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 The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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