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.

Michelle Wittle On Writer’s Block

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

This happens to everyone. You are going along just fine…the story is flowing out like liquid gold. Then, BAM!! You hit a wall. You look around and wonder just where did that wall come from? You certainly didn’t write up a wall. But then, there it is all white and huge. You touch your head and feel bumps that form the words, “You Loose Sucka!” First, you are annoyed because you now have the word “Sucka” on your head and then panic starts to seep in. What is this wall? How long will it be up? How do you get it taken down? You break out in hives and you can’t breathe. You know you will never write again. You look to the heavens and just like that chick in that bad movie “I Know What You did Last Summer or Last Fall or Yesterday” you start screaming, “Why”.

Well, the answer is simple, really. You have writer’s block. Now, there are no creams for it. You can’t just take a pill and the liquid gold will just start following again. Also, it isn’t contagious. But it is, in fact, a very real epidemic that plagues writers everywhere. Although it comes on without warning, we can do something to fix it. Here is just what I do.

First, I try to do simple things. I will go get the mail, grab another Coke Zero, punch Yoda in the face, something and anything to just remove myself from the computer. After a few minutes, I will come back to it and see if I can get the momentum running again. If that doesn’t work, then I will actually leave for a longer period of time. I might even call a friend and make them go to the book store with me or play Find the Mii’s on the Wii (have you played this game? You have to find the look-a-like Mii’s…it is very addicting).

Now, if I come back and I am still having trouble, I will save what I have and either start writing something else, or I might start reading. Maybe if I am really upset that I can’t write, I might turn on the TV and watch full seasons of a show (maybe “Sex in the City” or “Scrubs”) or some movie On Demand. The point is I am trying to think of everything but the story so it has time in my brain to wiggle out the kinks.

If you are having trouble getting started, I have a very good suggestion. It’s what I like to call brain dumping. My former students will recall it as a “free write”. Here is where for about ten or fifteen minutes, you write whatever is in your head. No matter how silly or stupid, just write it down. Your writer’s block is happening because you are simply blocked. So, start spilling.

I would love it if you would all humor me and post your own brain dumping. I will do the same. Here’s mine:


Time…why have you punished me? Why is my coke bubbling? Is there a rat in there? A bet there is. It would be my luck to get a rat in my coke. Surprise…it’s ratatatsic coke. My luck, I would drink the darn rat and not even know it.

I swear I am going to wind up like Emily Dickinson. I’ll be dead and people will find all my writing. She had problems with her thyroid as well. See, another connection.

Ha-ha…I wrote the word Sucka…dance sucka dance suck dance sucka…move sucka movie sucka move sucka….that was a funny movie…Blades of Glory.

Hmmm….nothing in the old noggin. That isn’t true and I know it. There is a least ten pounds of something in my head. It could be cheese. Who likes cheese? Frick…I miss that one.  You don’t call…you don’t write…all bull really.


I only did five minutes because no one should really have to suffer with the inner workings of my brain. But seriously, try it…I have to go get the mail now.