Great Expectations

A More Positive University

Corey L. M. Keyes, Associate Professor of Sociology

Emory's New President and the Idea of a University
Thomas G. Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching

Practical Matters
Rebecca Stone-Miller, Associate Professor of Art History and Faculty Curator

Economic Challenges and the Art of Education
Geoffrey Broocker, Walthour Delaperriere Professor of Ophthalmology

A Fresh Perspective for Perennial Problems
David Carr, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Philosophy

Teaching versus Research: Does It Have to Be That Way?
Lucas Carpenter, Charles Howard Candler Professor of English, Oxford College

Becoming a Top-Tier Research University
Lawrence W. Barsalou, Winship Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology, and Elaine Walker, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience

Ethics, Diversity, and Teaching
David B. Gowler, Pierce Professor of Religion, Oxford College

Advice from the Lighter Side
Vicki Powers, Asssociate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science

Return to Contents

The vast majority of people, from CEOs to parents, believe that studying the negatives of life--disease, disorder, and decay--will make the world a better place.

I believe they are correct, but only partially. In fact, I want to argue that positivity--in life and in our institutions--is no laughing matter. I want to suggest to our new president that Emory needs to become a "positive university." We must identify and rid the world of many of the negatives of living, but we also need to nourish and build practices, policies, and paradigms of positive behavioral and social science. Positivity is serious stuff, and if we do not begin to study the positive qualities and capabilities of people and organizations, we will fail to make a difference and improve life.

Why? Two compatible and necessary approaches genuinely improve our lives through scholarship and teaching. The first is to identify what is wrong and eliminate it; the second is to identify what it right and accentuate it. In other words, there is the negative approach and the positive approach to making a difference.

Why do we need both? Data from one of my recent studies revealed that 14 percent of Americans were depressed during the preceding year, meaning that 86 percent were not depressed and should have been mentally healthy during that period. Only 19 percent of the adults fit the criteria for "flourishing in life," however. Nearly 18 percent of the U.S. adult population was lan guishing in life with very low well-being but no depression; the remainder was only moderately mentally healthy (meaning they were not languishing but they did not reach the level of flourishing). Adults who were flourishing missed fewer days of work, were more productive at work, had fewer physical health limitations, and were at lower risk of chronic physical diseases such as cardiovascular disease. While adults who were moderately mentally healthy functioned better than adults who were languishing, an astonishing finding was that languishing adults functioned no better than depressed adults (for example, in terms of sick days, low productivity, physical limitations, and risk for chronic disease).

In short, the absence of depression is not necessarily the presence of mental health, and the promotion of "flourishing" can improve the well-being of the U.S. population.

The problem, as I see it, is that we unquestioningly accept one of two false assumptions or beliefs. First, we assume the only way to improve anything is to identify and eliminate the negative. If you don't feel well, see the doctor or psychiatrist, take a pill, and eliminate the cause or symptoms. Second, even if we acknowledge that there are two ways to improve life, we assume that eliminating the negatives is a priority and that institutions are only justified in spending resources on the study of disease, disorder, and decay.

Only studying and eliminating the negatives of human life does not result in anything positive. The irony is that getting rid of the negative usually does one thing: It rids people of ill feelings and returns individuals and organizations to "zero." Studying the negative leaves people asking themselves, "Is this all there is to life?" Moreover, despite billions of dollars spent on the treatment and prevention of the negatives of life, depression and many other maladies are on the rise. It is time to add the positive approach to our arsenal of tools for improving life.

Let me offer an example gleaned from my consultation with businesses that want to promote the quality of organizational life. Many business leaders want to improve their company's image and customer loyalty to promote profits. Most businesses don't want dissatisfied customers, and they focus most of their attention and resources on preventing and repairing dissatisfaction. Through science, we now know a lot about what makes people unhappy and dissatisfied, and we have developed myriad techniques for the remediation and prevention of dissatisfaction. Fixing or preventing dissatisfaction does not create more satisfied customers, however; it creates fewer dissatisfied customers.

Fixing dissatisfaction is half the battle in business, as it is in my field of mental health, and as it will no doubt be in most fields of behavioral and social science. If society is to flourish in the new millennium, we must take a two-pronged approach to higher learning: positivity should be the companion to all matters negative, whether it is scholarship, teaching, or leadership. If not, we will not produce the kind of knowledge we need to survive, let alone guide ourselves toward a better life.