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Dr. Stewart I. Donaldson: “Positive relationships are the most important factor in human happiness”

The research suggests positive relationships are the most important factor in human happiness. Many Americans value material wealth, superficial beauty, and financial success more than their social relationships and support systems. Countries more highly rated seem to value other people more than the average American. I had the pleasure of interviewing Stewart I. Donaldson. Dr. […]


The research suggests positive relationships are the most important factor in human happiness. Many Americans value material wealth, superficial beauty, and financial success more than their social relationships and support systems. Countries more highly rated seem to value other people more than the average American.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Stewart I. Donaldson. Dr. Donaldson is professor of psychology and community & global health at Claremont Graduate University, the executive director of the university’s Claremont Evaluation Center (CEC), and director of The Evaluators’ Institute (TEI). He previously provided more than 16 years of leadership and service to the School of Social Science, Policy, & Evaluation (SSSPE), where he was the founding dean from 2013 to 2017; the School of Community & Global Health (SCGH), where he was dean from 2013 to 2017; the School of Politics & Economics, where he was dean from 2012 to 2013; and the School of Behavioral & Organizational Sciences (SBOS), where he was dean from 2001 to 2013. Among many other accomplishments, Donaldson led the effort to develop the first research-oriented positive psychology programs in the world, launch the new doctorate of public health program at CGU (DrPH), and dramatically expanded the portfolio of evaluation and applied research programs including the new online M.S. in evaluation and applied research.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I explored many different subjects and majors throughout my college career. After getting bored with most other subjects I stumbled into evaluation science and positive psychology where every day I get think about and work on projects that aim to improve optimal positive functioning, social justice, and social betterment.

What does it mean for you to live “on purpose”? Can you explain? How can one achieve that?

To live each day to the fullest with positive meaning and purpose as my north star. At the end of the day, can I truly say that my accomplishments have helped others and made a positive contribution to the world?

Do you have an example or story in your own life of how your pain helped to guide you to finding your life’s purpose?

When I was in my early 20’s I founded and ran a very successful business. It was so successful I dropped out of college and spent every day working long hours and earning more and more money. After a couple of years of this lifestyle I found myself empty and in pain. An almost sole focus on building wealth left me without meaning and purpose in my life. I finally crashed and gave it all up. After recovering from depression I went back to junior college and fell in love with education and personal development again. This new passion and purpose to learn and serve others gave me the energy I needed to earn AA, BA, MA, and Ph.D degrees and eventually a tenured faculty position where I’m able to inspire others to live a life of purpose and meaning.

The United States is currently rated at #18 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low?

The research suggests positive relationships are the most important factor in human happiness. Many Americans value material wealth, superficial beauty, and financial success more than their social relationships and support systems. Countries more highly rated seem to value other people more than the average American.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I work on improving the quality of life of other people, communities, and a wide range of organizations every work day.

What are your 6 strategies to help you face your day with exuberance, “Joie De Vivre” and a “ravenous thirst for life”? Can you please give a story or example for each?

I have developed a pyramid of Optimal Positive Functioning which includes 9 components of human flourishing. Three of those components — positive emotions, positive mindset, and positive engagement (flow) — are what give me energy and inspire me to live a life of meaning and purpose every day possible.

Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that most inspired you to live with a thirst for life?

Victor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow. My new book with my former graduate student Meg Warren Toward a Positive Psychology of Relationships.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that relates to having a Joie De Vivre? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The task is to learn how to enjoy everyday life without diminishing other people’s chances to enjoy theirs. — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Other people matter — Christopher Peterson

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes — I am working on positive psychology research that is advancing understanding of well-being and optimal positive functioning. The work includes how best to use evaluation science to sustain optimal positive functioning and how to help others through positive principles and programs lead a more fulfilling and productive life.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement would involve applying the best of what we know from the science of positive psychology and evaluation to improve social betterment and justice across the globe.

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