Emory Report

October 25, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 9

First Person:

Keyes explains why positivity is no laughing matter

I study what makes life worth living, positive aging and positive mental health. Some students call me "Dr. Positive." My students think it is fun and interesting to study good things.

However, when push comes to shove, students often ask why we did not spend more time during the semester talking about depression, anxiety, phobias and so on. I get the feeling--and sometimes even students tell me explicitly--that people don't believe it is important or constructive to study the positive aspects of social life.

My sense is that students at Emory want to make a difference in the world, to leave the world a better place than they found it. Despite the disciplinary boundaries that ostensibly separate us, faculty seek at least one common goal, which is to improve life and living. In one form or another, all of us at Emory and at other institutions of higher learning pose some of life's most challenging and potentially rewarding questions: How can my work make a difference? and How can I help to improve life and living?

But here is where the story becomes peculiar, at least for me. The vast majority of people, from CEOs to parents, believe that studying the worst things in life--disorder, disease, deviance and violence, war and poverty--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 social science--is no laughing matter. It is dead serious stuff, and if we do not begin to study the positive qualities of people and social life, we will never achieve our goal of making a difference or improving life and living.

I believe there are two compatible and necessary approaches to genuinely improving our lives through scholarship and teaching. The first is to identify what is wrong and eliminate it; the second is to identify what is right and accentuate it. In other words, there are negative and positive approaches to making a difference.

Why do we need both? At least in my field, the absence of disorder does not translate into the presence of positive mental health; there are many people in this country (upwards of 26 million according to my latest research) living lives of quiet despair--what I call "languishing in life." These are individuals who appear healthy but, from the positive perspective, are not--because they have no well-being, nothing positive, in their lives.

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

Here are two lessons I have learned from life and from studying adult mental health and well-being:

The more you focus on the negative, the more it pervades life. If you see something everywhere, it creeps into your mind more often and becomes a commodity (witness, for example, the epidemic of "911" and "Best Police Chases" TV shows).

Studying only the negatives of human life and eliminating much of the negative 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." Much like the study of dieting (an American obsession) studying the negative leaves people with very empty plates, asking themselves, "Is this all there is to life?"

Let me give you an example gleaned from my association with the Gallup Organization, an institution truly devoted to promoting the quality of organizational life. Gallup consults with businesses that want to improve their image and customer loyalty. 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 ridding people of dissatisfaction.

The bottom line, however, is that understanding and fixing dissatisfaction generally does not create more satisfied customers. It does, however, make for fewer dissatisfied customers. Fixing dissatisfaction is half the battle in business, as it is in mental health and no doubt will be in most social sciences.

We have been tenacious about our single-mindedness toward making a difference. However, understanding and ridding the negative will not make life genuinely better, nor will it create a full and satisfying vision of life. Everything I read and hear these days suggests that the average person wants something "more" out of life, to know how to live a "better life." The problem isn't merely with the "average" population or with kids who tote guns to school; the problem may have as much--maybe more--to do with an incomplete institution of higher learning and social science preoccupied with negatives.

It is clear that Emory is seeking its rightful place among the top-tier institutions. My question, however, is whether we also want to be a leading institution. Rather than seeking to be as good as the Harvards and Yales of the world, why not take the approach that Emory is a distinctive leader among elite schools? Everyone wants to be the best and make a difference; few have translated that into programs that can promote the positive as well as eliminate the negative.

To truly make a difference, institutions need to support a two-pronged approach. Certainly 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 social science. Throughout this country I would recommend that we adopt more of a "Noah's Ark" attitude toward management, parenting, education and scholarship. If we are to flourish in the next millennium, we need institutions of higher learning that pick both of these two approaches.

Positivity should be the companion to all matters negative, whether they be in scholarship, teaching or leadership. If it isn't, we will not reproduce the kind of knowledge we need to survive, let alone guide ourselves toward a better life. Now, doesn't that sound like something a "Dr. Doomsday" rather than a "Dr. Positive" would say?

Corey Lee Keyes, an asistant professor, hold joint appointments in sociology and behavioral sciences/ health education.

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