conducted over the past three decades. In the mid-1970s a number of investigators sought to describe—often by detailed observation and sometimes also through detailed maternal and paternal reports—the extent of paternal interactions with children (Pleck & Masciadrelli, this volume; Lamb & Lewis, this volume). Many of these researchers have framed their research around the three types of paternal involvement (engagement, accessibility, responsibility) described by Lamb, Pleck, Charnov, and Levine (1987). As Pleck and Masciadrelli note, researchers have consistently shown that fathers spend much less time with their children than do mothers. In two-parent families in which mothers are unemployed, fathers spend about one-fourth as much time as mothers in direct interaction or engagement with their children, and about a third as much time being accessible to their children. Many fathers assume essentially no responsibility (as defined by participation in key decisions, availability at short notice, involvement in the care of sick children, management and selection of alternative child care, etc.) for their children’s care or rearing, however, and the small subgroup of fathers who assume high degrees of responsibility has not been studied extensively. Average levels of paternal responsibility have increased over time, albeit slowly, and there appear to be small but continuing increases over time in average levels of all types of paternal involvement.”

Engagement, Accessibility and Responsibility are the three things you can think about when forming your character.

Engagement: How “hands-on” was your MC’s father when she was small? Was he a good guy but had a job that took him away often? Did he just seem like he was yelling everytime he spoke to his kids, but he was just trying to encourage them?

Accessibility: Could your MC bring any question under the sun to her dad or was she relegated to communicating with him through his secretary? Did he send the MC off to boarding school and say “See ya at Christmas?” Was there always a DO NOT DISTURB sign on his door, but he was very attentive at dinner time?

Responsibility: Did your MC’s father support his family well? Was he a good earner but a fierce disciplinarian? Was he a drinker but loved his family with all his heart? Was he a drifter that constantly told his kids to reach for the stars?

Look for ways you can build in contradictions in each of these areas, then think about how a kid would reconcile those inconsistencies. How we judge people is a lot of our character. A father’s personality greatly influences our sense of judgment. In flat characterizations, fathers are either no-good bums or unsung heroes, drinking louses or quiet loyalists. Usually a main character (MC) comes to acknowledge the father’s cheating ways or learns to appreciate the constant wisdom that they couldn’t recognize before. It’s all so cheesy and cheap. Try to go for some more depth. What kind of roles does the father character in your book play? What kind of parent is he? Is he a stand-offish, everyone-has-to-learn-for-themselves kind of guy or is he a soccer dad that is with his kids every step of the way? How can he be both? What generation is he in? Is he a 70-year-old but a modern diaper-changing/sling-wearing dad? Was he raised to think he’d let the kids grow up before he had any kind of relationship with them, even though he’s just 20 years old?

Take those three aspects of measuring fatherhood, Engagement, Accessibility and Responsibility, and mix and match good and bad characteristics of each. Make the father character a conflicted, true-hearted, complicated being that marked your MC with distinctive world views. Happy Father’s Day, to all of those dads out there!

Wacko Wednesdays: Happiness

Writing Tips

Wacko Wednesdays: Happiness

***After a long hiatus, Wacko Wednesdays are back! Each Wednesday, I’ll outline a human quirk or phenomenon in the study of Personality Psychology. I’ll provide information, links, and my own experiences to help you along in your goals of writing memorable characters.***

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” -United States Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 4th 1776.

Happy Muffin!

Happy Muffin!

Happiness research has taken the Psychology world by storm. If you search any book site for the word “Happiness,” you will see a plethora of books written on the subject. Lately I’ve been reading Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. It’s academic research and theory about attaining happiness and how our judgment about what will make us happy in the future is ridiculously skewed by our present thinking.

This book and the advent of other titles in the positive psychology area have inspired me to think about how we, as writers, paint the picture of our characters’ states of happiness. By looking at your MC and her goals in terms of her motivations and methods of attaining happiness, you can paint a deeper picture of what drives us all.

I’m sure you are familiar with the basic story arc: Main character (MC) starts out with a status quo, then challenges galore are thrown at the MC, lots of roadblocks stand in the way of achieving the new happiness goal, MC overcomes, is a changed person. The end. Today for Wacko Wednesdays I’ll run down two phenomena that researchers, namely David Myers, have identified as influencing a person’s happiness, namely Relative Deprivation and Adaptation.

Phenomenon #1: Relative Deprivation

“when we compare ourselves with those less fortunate, we can, however, increase our satisfaction. As comparing ourselves with those better-off creates envy, so comparing ourselves with those less well-off boosts contentment.” –David Myers

a-tree-grows-pixLately I’ve been reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a classic piece of American literature that portrays a devastatingly poor family and their survival struggles in 1900’s New York. It’s actually making me feel quite good.

Yes I know that sounds bad. But here it is: My husband, my two kids and I live in the smallest house in our neighborhood. We live on my husband’s salary as I’m a full-time mom, but we truly have more than enough. Still, this suburban life and the American consumerism gets to everybody. We are inundated with ads to buy more stuff, we read stories of neighbors’ huge home improvements, we hear kids describing their African safari vacations. It’s an affluent area and it seems, at times, that we aren’t keeping up with the Joneses.

The unfortunate Nolan family portrayed in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, truly has nothing. When they mention clothes, they mean one pair of pants and one shirt for a man and one dress for a woman. Can you imagine? I look at my closet full of plain, solid-colored Old Navy t-shirts and feel loaded (wealthy, not drunk). When the Nolan family mentions meals, they mean oatmeal with no milk or fruit. I open the freezer each morning and lazily wonder which hunk of meat I have to make that night. While they want for decent immune systems, we struggle to fight our ever-expanding waistlines. This book makes me feel so fortunate that I may start it all over again once I’m finished! This is Relative Deprivation at work. How rich you feel is totally dependent on who you are comparing yourself to. Compared to the Nolans (or many real people in this economy), my husband and I are doing great! Compared to our friends the doctors, with their big house and insanely lavish vacations, we’re struggling.

photo by Drawsome on Flickr

photo by Drawsome on Flickr

What do most good ol’ Amurrricanz do when they feel like they are poorer than everyone else? Apparently they buy lottery tickets. Recent research has shown the Relative Deprivation phenomenon in full-swing in lottery ticket buyers. If people are feeling deprived, they make the trip to the local bodega to pick up their Pick 6’s. If they feel better off than their neighbors, they don’t buy lottery tickets.

Here are the questions you can ask yourself about your MC’s Relative Deprivation feelings: Is she better or worse off than her neighbors, peers, family members? When does she feel better off and when does she feel worse? What makes her feel superior? What kinds of behaviors result from those feelings? How does she make herself feel better in the short term? Does she eat? Does she steal their watches? Does she retreat into her packed charity-ball schedule? How does her current state of feeling deprived influence her dreams for the future? Does she coast when she feels affluent or better off in some other way? Coasting is what most of us do once we achieve a certain goal or milestone. That brings us to Adaptation.

Phenomenon #2. Adaptation

“I’ll never get used to anything. Anybody that does, they might as well be dead.” ~Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1958, spoken by the character Holly Golightly

Adaptation is what happens when a person has hit a windfall, achieved a goal, or just plain got lucky when that Good Samaritan pulled him out of the path of that oncoming bus.

Little Lamb – Review by Marc Schuster


InterActLittleLambRunning through June 28 at the InterAct Theatre Company (2030 Sansom Street in Philadelphia,PA), Michael Whistler’s Little Lamb examines the issues that many adoptive couples face when both members happen to be of the same sex. At the same time, however, it does so much more. In addition to examining issues related to sexual orientation, the play also investigates the ways in which race and religion factor into our notions of justice, ethics, and morality. In other words, Little Lamb offers a thoughtful, complex look at many of the so-called “family values” that are too often over-simplified by the mainstream media.

The play centers on Denny and Jose, a gay couple intent on adopting a child. While at first glance the couple may appear to be somewhat stereotypical — Denny tends to get emotional over rare Ethel Merman recordings while Jose is a former lounge singer with the chiseled physique of a dancer — Whistler’s use of these types is quite intelligent, particularly given the challenge of portraying what might be termed a “gay issue” for a “straight” audience. By beginning with figures that a mainstream audience already knows, Whistler opens a door for further investigation. Yes, Denny likes Ethel Merman, but that’s not the full extent of who Denny is, nor does Jose’s former life as a cabaret singer define him in his entirety. As the play progresses, both characters emerge as complicated, flawed, struggling, hopeful, and (above all) human. The result is that Little Lamb is not only a play that speaks to issues relevant to the gay community but a play that speaks to the human condition.

Bringing Denny and Jose to life in this production are actors Ames Adamson and Frank X, who are more than believeable in their roles. Throughout the play, Adamson imbues Denny with a fitting mix of righteous certainty and insecure bravado while X’s Jose balances out his partner with kindness, compassion, dry humor, and quiet dignity. Rounding out the cast, Cathy Simpson, Kaci M. Fannin, and Katrina Yvette Cooper provide a strong counterpoint to Adamson and X.

As the fulcrum upon which the play’s dramatic tension rests, Fannin deftly navigates the choppy waters between her character’s advocacy for her clients and her own religious leanings. Indeed, if anything in this play came as a surprise to me, it was the even-handed way in which Whistler depicts religion. It would be easy (perhaps too easy) to vilify religion in a play like this — to depict those with a religious inclination as crazy or ignorant — but Whistler never gives into that temptation. Rather, the zeal that moves his more religious characters manifests itself in a way that genuinely seeks to do good. Thus there are no heroes or villains in Little Lamb, only people trying their best to do the right thing — even if “the right thing” is at odds with someone else’s right thing and therefore must inevitably result in sorrow and heartbreak.

Overall, Little Lamb is a moving, engaging production that gets at the heart of what we mean when we discuss things like love and family, as well as right and wrong. For information on ordering tickets, you can visit the InterAct Theatre Company at their website: InterActTheatre.org.