Ben Dean, Ph.D.
do Britney Spears, Martha Stewart, and the character strength
Prudence have in common?
all need a good publicist and an image makeover.
I ask my coaching clients to take the Values In Action Strengths
Survey (available at www.authentichappiness.org),
I am always curious to see their initial, gut reaction to the
strengths that appear at the top of their profile. My own observation
is that certain strengths are more readily celebrated than
others. Courage is celebrated! It's sexy and fascinating. So
is Wisdom. It is weighty and impressive. Prudence, on the other
hand, tends to get minimal attention. As I read the chapter
on Prudence in Peterson and Seligman's Handbook and Classification
of Strength and Virtues, I realized that my clients and
I were not fully appreciating the meaning and potential impact
of this strength. Prudence deserves a little more respect,
and here are 10 reasons why:
10 Reasons Prudence Deserves a Better Reputation:
Prudence is misunderstood.
Take a moment and bring to mind your own mental image
of a prudent person. How would you define prudence? Now compare
it to the definition of prudence provided by Peterson and Seligman
(2005, p. 478):
is a cognitive orientation to the personal future, a form
of practical reasoning and self-management that helps to
achieve the individual's long-term goals effectively. Prudent
individuals show a farsighted and deliberate concern for
the consequences of their actions and decisions, successfully
resisting impulses and other choices that satisfy shorter
term goals at the expense of longer term ones, having a
flexible and moderate approach to life, and striving for
balance among their goals and ends."
Prudence isn't for wimps
One reason for the lackluster reputation of prudence
is that this strength is (unfairly) associated with stagnation.
We envision the excessively prudent person as one who allows
life to pass him by because he is too afraid to jump in and take
risks. However, Peterson and Seligman note that "taking
easy options in life, or devoting oneself too single-mindedly
to a goal that impairs or forecloses more richly rewarding alternatives,
is just as much a matter of imprudence as giving in to heat-of-the
moment impulses" (p. 488). Prudent individuals honor their
long-term goals and dreams and take the risks necessary to achieve
Prudence requires balanced living.
For some reason, individuals tend to associate prudence
with a few narrow life domains--primarily financial and work/achievement
oriented domains. Yet prudence is relevant to the whole of life,
and prudent individuals strive for balance and harmony among
goals in multiple life domains. Disciplining oneself to wake
up early and go to the office on Sundays is not prudent if it
means neglecting family and spiritual values and goals.
Prudent individuals chart their own course in life.
A prudent person lives life deliberately and with purpose.
She does not simply react to whatever life brings; rather, she
makes decisions and acts in order to realize her goals and dreams.
Prudence is not just for prudes.
Let us forever take the prude out of prudence.
Prudence is not incompatible with spontaneity or zestfulness.
A prudent person might decide to go out dancing after a long
day of work (but she won't walk home alone in a dangerous part
of town). A prudent person might decide to try exotic, interesting
foods while on vacation (but he won't eat leftover sushi that
has been sitting out at room temperature). A prudent (single)
person might have a passionate summer romance (but she wouldn't
have said affair with a married coworker)!
Heroes can be prudent.
Unlike prudence, courage is a character strength that
does not need a publicist or image makeover. Hearing about a
courageous act makes the hair on our necks tingle. Courage is
the character strength about which movies are made and bedtime
stories are told. Courage deserves the attention, but I would
like to note that heroes can be prudent too. Peterson and Seligman
point out that even the bravest firefighters don't rush into
a burning building before coming up with a reasonable exit strategy.
Courage without prudence is rashness.
Prudent individuals do not win the Darwin Awards.
and Seligman point to the Darwin awards (www.darwinawards.com)
as examples of the opposite of prudent behavior. According to
the originators, the Darwin Awards "salute the improvement
of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally kill themselves
in really stupid ways."
some finalists from the past few years:
leaving a bar in Sheffield, England, a couple decided to
lie down and kiss under the cover of darkness beneath an
unlit streetlight. Apparently, they were warned by several
pedestrians that their chosen spot was dangerously close
to the highway. They were hit by a bus.
man in Pendang, Thailand, happened across a herd of performing
elephants chained to a tree. He decided to "tease" the
elephants by offering them sugar cubes and pulling them away
at the last minute. He was gored to death by a hungry elephant.
individuals in Ontario were killed in a head-on snowmobile
collision while playing a game of "chicken."
Prudent people have strong bodies and careers.
For a more nuanced view of the research on the correlates
of prudence, see the chapter on prudence in Peterson and Seligman
(2005). But here are some quick highlights:
suggests that prudent people tend to be more physically fit---especially
when it comes to tasks that require endurance.
who have congruent life goals tend to be healthier and happier.
(Remember that prudence implies balanced, harmonious living.)
personality trait of conscientiousness (which has considerable
overlap with prudence) predicts numerous positive outcomes
at work: increased productivity, greater success in training,
longer job retention, and higher salaries.
surprisingly, conscientious, prudent students display superior
school achievement and are less likely to have conduct problems
than their less prudent classmates.
Nobody wants to be a grasshopper when winter comes.
Remember Aesop's fable about the ant and the grasshopper?
See below for a review. With prudence, you can be like the ant
in Aesop's fable (but still help out a grasshopper in need).
a field one summer's day a Grasshopper was hopping about,
chirping and singing to its heart's content. An Ant passed
by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was
taking to the nest.
not come and chat with me," said the Grasshopper, "instead
of toiling and moiling in that way?"
am helping to lay up food for the winter," said
the Ant, "and recommend you to do the same."
bother about winter?" said the Grasshopper; "We
have got plenty of food at present." But the Ant
went on its way and continued its toil.
the winter came, the Grasshopper had no food and found
itself dying of hunger - while it saw the ants distributing
every day the corn and grain from the stores they had collected
in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to
prepare for days of need.
course this fable may contribute to the stereotype of the prudent
individual as self-satisfied, selfish, and unconcerned about
the welfare of others. Recall that a prudent person honors
life goals across multiple domains, and many of those goals
and interests will involve relationships with others.
The Beatles wrote a song about it.
Yes, the song was technically written about a woman,
but I invite you to re-interpret the lyrics to Dear Prudence
as an invitation to embrace and cultivate this undervalued character
Prudence, won't you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day.
The sun is up, the sky is blue.
It's beautiful and so are you.
Dear prudence, won't you come out and play.
you inspired to cultivate prudence? Consider the following
suggestions adapted from a list by Psychologist Jonathan Haidt
at the University of Virginia:
a conversation, think twice before saying anything. Weigh
the probable effect of your words on others.
about the distinction between unnecessary and necessary risks.
What behaviors can you eliminate from your life that add
risk but not value? Are there other areas in your life where
you are playing it too safe? In what areas of your life do
you need to take some measured risks in order to honor your
you decide to do something important, reflect on it for a
moment and consider if you want to live with its consequences
1 hour, 1 day, or 1 year later. How does saying yes to this
affect your other values and life goals?
the grasshopper. What can you do now to prepare for uncertain
you enjoyed this newsletter! Look for "Coaching Toward
Happiness" to begin later this month. We think that would
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character
Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Washington,
DC: American Psychological Association/New York: Oxford University
***Take or retake the VIA Signature Strengths Survey
at www.authentichappiness.org When
you have completed the survey and have your top five strengths,
go to www.authentichappiness.org/all24 .
Enter your User Name and Pass Word. And you'll find the rank
order of your 24 strengths including where in the hierarchy forgiveness
falls. Simply seeing this may make this essay more meaningful.
E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., is Fox Leadership Professor
of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the founder
of the field of Positive Psychology, a Past President of
the American Psychological Association (1998), and the author
of 22 books including his most recent best seller, Authentic
Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your
Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. His work is captured at www.authentichappiness.org With
Chris Peterson, he is co-author of Character Strengths and
Virtues: A Classification and Handbook. With Dr. Dean, he
co-founded Authentic Happiness Coaching LLC in 2003 and led
the program through its last class in May, 2005. He is also
founder of Reflective Happiness LLC. www.reflectivehappiness.com
Dean Ph.D., is a psychologist, coach, and the founder
of MentorCoach LLC. He speaks on coaching throughout the
US and publishes two free coaching e-newsletters: "The
Therapist as Coach" for helping professionals (www.mentorcoach.com)
and "The eCoach Newsletter" for interdisciplinary
Coaching since 1981, he is a Master Certified Coach, the
highest designation of the International Coach Federation.
From 2003-2005, with Dr. Seligman, Ben co-founded Authentic
Happiness Coaching LLC.
Happiness LLC. Dr. Seligman's new website, www.reflectivehappiness.com,
is focused on helping members lead more fulfilling and satisfying
lives. For the Reflective Happiness community, Marty has
designed a Happiness Plan for each member that can accurately
measure, improve and sustain their emotional well-being for
a more fulfilling and satisfying life. The website also has
Happiness Building Exercises, Question & Answer Sessions
with Marty, Community Building forums, a Positive Psychology
Book Club, and a members-only newsletter covering the latest
developments that Marty has found in the field. For more
details, see www.reflectivehappiness.com.
LLC. Dr. Dean founded MentorCoach, www.mentorcoach.com,
in 1997. It is an internationally recognized coach training
school accredited by the International Coach Federation and
focused on training helping professionals to develop rewarding
coaching practices. Programs begin Tuesday, October 11th
at 12:00 PM and at 8:15 PM Eastern and Nov 1st at 3:00 PM
and 9:00 PM Eastern. For Fall class times, see http://tinyurl.com/8mav3 For
detailed MentorCoach Training Program description, see http://www.mentorcoach.com/description For
Master Classes open to the public, see http://www.mentorcoach.com/publicmc.htm.
E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.
will be speaking in:
UK, The Pacific Institute Global Conference, November 11,
Tennessee,Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, Marriott, November 30,
California, Evolution of Psychotherapy, Erickson Foundation,
Convention Center, December 9-10, 2005
will be speaking in:
WA, October 21, 2005
CO, October 23, 2005
Jose, CA, November 13, 2005
IL, December 2, 2005
MA, December 4, 2005
details, visit www.mentorcoach.com.