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Days are long—Life is short

Author Christopher Peterson passed away late last year. As the World Congress on Positive Psychology approaches (Oxford University Press will be at booth 110), we’d like to pay tribute to one of the founders of the field in this brief excerpt from Pursuing the Good Life.

I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument,
while the song I came to sing remains unsung.

—Rabindranath Tagore

I hope that no one thinks that a writer of reflections about the good life (i.e., me) has it all together. Competitive soul that I am, I bet I could trounce most of you who read what I write on formal measures of neuroticism and rumination. As a writer, I try to convey a public persona of being somewhat evolved and somewhat wise. Believe me, it ain’t so.

As much as anyone and maybe more than most, I get mired down in the minutiae and hassles of everyday life. I fret about the ever-growing number of e-mail messages that inhabit my inbox. I worry that people may not like me, even and especially people I don’t like myself. I putter way too much, sometimes spending as much time formatting a scholarly paper as I do researching and writing it. I fill up many of my days doing small things that do not matter. I know it, but sometimes I can’t help myself.

A common inside joke among research psychologists is that we study those topics that we simply do not get. In some cases, this is obvious. Myopic psychologists seem more likely to study vision than their 20-20 colleagues. Out-of-shape psychologists seem more likely to study physical fitness, and unmarried psychologists seem more likely to study marriage.

Following this line of reasoning, are positive psychologists less than positive? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I could characterize the major players in positive psychology as walking the walk versus talking the talk, but they are my friends and my colleagues, happy or not, and I will respect their privacy. It’s probably enough that I have just outed myself as needing further work.

Indeed, gossip is not my point. Rather, my point is to discuss an enemy of the good life, one that is my particular demon but also one that may plague others: getting mired down in the unpleasant details and demands of everyday life.

Sometimes people are urged to live in the moment. I think this advice needs to be qualified by understanding what the moment entails. To paraphrase Albert Ellis, if the moment in which we live is draped in ought’s and should’s, it is probably better not to live in it.

Everyday life of course poses demands, and I am not saying that we should ignore those we do not like. I am simply saying—to myself, if no one else—to keep the bigger picture in mind. Things not worth doing are not worth doing obsessively.

There must be an ancient Buddhist aphorism that makes my point profoundly, but I’ll just say it bluntly, in plain 21st century Americanese: Don’t sweat the small stuff; and most of it is small stuff.

Days are long. Life is short. Live it well.

In Pursuing the Good Life, one of the founders of positive psychology, Christopher Peterson, offers one hundred bite-sized reflections exploring the many sides of this exciting new field. With the humor, warmth, and wisdom that has made him an award-winning teacher, Peterson takes readers on a lively tour of the sunny side of the psychological street. Christopher Peterson was Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. One of the world’s most highly cited research psychologists and a founder of the field of positive psychology, Peterson was best-known for his studies of optimism and character strengths and their relationship to psychological and physical well-being. He was a frequent blogger for Psychology Today, where many of these short essays, including this one, first appeared.

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