Very Nice Guy (and Important Psychologist) Dies

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This week Christopher Peterson, a friend of mine and a psychologist who had shed much light on how negative thinking can kill you before your time, died before his time, at age 62.

More than 20 years ago, Chris published a pathbreaking study showing that optimists live longer than pessimists, and since then he had fleshed this story out in various and sometimes surprising ways. For example: he found that people who "catastrophize"--attribute negative events to global causes--are prone to untimely death (even by violence and accidents), and he found that optimists are less prone to strokes than pessimists.

Chris doesn't seem to have considered himself naturally an optimist, but he worked to become one, and he thought a lot about how each of us can brighten our outlook and bring meaning and purpose into our lives. (Having a sense of purpose, he was quick to point out, is yet another positive mental element that is correlated with longevity.) To that end, he wrote a column at Psychology Today called "The Good Life." His final column, published four days before his death, was called "Awesome: E Pluribus Unum," and its final two sentences were: "We are all the same, and each of us is unique, certainly in death but also in life. May we all stop and notice."

In that column he metaphorically invoked the famous terra cotta soldiers in China--each possessing a uniqueness that fades from a distance. As it happens, I was with him when he saw those soldiers. We had both spoken at a conference at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and from there we proceeded to Xi'an, where we spent a few days seeing the sights, including those soldiers. I had met Chris years earlier, but this was the first time I had spent much time with him, and he proved every bit as genial and generous as he had seemed on first encounter. A former graduate student of his said, after his death, " 'Other people matter' was his trademark phrase, and he was one of those unique individuals who actually walked the walk, didn't just talk the talk." In 2010, when he won the University of Michigan's Golden Apple Award--given annually to a professor who "treats each lecture as if it were his last"--a colleague and close collaborator noted that, within the psychology department, he was known as "Mother Theresa" for his kindness.

A year ago I had video conversation with Chris, and here are a couple of excerpts. First, his amusing reflections on his several ego-expanding days in China:

Second, his discussion of how we can change our levels of optimism, along with some candid discussion of his own natural dispositions:

If you want to watch the whole conversation, it's here.

Chris was a major figure in the field of positive psychology, founded by the famous psychologist Martin Seligman, and he wrote what is probably the best primer in it (called, aptly enough, A Primer in Positive Psychology ). His final book, Pursuing the Good Life, will be published by Oxford University Press in December. Pre-ordering it would be a nice tribute to Chris, as would remembering that other people matter, remembering that we're all the same and all different, and remembering to stop and notice.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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