The field of positive psychology lost a great friend and contributor today: Dr. Chris Peterson (1950-2012).
You may know Dr. Peterson as the guy who researched the VIA: the character strengths inventory we use often in SOMO Leadership Labs. (We’re also using his book in SOMO 300!) He put a lot of work into this tool, combing the world’s many moral texts for a ubiquitous classification of strengths and virtues.
I know him as Chris, one of my professors in grad school. What an amazing teacher: humorous, zestful (in his own way) and wise – very wise. I just found this paper I wrote for his class in 2008. The assignment was to watch The Wizard of Oz and write a paper on what it says of character and strengths. I took it as an opportunity to explore the concept I had just begun writing about, now my life’s work. Wowza! To go back to that time when SOMO was called just Emotional Leadership (and I was a fan of copyrighting it as you’ll see!) He helped formulate my ideas.
Out of the classroom, Chris was an interesting bird. I’d often find him with a glass of wine in one hand and cigarette in the other. And then another cigarette almost before the first one was out. My most favorite Petersonism is: “When we know what we do, why do we live as we do?” That is, he (we) know drinking and smoking or _____ (fill in the blank here with your demons) are not good for us — so why do we continue engaging in _________? #Hm
(The initial conversations I would have with him in 2007 predated my familiarity with the field of neuroscience, where I began to understand just how automatic our thoughts and thus behaviors are.)
The last time I saw Chris was at George Mason University this past April. He and his colleague Nansook Park were keynotes at our annual Leadership + Well-Being Conference. They spoke on resilience, which they so aptly defined as “Struggling well.” I love thinking about resilience this way.
In fact, I love the way Chris Peterson thinks. I’ll keep this in the present tense because I know this man’s legacy will live. I know it will in me. I find it so synchronistic that just last week he published a blog to Psychology Today on awe, life, death, and legacy. (Check it out here. You’ll be happy you did. He’s the guy who sums up the entire field of positive psychology into three words: “Other people matter.” )
The last time I saw Chris was at the bar at Mason Inn on George Mason’s Campus. (I’m a Fellow in the Center for Consciousness & Transformation here–at the University, not the bar–and SOMO is a project of the Center.) I had such a nice interaction with him that moment. He looked me in the eyes, cocked his head, and said “You’re doing amazing work, Louis. Keep it up. You’re helping people improve their lives and that’s the most important part.”
I was so honored to be seen by him, so humble and wise. He made me matter. I think about the sincerity of that moment with Chris when I get stressed or burnt out. It helps bring me back to his notions of resilience, strength, and character — all of which, like him, are timeless.
Thanks for being my friend on the other side now, Chris. I love and appreciate you.