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How Positivity Helped Build the Panama Canal

by Beth on May 7th, 2014

At a dinner I attended this week, Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough spoke about the building of the Panama Canal, the topic of his book, The Path Between the Seas. I thought it was interesting that McCullough mentioned a number of things that positive psychologists believe enhance our happiness and well-being.

The French first attempted to construct the canal in 1881, planning to dig the same kind of sea-level canal as the Suez. But they were unprepared for the challenges of building in the rain-soaked tropics and the tens of thousands of lives they would lose to yellow-fever and malaria. McCullough emphasized how negative the situation became, finally ending in bankruptcy.

In 1904 America took control of the canal property and commenced construction. The Americans were starting fresh with a positive outlook. The first thing they did was to invest in infrastructure so that workers could live and work in a safe, comfortable environment. They built homes, restaurants, stores, and schools. And discovered ways to reduce the spread of disease.

McCullough commented that the people working on the canal project were very happy. Two important factors likely contributed to their happiness: community and purpose.

Building the infrastructure helped create a community. This allowed for the development of social relationships that are extremely important for our happiness. Well-being is further increased when we have a sense of purpose, believing that we are engaged in a meaningful activity that will make a difference to others. The workers knew that the canal would significantly impact trade, which would improve the lives of people around the world for years to come.

The positive emotions created by community and purpose may have contributed to the ultimate success of the project. Negative emotions cause us to focus narrowly on a problem. Positive emotions work in the opposite way, broadening our attention and helping us come up with novel solutions to problems. The French were facing such a negative situation that it may have prevented them from seeing alternative ways of building the canal. The Americans were successful because they abandoned the idea of building a sea-level canal and decided to build a large lake instead, with a system of locks to raise and lower ships from the sea to the lake. Positivity may well have influenced their openness to this alternative strategy.

McCullough finished his speech by talking about the value of studying history. History increases our positivity by giving us hope for the future. When we look at what is happening right now things look bad. But if you look across history, things have often looked bad in the moment, yet time and again we come through. History helps us to realize that we have made it through hard times before, so there is no reason to think we won’t make it through again.

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