Keeping it Positive

by Cheryl Warren Brugel ’90

With 18 years separating Dr. James Pawelski ’89 and his Cedarville graduation, James has yet to leave education and the classroom behind. But he has definitely graduated — to the other side of the podium! James currently serves as the director of education and senior scholar in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Upon graduating from Cedarville, James went on to Penn State University where he earned his doctorate in philosophy. During that time, he was able to study philosophy in Germany as well on a Fulbright Scholarship.

From 1997 to 2002, James served as assistant professor of philosophy at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. It was during these years that James met Dr. Martin Seligman [], the founder of positive psychology. James had the privilege of attending the first public meeting on positive psychology in 2000 and, because of his scholarship in philosophy, was able to become involved by presenting at international conferences and publishing articles. While serving as assistant professor of human and organizational development and religious studies at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, James was recruited by Dr. Seligman to come to the University of Pennsylvania to develop the master of applied positive psychology degree, the first degree program of its kind.

A mathematics major and philosophy minor while at Cedarville, James enjoys thinking deeply about life and its meaning. His current position at the University of Pennsylvania allows him to continue pursuing his love of philosophy but in the realm of positive psychology.

James shared that “mainstream psychology typically focuses on the identification, cure, and treatment of mental illness; positive psychology focuses on the identification and cultivation of mental strengths.” How does philosophy fit with this? As the director responsible for developing the world’s first degree program in positive psychology, James is particularly interested in examining the philosophical underpinnings of positive psychology. He challenges his students to ponder questions such as: “What is happiness? What does positive psychology mean by ‘positive’? How do the empirical findings of positive psychology inform cultural and historical views of human flourishing? How can philosophical, religious, and literary insights into human flourishing help in the ongoing development of positive psychology?”

Less than a decade old, positive psychology is already making a significant impact on various educational domains. James noted, “Hundreds of researchers across the United States and around the world are now engaged in studying human flourishing and how to cultivate it. An increasing number of educators and other professionals are incorporating the principles of positive psychology into their work. The largest class offered at Harvard University in the spring of 2006 was a course in positive psychology (with more than 850 students registered).”

James continues to be drawn to this new field because he feels it presents a fresh perspective on human flourishing as it takes age-old themes such as wisdom, courage, gratitude, love, and spirituality seriously. He also believes that positive psychology presents educators with a great model for education reform. According to James, “All too often, academia approaches important matters intellectually and leaves out somatic, affective, and volitional elements. There’s nothing wrong with careful thinking, of course, but human beings are more than just brains. Positive psychology’s emphasis on rich theory, rigorous empirical research, and experiential application reminds us that human flourishing is a holistic activity that must involve every part of our being.” James stated that if education is to be more effective in this century, this is a lesson it must not forget.

In keeping with his interest in philosophy and psychology, James has recently completed a book on philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910), who taught at Harvard University for about 35 years. The book, The Dynamic Individualism of William James, will be released this coming October. In his book, James analyzes James’ rich and complex thought through the examination of one of James’ key themes: Individualism. This theme runs throughout James’ writings and underlies his seminal views on freedom, society, government, psychology, education, religion, pragmatism, and metaphysics. James shared that “beginning readers of James will find the book an excellent introduction to James’ thought. More advanced readers will appreciate the contribution this book makes to a new understanding of James’ scholarship.”