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: 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.

Wacko Wednesdays: Catch Phrases

Writing Tips

Showing personality through habitual wordings.

If you could see all the different kinds of real life characters I come across in the tech geek community, you’d never wonder why I spend too much of my writing time on-line.  There are some true characters in the Web2.0 crowd, both good ones and bad ones, cheerleaders and haters, zen gurus and crazies.  The egos on some of these guys (and I mean guys, because the women are mostly cool) are bigger than the numbers on a bookie’s ‘you owe me’ list.  Seriously, it is a VERY good thing that space online is virtual, because the amount of real estate needed to house these overblown self-images would mean we’d have to take over the Americas and then kidnap scientists to develop moon colonies.  Like my favorite fiction-writing saying goes: You can’t make this stuff up.

Anyway, FriendFeed is a website I hang out with these geeks.  Forget the friendly name – these people are neither friends nor providers of any food.  FriendFeed is an aggregator, i.e. one website that collects little bits from other websites, where you can type in comments in response to those little bits.  It’s like a chatroom, but not live.

A big name in this place and in the tech geek community at large is Robert Scoble.  I won’t even try to describe Robert; you can google him, he practically owns the interwebz.   Recently on FriendFeed he linked to a site run by another start-up boom gazillionaire, Mark Cuban.  Mark wrote a short rant about a pet peeve of his.   Mr. Cuban’s  personality *ahem* shows:

You Just Dont Get It

Jul 5th 2008 3:24PM

I just want to put it out there to save everyone and anyone who deals with me time. If at any point in time you utter the words “Just Don’t Get It” or “Just Doesn’t Get It” in any conversation with me, I will not do business with you.

If you try to justify your business, idea, proposal or whatever and in the course of conversation you utter these words, you have just proven to me that you are lazy. That rather than discussing the merits of another position, you think I’m stupid enough to dismiss that position because you want me to.

If you truly understand your topic its really easy to stand behind your position with facts and well thought concepts. If you have no idea what you are talking about, the other side “just doesn’t get it”

Call it a Mark Cuban rule of investing. If these words come up in any way shape or form, they just dont get “it”. “It” being an investment of my time or money.

Under Robert’s link to the above rant by Mark, a lot of the conversation centers around what “You just don’t get it” really means and bickering over who ‘gets it.’  It got me thinking about how catch phrases can do a great job in portraying a character’s general attitude toward the world.  Catch phrases are an efficient way to show a lot of inner information and motivation about a character with a few uttered words of dialog.

The “you don’t get it” phrase is condescending and is meant to stop all protests from the receiver.  You can picture the prodigy hacker kid with limited verbal skills screaming it at her parents.  We can see an emo teenager saying it through a cloud of his clove cigarette smoke to a wide-eyed punk wannabe outside the coffee shop.  And let’s not forget the 60’s, where “you just don’t get it” was the tagline for a whole drug-doused generation.

What is your character’s outlook on life?  How can that outlook be condensed into a few words?  For example, an administrative assistant who says “F*ck me” under his breath several times through the course of his day is probably a bit of a pessimist who thinks that fate is out to get him.  “Everybody deserves a second chance” may be the what gets a slightly-delusional injured kicker through the season.

There are several catch phrases from movies that you can adopt or adapt, like “Life is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get.” Forrest Gump repeated his mother’s adage; it shows the flexibility and resiliency inherent in his character. (Warning: Don’t use that one, though, it’s been too done.  You get the idea).

So when you’re thinking about your character’s personality, think about how they’d ‘sum up’ life.  Which common or original phrase you could use to portray that perspective?  (Warning: Don’t let your character use the catchphrase too often, unless it’s “K-Mart Sucks” and his name is Rainman.)  Pepper key scenes in the story with it in dialog or thought.  Bonus points: make up a saying that sounds like it could be a common adage.

Do you have a personal catch phrase?  No?  Ask your spouse or co-workers – they’ll tell you.  Think of ones you may have used in the past and start from there.  Cool beans!  Share your thoughts in the comments.  Thanks!

L8r aggregator.

Wacko Wednesdays: Multiple Intelligences

Writing Tips

Twitter is a site where a person can post a message to a bunch of friends at once. Sometimes Twitter works like a bulletin board (where you pin up your notice and get no replies) and sometimes it works like an on-line chatroom with a ton of conversations going on at once.

Last night I replied to a post from my friend Laura. She questioned how it would be possible for someone named Angelina to have a high IQ score (around 136 I think). Assuming Laura was referring to Angelina Jolie, I responded that a 136 score, albeit high, isn’t uncommon and Ms. Jolie seems capable of such a score.

A firestorm erupted, and this time it wasn’t about Angelina Jolie’s shenanigans. All sorts of Tweets (i.e. posts) popped up containing anger over the concept of intelligence testing and the permanent public (and more important personal) branding that can ensue afterwards. My contacts on Twitter interpreted my Tweets as support for and true belief in the IQ test. At 12:30 a.m., after much varied discussion and much qualification from me, the storm died down enough for me to go to bed. Embers were still smoldering this morning, as I had a quite few messages waiting for me in my inbox.

Wacko Wednesdays: Demographics

Writing Tips

‘Wacko Wednesdays!’ Each Wednesday, Christine Cavalier, a Philadelphia area writer with a Masters degree in Educational Psychology, outlines a different personality quirk for you to consider. Infuse these personality aspects into your characters and bring your writing to a whole new level. Make your characters memorable by adding a little wacky flavor!


My husband Gary and I have a friend (who we haven’t seen in a while) named Dave. We met Dave in college. Dave was a very short and slight guy with a personality bigger than a house. Dave was bubbly and he loved everything and everybody. Besides the incredible penchant for enjoying life, Dave seemed like your typical college student. He hung out with us, drank beer, played pool (and lost miserably but never cared) and stressed over term papers. Everything was copacetic.

Until one day Dave announced that he was getting a part-time job at the McDonald’s on campus. That in itself didn’t seem so bad, but then Dave enthusiastically announced that he asked for the first shift. A cry of disbelief rose from the room of friends. “DUDE! That means you’ll have to get up at like, 4 AM in the MORNING!” Dave brushed off our warnings of sure failure and happily started his job at MickeyD’s, sometimes leaving the house before the sun rose. We all gave him a week.