Personality Science and the Northern Tilt: As Positive as Possible Under the Circumstances

Book: Designing Positive Psychology
In K. M. Sheldon,T. B. Kashdan, & M. F. Steger (2011).
Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward
New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 228-247.

Introduction: Positive Psychology and Personality Science

Positive psychology and personality science emerged virtually simultaneously as the new millennium appeared on our horizon. The aspirations and research agendas of these two intellectual movements overlap yet their core tasks differ.[i] The central concern of positive psychology is to reorient  psychology to positive features of human conduct that have been understudied in conventional psychology such as hope, happiness, exceptional accomplishment, virtuous action and human flourishing (Sheldon, Frederickson, Rathunde, Csikszentmihalyi & Haidt, 2000.)  In exploring these topics positive psychology is concerned with aspects of human thought, feeling and action that are, in Peterson’s (2006) terms, “north of neutral.” Personality science, the hub of which is an invigorated and expanded personality psychology, aims to explore and integrate the full range of diverse influences on personality drawing on disciplines ranging from molecular genetics to narrative theory (Cervone & Mischel, 2002a; Little, 2005, 2006). Its explorations extend both north and south of neutral. I suggest that the geographic center of personality science is essentially equatorial.

My goal for this chapter is to reflect on how these two movements have co-evolved and how they may continue to do so.  The key substantive question I explore is this: to what extent and in what ways are positive emotions, orientations, and actions critical for human well-being? Drawing on research in personality science I will make the case that for some individuals, under certain circumstances, adopting what I will call a northern tilt will be highly adaptive. Under other circumstances, however, an upward bound approach to life might be less adaptive.  At its worst, unmitigated positivity might catch us unawares and bring us to our knees. Continue reading

Personal Projects and Free Traits: Personality and Motivation Reconsidered


I review a social ecological model of human development that stimulates recon- sideration of some traditional views in personality and motivational psychology. I propose that the quality of lives is contingent upon the sustainable pursuit of core personal projects. Project pursuit may occasionally require the suspension of biogenic fixed traits and the adoption of ‘free traits’, and I review some prelim- inary research on this recent topic. Free traits are culturally scripted patterns of conduct that are strategically crafted to advance projects about which a person cares deeply. Biogenic introverts, for example, may act as extraverts in order to advance projects requiring expressions of enthusiastic assertiveness. This may not only enhance well-being by promoting successful project pursuit but may also compromise well-being because of challenges to the autonomic nervous system. The costs of free-traited behavior can be mitigated by the provision and use of restorative resources. When viewed through this perspective seeming inconsistencies and paradoxes of daily life become less puzzling as well as more intriguing. By tracing these themes through the lives of a hypothetical couple, George and Elizabeth, I hope to provide a stimulant to theory, research, and applications that can both explain and enhance the quality of lives.  Continue reading