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Building Upon What's Right

by Mark Peres

December 5,2006

Some people ask what’s wrong and seek to fix it. Others ask what’s right and seek to build upon it.

Not too long ago, I attended a panel discussion on what’s ailing architecture. Questions were asked about why Charlotte was so impoverished when it came to having interesting and inspiring buildings. Other questions were asked about the sad state of architecture as a profession. Why was there such a divide between what is taught in architecture schools and how it is practiced? On it went, with the premise and conclusions clear, that the built environment was in terrible shape and architects as creative professionals had very little say in the shaping of today’s cities. Although the stated goal was curative, the discussion was an hour-long dirge of dark intellectual pessimism that I found very depressing.

The forum was very much in the tradition of how Western psychology has been practiced since its inception, concerning itself almost exclusively with pathology: anxiety, neurosis, obsession, paranoia, delusion. The goal of practitioners has been to bring patients from a negative, ailing state to a neutral, normal state. As Freud famously declared, the goal of psychoanalysis is to convert “hysterical misery into common unhappiness.”

There are reasons for this tradition of psychoanalysis, arising as it has from the Western disease model of medicine to the lucrative money trail of developing pharmaceuticals and therapies for the treatment of pathological symptoms. It is a negative approach that permeates academia and the sciences, with its weights and measures; after all, the wealth is in diagnosis and treatment, not in expressing gratitude for what is working.

We bring this tradition to what we do in the civic realm: examining the illnesses of society and pouring attitude and energy into our inadequacies. Some people, caustically, do it quite well – believing that’s where the heavy lifting occurs.

However, there is another approach to psychology – one that has gained recent favor in the wake of the wellness movement – one that argues that mental health should be more than the absence of mental illness. It is a positive approach that does not study why people are impaired, but rather why they thrive – asking what are the enabling conditions that make humans flourish?

In his 1902 book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James argued that happiness is a chief concern of human life and those who pursue it should be regarded as “healthy-minded.” In his 2002 book, Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, argued that our time and resources in self improvement should go to understanding our strengths and how to deploy them.

Seligman, and other researchers in the field of positive psychology, have divided the study of optimal human functioning into three broad areas:

1. The Pleasant Life or the "life of enjoyment," which examines how people optimally experience, forecast and savor the positive feelings and emotions that are part of normal and healthy living (e.g. relationships, hobbies, interests, entertainment, etc.).

2. The Good Life or the "life of engagement," which investigates the beneficial affects of immersion, absorption, and flow that individuals feel when optimally engaged with their primary activities. These states are experienced when there is a positive match between a person's strength and the task they are doing, i.e. when they feel confident that they can accomplish the tasks they face.

3. The Meaningful Life or "life of affiliation," which questions how individuals derive a positive sense of well-being, belonging, meaning, and purpose from being part of and contributing back to something larger and more permanent than themselves (e.g. social groups, organizations, communities, movements, traditions, belief systems).
Good urban policy understands the building blocks of wellness and enables conditions for the flourishing of happiness. This pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the American mythos – one that positive psychology can offer its own weights and measures.

We can bring this tradition to the civic realm: imagining desired outcomes, celebrating beauty, counting our blessings, practicing acts of kindness, savoring the city’s joys, creating vibrant community, and finding reward in the journey.

It is an entirely different kind of heavy lifting.

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