October 5, 2005

Ben Dean, Ph.D.

Question: What do Britney Spears, Martha Stewart, and the character strength Prudence have in common?

Answer: They all need a good publicist and an image makeover.

When 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:

Top 10 Reasons Prudence Deserves a Better Reputation:

1. 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):

"Prudence 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."

2. 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 them.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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)!

6. 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.

7. Prudent individuals do not win the Darwin Awards.
Peterson 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."

Consider some finalists from the past few years:

  • After 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.
  • A 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.
  • Two individuals in Ontario were killed in a head-on snowmobile collision while playing a game of "chicken."

8. 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:

  • Research suggests that prudent people tend to be more physically fit---especially when it comes to tasks that require endurance.
  • Individuals who have congruent life goals tend to be healthier and happier. (Remember that prudence implies balanced, harmonious living.)
  • The 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.
  • Not surprisingly, conscientious, prudent students display superior school achievement and are less likely to have conduct problems than their less prudent classmates.

9. 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).

In 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.

"Why not come and chat with me," said the Grasshopper, "instead of toiling and moiling in that way?"

"I am helping to lay up food for the winter," said the Ant, "and recommend you to do the same."

"Why 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.

When 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.

Of 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.

10. 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 strength!

Dear 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.

Are you inspired to cultivate prudence? Consider the following suggestions adapted from a list by Psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia:

  1. During a conversation, think twice before saying anything. Weigh the probable effect of your words on others.
  2. Think 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 long-term dreams?
  3. Before 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?
  4. Remember the grasshopper. What can you do now to prepare for uncertain times?

Hope you enjoyed this newsletter! Look for "Coaching Toward Happiness" to begin later this month. We think that would be prudent.



Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association/New York: Oxford University Press.

***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.

About AHC

Martin 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

Ben 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 professionals (www.ecoach.com). 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.

Reflective 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.

MentorCoach 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.

AHC Speaking Schedule

Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.

Marty will be speaking in:

  • York, UK, The Pacific Institute Global Conference, November 11, 2005
  • Nashville, Tennessee,Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, Marriott, November 30, 2005
  • Anaheim, California, Evolution of Psychotherapy, Erickson Foundation, Convention Center, December 9-10, 2005

Ben Dean, Ph.D.

Ben will be speaking in:

  • Seattle, WA, October 21, 2005
  • Denver, CO, October 23, 2005
  • San Jose, CA, November 13, 2005
  • Chicago, IL, December 2, 2005
  • Boston, MA, December 4, 2005

For details, visit www.mentorcoach.com.


Subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness Newsletter... It's free.