Emory Report

October 5, 1998

 Volume 51, No. 7

Keyes hopes social science will 'accentuate the positive'

Like physicians, social scientists have used for many years a disease model and focused on the negative aspects of health, defining "health" as the absence of sickness.

Sociology Assistant Professor Corey Keyes, who teaches undergraduate courses in health and well-being, is currently involved in two national, interdisciplinary projects that take a different approach--examining physical and mental health from a positive perspective.

While issues relating to positive health are not new and can be traced to the humanism movement that followed World War II, "they're finally coming into the field of science," said Keyes. "The New Age movement is sort of the cultural version of interest in matters related to positive health," he said, so this science "should fall on receptive ears."

One of Keyes' projects involves the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Research Network on Successful Midlife Development, for which he was selected four years ago as a network associate or "junior faculty member." The network, which is made up of senior representatives of a variety of disciplines as well as budding leaders in these fields, was established to conduct a major study of the U.S. population.

The study looks at aging, Keyes explained, but "it also focuses on successes--what promotes well-being, social involvement and arriving at midlife with physical health intact." Now the network is planning to carry this study forward, he said, "to follow the same people over time and measure changes in their health and well-being in order to understand the causes and consequences of aging well."

Successful aging has a very practical side, said Keyes, who also teaches medical sociology in the School of Public Health. "If we can not only prevent disease but [also] get people to rely on their strengths, they tend to age healthier. From a public health perspective, that's ideal because fewer people will get sick or die sooner."

This is especially important as the post-World War II generation ages. "We have the baby boom--the largest cohort in history in this country--in the midst of midlife," he said. "We don't need a cohort that large arriving at older adulthood very dependent."

Keyes' other project involves working with a group of psychologists who are essentially trying to build an entirely new field of study known as "positive psychology." The group, which will hold its first meeting in January, is led by Martin Seligman, president of the American Psychological Association, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

Out of a pool of 45 scholars nominated by eminent social psychologists, Keyes was one of 18 chosen by Seligman to form the nucleus of this new field.

As Keyes sees it, this is another opportunity to work with other disciplines and to be involved in the formation of a new field of study. "I will try to represent the more sociological insights, basically to try to make sure that they understand health is very social in nature," he said.

The public is generally interested in the issues both of these projects examine, Keyes said. "Hopefully we can do some science and illuminate what seems to be the natural human tendency, or the growing tendency, to try to seek a better life, a more meaningful life."

Although the pursuit of happiness is often viewed as selfishness by our culture, he said, "We're beginning to find that caring about others, taking time to help, doesn't take away from our own happiness--it only multiplies it. We want to understand how it is that caring for others can come back and be a rewarding, positive [and] personal experience."

--Linda Klein

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