With Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince premiering this week in theaters across the country, I find it apropos to discuss the Harry Potter series and its contribution to Positive Psychology. “Wait a second,” you might impetuously interject. “I didn’t see that on Wikipedia!” This is because you, my auspicious reader, are the first to witness how human motivation and human flourishing can in fact be best elucidated through the lens of Harry Potter.
Through the Eyes of the Sorting Hat
In the Harry Potter series, the Sorting Hat is a magical hat that assigns new students to one of four houses at Hogwarts: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. How does the Sorting Hat know which student to assign to which house? Is it based on the traits each house values most? The Gryffindor house values courage, daring, nerve, and chivalry. Hufflepuff values hard work, loyalty, tolerance, and fair play while Ravenclaw values intelligence, creativity, wit, and wisdom. Finally, the Slytherin house values ambition, cunning, and resourcefulness. Does that mean that the Sorting Hat is matching each boy’s character strengths with the values of the house? Perhaps. However, the philosopher Schopenhauer differentiated between the world of appearance and will. Thus, instead the Sorting Hat could be matching based not on traits or character strengths (appearance) but rather on what lies beneath (will/human motivation).
Lawrence and Nohria described in their book Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, the holistic and humanistic theory of motivation divided into four categories: the drive to acquire, to bond, to learn, and to defend. The authors described these drives as distinct and ubiquitous and that individuals actively attempt to fulfill them. As for the four houses at Hogwarts, let us examine which house values which drive.
Lawrence and Nohria explain that the drive to defend is physically and socially protective. The drive to defend originates from the response to dangerous situations and can extend to a protection of relationships, acquisitions, and belief systems. The house of Gryffindor values courage and nerve because these are character strengths that are vital to protect and defend. The authors emphasized that the drive to defend is not proactive but reactively triggered by perceived threats.
Next, Lawrence and Nohria discussed the drive to bond, which is a social motivation to form relationships and develop mutual caring commitments. The house of Hufflepuff values loyalty, tolerance, and fair play because these are characteristics necessary for mutually beneficial relationships. The drive to bond explains why individuals choose to identify themselves with that of a group or a common good.
Third, Lawrence and Nohria illustrated the drive to learn as the intention to understand the world around us and satisfy curiosity. This drive exemplifies Ravenclaw since it values intelligence, creativity, and wisdom; these are all traits motivated by the desire to learn. The desire to learn fulfills our need to explore and grow, and cultivate other virtues since, for Aristotle, the one cardinal virtue necessary for moral character is practical wisdom (called phronesis), which allows us to discover the virtuous mean between characters.
Finally, the drive to acquire, Lawrence and Nohria mentioned, is the motivation to seek, take, and control objects and personal experiences. This drive correlates with the Slytherin house, which values ambition, cunning, and resourcefulness, which are important to the drive to acquire.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we notice that the Sorting Hat is considering placing Harry Potter into the house of Slytherin. The Sorting Hat recognizes that Harry exemplifies the traits of ambition and resourcefulness, as do other students in Slytherin. However, if we remember that the Sorting Hat might not be sorting by ostensible traits but by tacit motivations, then we can understand why the Sorting Hat placed Harry in Gryffindor rather than Slytherin.
Defining Human Flourishing
Based on our understanding of the four-drive theory (to learn, to bond, to acquire, and to defend) and the four houses of Hogwartz, we can define human flourishing as seeking, experiencing, sharing, and defending that which we believe is good, while not stymieing another’s ability to seek, experience, share, and defend his/her belief in the good. Additionally, based on our new understanding, we can state that we desire not only to pursue happiness, but also to experience it (individually and communally), as well as protect our previously acquired happiness.
The psychologist Allport stated “what motivates each person is not some element common to all individuals, but his own particular pattern of tensions.” By understanding and appreciating the value of the different cardinal motives in individuals, we can understand how to achieve a balanced collective of motives within a group of individuals, which in time can contribute to collective flourishing.
Aristotle. (1985). Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Allport, G. W. (1937). Personality: A psychological interpretation. New York: Holt.
Lawrence, P. R. & Nohria, N., (2002). Driven: how human nature shapes our choices. San Francisco:Jossey-Bass.