Penn professor explores what it means to be positive

The world has room for two kinds of superheroes, says James O. Pawelski, director of education and a senior scholar at the Penn Positive Psychology Center: those who combat negatives like poverty or inequality and those who seek out positives like harmony and justice, what Pawelski calls the red cape and the green cape, respectively.

“If you’re a red-cape superhero, you look for problems in the world, and you’ll find plenty,” he explains. “If you’re a green-cape superhero, you look for opportunities—and there are a lot there, too.” You can live meaningfully doing one or the other, but they’re better together, he argues.

Pawelski uses the superhero example to explain where positive psychology fits into psychology as a whole, and to dispel the notion that something not called “positive” is inherently the opposite.

“If you’re a therapist helping people who have anxiety or schizophrenia, is that negative? Of course not. It’s very positive,” he says. “The key is to distinguish between endeavors that are directly and indirectly positive.” Cultivating an opportunity is an example of the former; mitigating a problem, the latter.

Pawelski’s larger goal is to better define the word “positive” in the context of this field, something he writes extensively about in a new set of papers in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

“Positive psychology has been going like gangbusters for nearly 20 years and yet no one has asked the question in a robust way, ‘What do we mean by ‘positive’?’ so it’s something we stumble over,” he says. Pawelski used his background as a philosopher with extensive experience in positive psychology to analyze this core concept.

By way of a literature investigation, he concludes there are half a dozen definitions, ranging from what he describes as its “topography,” or the areas the field touches like optimism and courage, to its aim and target populations.

How do they all connect? The answer to that question sometimes creates tension for positive psychologists. For example, when should individuals sacrifice the positive emotions of a weekend away for the meaning of helping a friend in need?

Another question Pawelski asks is, “Where do morals come into play?” Think, he says, of a terrorist.

“This person might feel great [within the context of his group], but that positivity doesn’t work for the community, the city, the country, the world. The frame of reference for which those activities are positive is very narrow. This helps us see that the positive is actually on a continuum.”

In this young field, even questions with answers beget more questions. And yet Pawelski remains unsurprisingly optimistic—positive, even—that positive psychology will continue to evolve and grow, particularly as its scientists agree about how to define the word that graces its name.

This research, supported by the School of Arts & Sciences and the Templeton Religion Trust, is part of a larger project now under development. Pawelski is seeking expanded funding to connect networks of scholars, scientific researchers, and organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to collaboratively examine the role of the humanities in human flourishing.

The opinions expressed in the publications that come out of this research are those of Pawelski’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of Templeton Religion Trust.

Positive psychology