As Americans, the “pursuit of happiness” is an important concept. The branch of psychology called “positive psychology” introduced a focus on creating mental health. Positive psychology can also help us enjoy positive institutions. Of course, personal traits strengthen us as individuals, build character and help us to be happy. Positive institutions are also built on the strengths and traits of their organizing principles, their leaders, and others who are associated with them.
“Institutions” include much more than our schools, workplaces and governments. Families are one notable example of institutions. And so, we are actually talking about, not only family values, but the quality of all of the organizations to which we belong. We can also think of our cultural ideals of democratic group decision-making and personal access to free inquiry as institutional strengths that promote happiness.
Our personal character, values, strengths and virtues can contribute to our happiness in any situation. I recommend Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, as an example of maintaining hope and even happiness under the most difficult and tragic circumstances. As another example, Helen Keller found a way to enjoy life, and contribute to the welfare of others, despite being blind, deaf and mute.
We are imbedded in the limitations of our environment, the cultures of our groups, and the interactions of our societies. Our circumstances play an undeniable role in our ability to survive, thrive and feel glad to be alive. It is easier to be happy when we routinely experience respect, justice, nurturing, good leadership and effective teamwork.
With positive enabling institutions, we can be more “drawn by the future than driven by the past.” We can aspire to actually thrive rather than only survive. In fact, many people believe the proper and (vital) role of government is to not just protect its citizens from threats to their lives, but to also create an enabling environment in which they can be at liberty to pursue happiness.
Our embeddedness extends beyond our families and the ideal of competent parents nurturing their children. We depend upon our churches, civic organizations, schools, city councils, legislatures, executives and courts. Such organizations all contribute to our circumstances. Thus, it becomes very important to assure that our governing institutions have the resources and authority needed to fulfill their responsibilities to our safety and development.
Commercial enterprises, such as for-profit corporations, also have an impact on our safety and ability to thrive. Unfortunately, such companies are, too often, organized exclusively for private financial gain. Large businesses often promote their own profit and power rather than any need or benefit of other stakeholders such as employees and public citizens.
Our general welfare and happiness depends on governments being organized to protect their citizens from abuse. When governments grant undue privileges of profit, influence, power, and protection from accountability to the already privileged, it is just plain wrong.
Positive institutions, both private and public, are designed, managed and regulated to serve for good. They create good places to work and good places to live. Their activities protect from harm rather than create it. If we are to grant corporations privileges of personhood, we should also expect them to be good neighbors and good citizens. And, if we expect our public servants to serve us well, we should also expect to provide them with the resources and authority they need to do so.