Other people matter

Two days ago, Chris Peterson died unexpectedly at he age of 62. A professor at the University of Michigan, he was among the 100 most-cited psychologists during the past 20 years and one of the founding fathers of the science of positive psychology. Together with U Penn Professor Marty Seligman, he took the lead on developing the Values in Action (VIA) personality assessment that analyzes and validates character strengths of individuals and is used around the world. But that is not why I am writing this entry today.

I most remember Chris Peterson as someone who changed the course of my life. When I enrolled in his positive psychology class, I did not really know much what to expect other than strong content taught by a man who had received numerous teaching awards at one of the leading universities in the US. And I did get that, but also got so much more. What I could not expect was sitting in a café in Manhattan, devouring the class book “A Primer in Positive Psychology” he had written. It reads a bit like the encyclopedia on positive psychology, comprehensive and substantive. It is also interwoven with backstage gossip in the foot notes, one of the few text books that made me laugh out loud in public (causing me to get funny looks from those around me), other times bringing tears to my eyes.

It was one of Peterson’s expressions he used in class, the importance of living “north of neutral” (in that positive zone, beyond the neutral zone as the absence of the negative), that inspired me to trade mark the name for what is now a coaching firm that serves leaders and executives around the world who want to lead more fulfilling, successful lives. As I asked for Peterson’s permission to do so, he responded in his typical low-key, humorous way: “I guess I am getting important if my catch phrases become urls – I hope you don’t sue me if I continue to use it.”

What I learned about positive psychology as part of Peterson’s course has inspired me to go out and learn more about this important scientific field. I believe it has made me a happier person, a more mindful friend and a more effective coach, allowing me to share what I have learned with my clients. Perhaps one of the key lessons that Peterson has sensitized me to is that “other people matter”. And while he gave me access to this wisdom in the form of research data, what is more is that he clearly walked the talk. Regardless of his fame, his intellect, and his experience, he was one of the most approachable, warm and caring professors I have ever had the privilege to be a student of.

Thank you, Chris Peterson. You continue to matter.