Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Golden Apple winner explains why other people matter

Christopher Peterson wondered how many U-M students were named “Victor’’ so he checked the online directory and found 23.

“Wouldn’t it be fun to gather them all together and sing ‘Hail to the Victors?’’ Peterson asks. “The happiest people of all have good relationships with others.’’

The U-M psychology professor, winner of the 2010 Golden Apple Award for Outstanding Teaching, researches character strengths and how they pertain to the outcomes of happiness, achievement and physical well-being. He is considered a founder of the field of positive psychology, and is among the 100 most cited psychologists in the world.

His colleague Nansook Park, associate professor of psychology, says Peterson always makes time to help students and will even encounter young waiters and waitresses, ask what they want to do with their lives and wind up giving them advice that is quickly scribbled onto napkins.

“Other people matter,’’ Peterson stresses. “We are all other people to everyone else.”

While he notes academics might not appreciate this, his research data indicates that the heart matters more than the head, that soldiers do brave things because they care about their fellow soldiers, that people like his parents (ages 95 and 93) live longer “because they have each other.’’

Research also shows that a student who has at least one “buddy or close friend’’ in school will do much better than someone who doesn’t have that connection. He said research also shows that workers who have one “best friend at work’’ also will be far more successful than workers who lack such a bond.

“A true friend is someone who takes more pleasure in your accomplishments than you yourself do,’’ Peterson says.

He offers a proven technique to build and improve relationships: use “active, constructive responses’’ to others by trying to go one day without adding words like “but’’ to statements made to others. How you respond to good news is much more of an indicator of how successful your relationships will be than how you respond to bad news, he adds.

Peterson is helping organize a Fall 2010 LSA Theme Semester called “What makes life worth living?” He hopes it will focus on ways people connect and grow through things like art, music, literature, religion and service to others.

“Our university is not only an academic institution; it is a campus that is devoted to the holistic growth of our students,” Athletic Director David Brandon says of Peterson. “Great teachers like Chris Peterson are passionate about making an impact on their students’ lives.”

Peterson says he believes students actually learn more from each other than they ever will learn from their professors, but points to the epitaph of baseball trailblazer Jackie Robinson, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.’’