Feature

Four researchers were awarded the 2001 John Templeton Positive Psychology Prize--psychology's largest monetary prize--on May 29:

  • Jonathan Haidt, PhD, of the University of Virginia, received the first-place award of $100,000 for his research on what he calls "elevation"--the emotion people experience in reaction to acts of moral beauty.

  • Laura A. King, PhD, of Southern Methodist University, received the second-place award of $50,000, for her studies in two areas: the impact of setting daily goals and the "stories" that people tell about important life experiences.

  • Michael E. McCullough, PhD, of Southern Methodist University, received the third-place award of $30,000, for his research on forgiveness and gratitude and their effects on people's well-being.

  • Gustavo Carlo, PhD, of the University of Nebraska-- Lincoln, received the fourth-place award of $20,000 for his work on prosocial and moral development in children and adolescents.

The Templeton award program, created by APA and underwritten by the John Templeton Foundation, recognizes and supports midcareer scientists whose work focuses on positive psychology topics such as optimism, wisdom, self-control, persistence, courage and future-mindedness. The program is now in its second year.

"The awardees for 2001 are especially impressive," says Richard McCarty, PhD, APA's executive director for science, "and collectively they provide clear evidence of the strength and vitality of research in positive psychology."

Morality's emotional side

Jonathan Haidt has been cultivating an interest in morality for more than a decade. When he entered graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s, "Most of the research that was out there was focused on moral reasoning," he says. "But morality felt much more passionate to me than that."

Haidt and mentor Paul Rozin, PhD, began to probe what they called social disgust--the emotion that people experience when they perceive moral ugliness in others. But, Haidt says, "One day it occurred to me that we had never looked at what happened when the opposite happened--when people behaved in a morally superhuman way."

In recent years, he has mounted a research program at the University of Virginia to tackle that question. His research has shown that when people witness acts of moral beauty--a young person helping an elderly woman shovel her driveway, Mother Teresa ministering to the poor--they experience a distinct emotion that Haidt calls elevation--an emotion that involves a physical feeling, typically in the chest, and motivates people to want to help others.

"To me, it's a remarkable and really quite beautiful fact about human nature that we can be so moved by the sight of a stranger helping another stranger," says Haidt. "Although I'm at the basic research phase now," he adds, "ultimately I hope that this research will help contribute to the design of moral education."

Goals and life meaning

As a former student of English literature, Laura King has found a way to blend her literary sensibilities with her work as a personality psychologist. Since her graduate days at the University of California, Davis, King has mined the stories people tell--both about their daily goals and about their life dreams and disappointments--to better understand how people create meaning in their lives and how their stories affect their happiness and well-being.

In one line of research, she has examined people's daily goals--to talk more about their feelings, get an "A" on a test or stop biting their fingernails, for example. Her studies have shown that people who are working toward personal goals tend to be happier and healthier than those who are not.

In other research, King asked people to write about their "lost stories"--the dreams that they don't have anymore because of changes in life circumstances. "Although it's absolutely true that focusing on the positive is associated with being happier and experiencing more meaning in life," King concludes from her research, "being able to acknowledge legitimate losses is a strong correlate of maturity."

In a recent study of the link between goals and well-being, King asked people to imagine that they had achieved all their life goals and write about what those goals were. She found that these people grew more satisfied with their lives and more optimistic, over time, than did those who instead wrote about either a traumatic event or about a neutral topic. Further, writing about dreams yielded the same health benefits that writing "cathartic" essays about traumatic events did.

"In psychology, it's almost as if there's been an assumption that it's in the negative that we have something to process--that positive processes just aren't psychologically interesting," King observes.

Her research, she believes, demonstrates that "we can gain not just by focusing on negative things, but also by talking about the most hopeful and fulfilling aspects of our lives."

Probing gratitude and forgiveness

Michael McCullough's research has homed in on two positive psychological phenomena--forgiveness and gratitude--that, he notes, are central concepts in virtually all of the world's religions and value systems. Indeed, he believes, understanding how these psychological states affect well-being and motivate behavior might help explain what many people find most compelling about religion and spirituality.

McCullough's research on gratitude has shown that people who frequently experience gratitude are happier, less depressed and anxious, less materialistic, more empathic and spiritual, and more helpful than people who aren't dispositionally grateful.

"It's really hard, at this point, to see a downside to a grateful outlook on life," McCullough concludes. "This is interesting to me--that these age-old religions would have this kind of psychological wisdom. They provide some ideas about how people function psychologically, which I think we psychologists should explore as a way of trying to round out what we believe to be true about human nature."

In recent research, McCullough has begun examining whether interventions to help people experience gratitude can boost health and well-being.

Moral supports

When it comes to children's and adolescents' moral behavior, says Gustavo Carlo, much of psychology's--not to mention the media's--focus has been on antisocial and risky activity.

"But the fact of the matter is that the majority of adolescents are not engaging in serious risky behaviors," he argues. "In fact, the majority are doing a lot of positive behaviors."

He believes it's important to understand the factors that contribute to healthy outcomes as well as the factors that contribute to negative outcomes. Toward that end, Carlo's studies have identified factors that predict children's and teen-agers' prosocial and moral behavior. For example, he notes, "There are wide individual differences in dispositional sympathy, and we now know that kids that are sympathetic tend to come from family environments that are warm and supportive. Kids who are highly sympathetic also tend to be kids who are pretty sophisticated in their moral reasoning and tend to be good at regulating their emotions."

In recent research, Carlo has begun to examine prosocial behavior in ethnic-minority children, and hopes to launch a longitudinal study that can untangle the dispositional and environmental factors that support moral behavior in these youngsters.

"There are a lot of resiliency factors and protective factors that are characteristic of ethnic-minority kids," Carlo concludes, adding, "I think psychology has a responsibility to present a more balanced perspective on what these kids' lives are like."

Further Reading

Applications for the 2002 Templeton Positive Psychology Prize must be postmarked by Oct. 1. For further information about award eligibility and application requirements, contact Terry Kang at tkang@psych.upenn.edu.