Group Well-Being: Morale from a Positive Psychology Perspective


  • This work was conceived while the authors were in attendance at the 2007 Medici II Conference at the University of Pennsylvania, supported by a grant from the Templeton Foundation.

* Address for correspondence: Christopher Peterson, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 530 Church Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1043, USA. Email:


What makes life most worth living? The simplest summary of findings from the new field of positive psychology is that other people matter. It is within groups that we live, work, love, and play, and groups should therefore be a primary focus of researchers interested in health and well-being. In the present article, we propose morale as an important indicator of group well-being. We survey what is known about overall morale across a variety of groups: its meaning, measurement, enabling factors, and putative consequences. We sketch a future research agenda that would examine morale in multidimensional terms at both the individual and group levels and would pay particular attention to the positive outcomes associated with morale.

Qu’est-ce qui fait que la vie vaut le plus la peine d’être vécue? Réduire à leur plus simple expression les résultats de ce nouveau domaine qu’est la psychologie positive revient à mentionner l’importance d’autrui. C’est dans des groupes que nous vivons, travaillons, aimons et jouons, et les groupes devraient donc être une préoccupation première pour les chercheurs concernés par la santé et le bien-être. Dans cet article, on avance l’idée que le moral est un indicateur majeur du bien-être des groupes. On recense ce qui est connu sur le moral en général dans divers types de groupes: sa signification, sa mesure, ses antécédents et ses conséquences supposées. On esquisse un futur programme de recherche qui appréhenderait le moral de façon multidimensionnelle aux niveaux à la fois individuel et groupal et accorderait une attention particulière aux retombées positives relevant du moral.


Since its inception in 1998, positive psychology has been defined as the scientific study of what makes life most worth living (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Among its major concerns are positive experiences like happiness and engagement, positive traits like character strengths and talents, positive relationships like friendship and love, and the larger institutions like family and school that enable these (Peterson, 2006).

The interests and goals of positive psychology long predated its christening, and a number of topics with sustained research lineages are now mainstays of this new field: e.g. character, giftedness, life satisfaction, and optimism. What then is new about positive psychology? Positive psychology has considerable value as an umbrella term and overarching perspective that allows previously separate lines of work to be seen as interrelated (Peterson & Park, 2003). For example, most of our own research as positive psychologists has entailed juxtaposing character strengths and life satisfaction, and we would like to think that new insights have emerged (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).

The purpose of the present article is to suggest that another venerable topic—morale—be placed under the positive psychology umbrella where it can be examined with respect to other positive psychology emphases (Viteles, 1953; Worthy, 1950). To date, enabling institutions are the acknowledged weak link of positive psychology, and consideration of morale as a group-level characteristic extends the scope of positive psychology beyond the individual-level characteristics typically studied (Wright, 2003).

We regard morale as an indicator of group well-being, just as life satisfaction is an indicator of individual well-being. As the attention of positive psychologists turns to applications intended to promote the psychological good life, targets must include not only individuals but also the groups within which these individuals live, work, love, and play. Not only would group-level interventions be more efficient and likely more cost-effective than individual-level interventions, they might also be more powerful. The good life is inherently a social one, so why not understand and promote the good life at the level where it exists (Peterson, 2006)?

As much as we endorse recent calls for national indicators of well-being, these should not just be measures of individual happiness and life satisfaction (cf. Diener, 2000; Diener & Seligman, 2004; Gallup Organization, 2007). They should also include measures of group well-being. Morale has the potential to be an indicator of broad scope.

Britt and Dickinson (2006) anticipated the thesis of the present article, and we drew on their review and many of their ideas. Their specific focus was on military morale during combat. Here we offer a more general discussion of morale, which we regard as an important marker of the well-being of any and all groups.


Let us turn our attention to what is known about morale. Just as importantly, we survey what is not known. The perspective of positive psychology is useful in charting future research directions.

Etymology and Meaning

The word morale is French, and it entered common use in the middle 1700s. Originally meaning morality or good conduct, the word soon came to mean confidence and was applied in particular to military forces.1 Demoralisation appeared later, during the French Revolution, and it originally meant the corruption of morals. Again, the term was typically applied in a military context and described the goal of lowering the confidence of an opposing army.

As used today, morale is a cognitive, emotional, and motivational stance toward the goals and tasks of a group. It subsumes confidence, optimism, enthusiasm, and loyalty as well as a sense of common purpose. Morale is used to describe individuals as well as groups, a complexity that poses an ongoing challenge in attempts by social scientists to study it. Esprit de corps, another French term, is used to describe the morale of an entire group and brings with it additional connotations of devotion to the group and concern with its honor (Manning, 1991; Mitchell, 1940).

Contemporary uses of morale extend beyond the military. So, morale refers to the collective will of the citizens of a nation at war to sustain fighting. Morale also figures in discussions of sports teams, schools, and work organisations (e.g. Hart, 1994).

As already mentioned, morale is a term used to describe either individuals or groups. Military commanders, for example, are less concerned with the morale of individual soldiers than with the morale of their forces as a whole (Baynes, 1967). At the same time, it is difficult to imagine a group with high morale in which only a few members are committed and confident. Most groups of sufficient size can sustain good morale with a handful of alienated or disgruntled members, but there is obviously a tipping point.

In previous social science approaches to morale, some theorists have regarded morale solely as a feature of the group (e.g. Grinker & Spiegel, 1945; Leighton, 1943; Motowidlo & Borman, 1978), whereas other theorists have seen it solely as a feature of the individual within a group (e.g. Manning, 1991). No good purpose is served by approaching morale in such either–or terms, especially given multi-leveling analytic strategies that allow constructs to be examined at both the individual level and the group level (Britt & Dickinson, 2006). We will therefore speak about individual morale and group morale.

Assessment remains a challenge, and researchers should not take the convenient path of simply measuring individual morale by interview or questionnaire and then aggregating the results to yield an index of group morale. Many researchers follow this strategy, leaving unexamined links across levels of analysis, which one would expect to vary across groups.

Any sports fan is familiar with teams where the whole is more or less than the sum of its parts. For example, the 1972 Miami Dolphins of the National Football League performed much better as a team than one would have expected given the personnel, whereas the 2004 United States Olympic men's basketball team, composed of individual stars, never meshed as a team and performed well below expectations.

Researchers need to include measures at the group level that are methodologically independent of individual-level measures. Group-level morale may well be an emergent property that needs to be conceptualised, measured, and studied in its own right.


Morale is an ordinary language concept that resists characterisation in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (Wittgenstein, 1953). Said another way, morale is multidimensional, defined by a family of relevant components. Positive psychologists have profitably approached other ordinary language concepts—like happiness and character—by articulating their dimensions and devising separate measures of them (e.g. Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). We suggest that morale be approached in the same way and described for a given group or individual in terms of a profile of its relevant components. Some of these components may overlap, but it seems unlikely that any group or individual can “have it all” with respect to all the dimensions of good morale. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote that “happy families are all alike”, but we disagree. The routes to happiness (good morale) within families and other groups are likely as numerous as the routes to individual happiness and well-being (Peterson et al., 2005).

Research to date has usually treated morale in unidimensional terms, making it impossible to address what we consider basic questions about morale. Do different types of groups have different morale profiles? Do different dimensions have different consequences? Do these vary as a function of group type? Are some components easier to cultivate than others? Once set in place, are some components resilient and others fragile?

What are the components of morale? A definitive answer would require extensive linguistic analyses and discussions with focus groups of different types, but here is a tentative set of dimensions based on our reading of the literature:

  • • Confidence that group can perform its specific tasks and achieve its broader goals, given current capabilities and situational demands; e.g. one of the unofficial mottoes of the United States Marine Corps is “The difficult is done at once; the impossible takes a little longer.”
  • • Enthusiasm for the daily activities of the group; e.g. the energised workplaces described by Dutton (2003); Mother Teresa's order, the Missionaries of Charity, selects members based on their demonstrated joy in serving the “poorest of the poor”.
  • • Optimism that the group will experience more success than failure; e.g. optimistic basketball teams beat the point spread following losses much more frequently than pessimistic basketball teams (Rettew & Reivich, 1995).
  • • Belief in the group's capability, based on its personnel, training, past history, and observation of similar groups succeeding; e.g. faculty members of a school believing that they can successfully execute the curriculum (Goddard, Hoy, & Hoy, 2004).
  • • Resilience in the face of adversity and challenges; e.g. the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army successfully defended Bastogne during World War II's Battle of the Bulge despite an overwhelming enemy and extremely adverse weather (Gardner & Schermerhorn, 2004).
  • • Leadership that recognises, values, and respects the contributions of group members; good leaders vis-à-vis morale are those who empower, nurture, and develop individual members of the group, who share hardships with them; who establish an ethical climate, and who foster open communication; e.g. the United States Army views positive leadership as the single most important contributor to high morale (Department of the Army, 2006; Pennington, Hough, & Case, 1943; Stouffer, Lumsdaine, Lumsdaine, Williams, Smith, Janis, Star, & Cottrell, 1965).
  • • Mutual trust and respect between group members and leaders shown in the conviction that all can fulfill their respective duties as well as look out for the interests of the group and other group members; e.g. Major Richard Winters, Commander of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, the accomplished unit portrayed in the movie “Band of Brothers”, attributed his unit's high morale to the trust and respect between leaders and followers (Department of the Army, 2006; Golembiewski & McConkie, 1975; Sweeney, Thompson, & Blanton, in press).
  • • Loyalty to the group and its members; e.g. the warrior ethos by which United States service members strive to live requires them to place their mission first and never to leave behind a fallen comrade (Department of the Army, 2006).
  • • Social cohesion between and among group members; e.g. do group members find close friends at work?
  • • A common purpose that is understood, accepted, and pursued by group members; e.g. the corporate motto of Zingerman's delicatessen in Ann Arbor (MI)—“Selling food that makes you happy . . . giving service that makes you smile”—is taken seriously by its employees and reinforced by company norms and rewards (Baker & Gunderson, 2005).
  • • Devotion to group members and to the group as a whole, shown by mutual care, support, and kindness; e.g. the American Psychological Association's (2007) annual awards for psychologically healthy workplaces take into account the degree to which a workplace encourages and achieves work–life balance.
  • • Sacrifice of the individual's needs and well-being for the good of the group; e.g. United States Medal of Honor winners, many of whom gave their lives, do so within their recognised group roles—leaders by leading and followers by following (Park, 2005).
  • • A compelling group history that is both a source of pride and a set of high expectations for future performance; e.g. the United States Military Academy displays plaques honoring every graduate who won the Medal of Honor.
  • • Concern with the honor of the group; e.g. the 2007 New England Patriots of the National Football League, a team where some players took pay cuts to allow other players to make more money, had the typical system of fines for tardiness and the like, but these were enforced by the players themselves, not the coaches.
  • • A sense of moral rightness about the group and its tasks that provides the group members with a sense of meaning; e.g. the genetics research teams described by Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, and Damon (2001) as doing “good work” in both scientific and moral senses.

Most of these features apply at the level of the individual and the group, although some make more sense at one level or the other. For example, an individual cannot be cohesive, and sacrifice is something that individuals are more likely to do for the group than the group for the individual. Each of these dimensions of morale exists along a continuum. They are not either–or features of a group or individual, despite shorthand ways of speaking.

Previous writers have pointed out the conceptual overlap between morale and such notions as job engagement, work satisfaction, work pride, teamwork, task cohesion, and collective efficacy, and they may try to distinguish morale from them. Our belief is that these are ultimately futile arguments because they attempt contrasts across different levels of analysis. If morale is regarded in multidimensional terms, these similar notions are simply seen as specific dimensions of morale, not as concepts that can or need to be distinguished from the broader concept of morale.

Another implication of seeing morale in multidimensional terms is the realisation that the components of morale have been studied, sometimes extensively, albeit under different names. But conspicuously missing are studies that look at more than one dimension at a time and examine the occasional inconsistencies or tradeoffs among them. Consider the Oakland Athletics of Major League Baseball in the 1970s. The Athletics won the World Series three times while hating their owner Charles Finley and often one another. Did this team have good morale or poor morale? The answer differs depending on the dimension of morale that is emphasised. The Athletics were probably very low on social cohesion and certainly on devotion, but they were probably very high on common purpose, confidence, and optimism. This profile is obviously sufficient for a baseball team to win games, perhaps because baseball teams are less interdependent than teams in most other sports. Different profiles are likely associated with other sorts of success by other sorts of groups.

Empirical Research

The components of morale are states, not traits, and they are thoroughly situated in a given context. It makes no sense to discuss morale and its components per se, but only with respect to the tasks and goals of a given group at a given point in time. Morale and its components accordingly wax and wane, and an important goal of research is to specify the factors that lead to higher or lower levels.

Despite the apparent importance of morale, however it is defined, empirical research on morale per se is scant.2 Like other positive topics, morale seems to have been overlooked by researchers with a focus on problems. There are far fewer articles on military morale, for instance, than there are articles on post-traumatic stress disorder among military personnel (Britt & Dickinson, 2006). Along these lines, group-level research often focuses on unhealthy work environments marked by group conflict, harassment, bias, prejudice, and poor communication problems, and rarely on healthy work environments that encourage well-being and flourishing—concomitants of good morale (Cameron & Caza, 2004).

When research has been conducted on morale, it has typically relied on self-report measures. These face-valid questionnaires are often very brief—sometimes but single items—and cannot reflect the multidimensionality of morale. Questionnaires are usually administered to individual group members, who are asked about their own morale and/or that of the group. Most research has looked at morale at the level of the individual. When group-level morale is of interest, composite scores are often formed by aggregating across individuals (e.g. Motowidlo & Borman, 1978). This research strategy is stark and indeed an oversimplification, but some interesting results have nevertheless emerged. However, much more has been learned about the antecedents of morale than its consequences, perhaps because the relevant research is easier to conduct retrospectively than prospectively.

What contributes to morale? Let us look at what is known about morale in different groups. In the military, good morale—conceptualised and measured unidimensionally—is influenced by extensive training, sufficient material resources, and the sheer size or strength of the fighting force vis-à-vis the enemy (Henderson, 1986; Kollett, 1982). Also contributing to military morale are good leadership, mutual trust and respect among group members, the clarity of the mission, perceived public support, past combat success (unit history), and low casualty rates (Department of the Army, 2006). Military units with low turnover rates tend to have higher morale, as do units where members expect a lengthy tenure. Interestingly, many who have written about military morale note that abstract ideology plays little role in morale. Those in the military do not fight for their flag or their country as much as for their brothers and sisters who share a trench with them (Little, 1964; Stouffer et al., 1965).

High-morale military units are well known. Consider such examples as the Roman Praetorian Guard, Napoleon's Imperial Guard, the French Foreign Legion, the United States Special Forces, and the Soviet Spetsnaz. It is hardly a coincidence that high morale military units are also highly selective (“elite”) ones, which raises the question about the psychological characteristics and abilities that individuals bring into these groups. What is the basis of selection? Obviously physical talents and skills are important for military units, but what about positive traits like teamwork, perseverance, and optimism?

Along these lines, the psychological characteristics of the military leader are also thought to be critical in determining the degree of morale shown by his or her unit (Department of the Army, 2006; Gal, 1986). For example, a comprehensive study of World War II veterans found that the most competent leaders led by example, endured hardships with their soldiers, stayed calm under pressure, and took actions to protect the welface of those they commanded (Stouffer et al., 1965). The United States Army views shared effort and mutual respect as critical determinants of high morale in units (Department of the Army, 2006).

In the workplace, good morale—again, conceptualised and measured as a unidimensional construct—is enhanced by job security, safety, good salary and benefits, realistic opportunities for advancement, adequate resources to do the required work, the status of the work, and the social value accorded the goals of the work organisation (Hart & Cooper, 2001). As in the military, morale in the workplace is influenced by the personal psychological characteristics of the individual workers as well as the manager or employer (Peterson & Park, 2006). If workers have their basic needs met and feel valued as individuals by those to whom they answer, their morale is apt to be higher (Hersey, 1955).

In schools, the overall morale of teachers is enhanced by role clarity, recognition, participative decision-making, a reasonable work load, effective disciplinary policies, successful students, a coherent curriculum, and the opportunity for professional growth (Anderson, 1953; Coverdale, 1973; Hart, Wearing, Conn, Carter, & Dingle, 2000; Young, 2000). Our own ongoing research suggests that highly engaged teachers bring to their work perseverance, social intelligence, zest, and humor. Again, supportive leadership is thought to be critical for good morale among teachers (Rempel & Bentley, 1964; Silverman, 1957).

When nations are at war, the overall morale of the general population is thought to be affected by the degree to which citizens understand the objectives of the war and agree with them, believe that the war is worth winning, and further are confident that the war can be won (Watson, 1942). Fear of what losing the war would produce is also important.

Social scientists have long studied the role of propaganda in shaping beliefs and attitudes of citizens and ultimately their overall morale vis-à-vis a war. Yet again, the personal psychological characteristics of individuals, citizens as well as government leaders and spokespeople, influence the morale of a nation at war. Well known is the highly successful United States war bond during World War II that featured singer Kate Smith (Merton, Fiske, & Curtis, 1946). Smith's signature song—“God Bless America”—and her wholesome image helped muster popular support for the war effort and the sacrifices it required of civilians. The words of national leaders during trying times can be defining points: e.g. Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”); Winston Churchill in 1941 (“Never never never give up”); and Ronald Reagan in 1987 (“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”).

For a more contemporary example, consider the ongoing success of the Iraq football team in international competition and how it inspires—and temporarily unites—the conflict-ridden nation (Aliraqi, 2007; BBC News, 2007). Hussein Saeed, the nation's football federation president, observed that “We want to give a good example for the politicians and for the people that when we are united and working together—like the federation, the coach and the players—we can win against all the difficulties we face . . . I think this team is a good thing for our people. Football is sending a good message to all the people about friendship and everything else.” The team members include both Sunni and Shia, a distinction irrelevant to players and fans alike when the team is on the field. Many of the players have lost immediate family members to violence, and the team's physiotherapist died in a car bombing just prior to the 2007 Asia Cup competition, which was won by the Iraq team. The morale on the team is excellent, and it pervades the entire nation when the team plays. According to Saeed, “When the football team is playing, there is no bombing in Iraq because all the people are watching the game.”

In all of its senses, morale is thought to be motivating, leading to perseverance and presumably success at group tasks, especially under trying circumstances (Manning, 1991). Therefore, the lack of research into the consequences of morale is surprising and lamentable. It is clear that the components of morale, as we have identified, have positive outcomes at both the individual and group levels.

For example, at the individual level, devotion (aka charity) is associated with good physical health (Brown, Nesse, Vinokur, & Smith, 2003), optimism with perseverance (Peterson & Barrett, 1987), enthusiasm (aka zest) with work satisfaction (Peterson, Park, Hall, & Seligman, in press), and purpose (aka meaning) with good mental health (Peterson & Park, in press-b). At the group level, confidence (aka collective efficacy) leads to sustained efforts (Zaccaro, Blair, Peterson, & Zazanis, 1995), concern with honor leads to efforts to avenge insults (Nisbett & Cohen, 1996), and a sense of moral rightness leads to innovation and creativity (Murray, 2003). What we do not know is how these components considered together foreshadow success, and whether the type of success is a function of the type of group and its purpose.

A critical question is whether morale and its components are the causes of success or its mere concomitants or consequences. The sports cliché that “winning cures all ills” is a broadly applicable caution to researchers not to confuse the putative consequences of high morale with its possible causes. Only recently have positive psychologists been able to show that happiness is more than epiphenomenal, actually leading to desirable consequences in a variety of domains—academic, occupational, physical, and social—as opposed to being along for the (happy) ride of success (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). And even more recently, positive psychologists have shown that the relationship between happiness and success depends on the specific outcome of interest (Oishi, Diener, & Lucas, 2007). Happy people outperform unhappy people in almost all domains, but the “very happy” do not do as well at school or work as the “merely happy”. However, one can never be too happy if success is gauged interpersonally. Similar nuances may emerge when morale and its components are studied longitudinally with respect to various outcomes.


Positive psychology has much to contribute to the understanding of morale. Research guided by positive psychology would need to focus on the positive outcomes3 attributed to good morale (Peterson, 2000). We hypothesise that morale and its components are healthy for groups and for individuals. After all, good relations with other people are a necessary condition for individual happiness (Diener & Seligman, 2002), and the psychological good life entails being a contributing member of a social community (Peterson, 2006). Other people matter, and it is through group life that people are most fulfilled.

Accordingly, positive psychology should make the study of positive groups a centerpiece of this new field. Among other features, a positive group is one with one or more of the components of good morale (Park & Peterson, 2003). Such groups enable positive traits like optimism, gratitude, and love that determine individual well-being (Park et al., 2004). They allow people to be engaged in ongoing life and to find meaning (Peterson et al., 2005). It is in social participation that people often find pleasure and the means of savoring the good things that happen (Bryant & Veroff, 2006).

Morale and its components are desirable in their own right, but as emphasised, they are also valued because of their presumed consequences for the group and its members: perseverance, courage, resilience, and of course success. Morale is thought to be especially helpful for the individual and the group during trying times. It is therefore surprising how little research actually supports the benefits attributed to morale, especially in terms of hard outcomes that go beyond self-report.

Our conclusion is that such research needs to be done. If the components of group morale are as healthy as everyone—including us—believe them to be, then they should function as do other healthy features of individuals and groups: as predictors of desirable outcomes, as buffers against stress and trauma, and as value-added characteristics that enhance the impact of other assets and strengths.

Here are some important considerations for future research on morale from the perspective of positive psychology. Studies investigating the consequences of morale would have straightforward designs, and they would need to go beyond the case studies and examples so commonly encountered in discussions of morale (e.g. Baynes, 1967). Cases can be compelling and even informative, but they are ultimately ambiguous if the researcher's goal is to understand the causes and consequences of morale across groups. Researchers would need to study a sufficient number of groups that vary in morale to allow such conclusions.

What is striking about the literature on morale—both theoretical and empirical—is that it is highly segregated and almost always concerned with one particular type of group: e.g. military units or schools. An appropriate measure of morale applicable across different groups would allow a comparative study of morale and provide answers to important questions. For example, do some groups—like recreational ones—simply have higher morale than others? And why?

Studies would relate the components of morale to objective outcomes that matter, such as productivity, innovation, physical health, retention, presenteeism, and so on. In order to see whether healthy outcomes actually result from good morale as opposed to accompanying or following success, studies would be longitudinal.

Studies would also measure the components of morale at both individual and group levels. Perhaps useful in measuring morale at a group level would be sociometric or network analysis methods. For example, Baker, Cross, and Wooten (2003) described dyads within a work organisation in terms of whether participants felt energised or depleted after face-to-face interactions. Taken together, all of these interactions reflect the enthusiasm of the group. Groups densely populated by energising dyads should be more successful than groups in which depleting dyads are common. Or one could ascertain whether the group as a whole celebrates triumphs and milestones. The tendency to do so reflects the devotion of the group. And so on.

Of special interest would be changes over time when the components of individual morale and group morale are mismatched. National Football League coach George Allen espoused a philosophy of “less is more”, meaning that a team could be dramatically improved by trading or releasing particular players who did not share the common purpose of the team. Not all groups have the luxury of removing their bad apples, so it is a question of considerable importance whether high-morale groups can raise the morale of individual members, or whether low-morale individuals eventually bring down the morale of the entire group (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001).

An especially important contribution that positive psychology can make toward understanding morale is its articulation of the individual psychological characteristics that affect various components of good morale. Comparative studies across different types of groups of the positive traits of group members that enable good morale would be crucial to undertake. For example, happiness, zest, engagement, and the presence of meaning are trait-like characteristics that some people bring into groups, and we hypothesise that all other things being equal, these characteristics will make group-level enthusiasm more likely (e.g. Peterson et al., in press-a).

Similarly, what about the characteristics of leaders? Leadership is the Holy Grail of organisational studies, and its characterisation—not to mention its cultivation—remains elusive. Perhaps effective leadership can be approached indirectly, in terms of its association with good morale. A good leader, by definition, is one who creates, sustains, and/or enhances confidence, optimism, and sacrifice in the group that he or she leads.

Some leaders are obviously better at the morale business than are others. For example, effective military leaders can build group optimism by positive reframing (Britt & Dickinson, 2006). Consider this quote attributed to United States Marine Corps General Lewis Puller, describing the position of the enemy during the Korean War: “All right, they’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us . . . they can't get away this time.” Optimism is one of the potent influences on individual well-being. It may be just as important for group well-being.

In contrast, members of the Iraq Regular Army circa 2003 were motivated mainly by fear of retribution from their superiors if they did not fight (Wong, Kolditz, Millen, & Potter, 2003). Needless to say, the loyalty and honor of this group were minimal, and they put up but token resistance to the United States Army.

What about the determinants of morale and its components? Here a fair amount is known, although researchers have rarely taken the next step and used this knowledge to guide interventions that would create or enhance morale. Despite their popularity, weekend workshops or retreats will not suffice. The components of morale, especially at the level of the group, can only be established by changing the norms and rules of the group so that they become part of how the group operates.

Rigorous studies are needed to provide the foundation and rationale for effective interventions. Positive psychologists have benefited from the hard-won lesson of clinical psychologists that empirically validated treatments represent the gold standard of individual psychotherapy (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). The same lesson applies to group-level interventions intended to improve morale and encourage its consequences.

The components of morale are strengths, which means from the positive psychology perspective that they can coexist with problems. What is interesting about morale from this perspective is the assumption that it is particularly in cases of problems—internal or external—that morale shows its worth. Accordingly, morale might be especially potent when challenges exist. Consider World War II's African-American 332nd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Corps (aka the Tuskegee Airmen) and the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the United States Army. These groups performed with distinction despite the ongoing personal and institutional discrimination their members faced because of their race.

This seems not to be the case for individual strengths, where we speak of individuals—like Abraham Lincoln and his life-long depression—succeeding in spite of their problems and not because of them. But perhaps we need to rethink the role of challenge in potentiating the strengths of individuals as well (Peterson, Park, Pole, D’Andrea, & Seligman, in press). Be that as it may, the components of morale are likely to be what we have described elsewhere as phasic strengths, shown in their use but not at their metaphorical rest (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Morale should therefore be assessed when a group is challenged: e.g. soldiers in actual combat, teachers in an under-funded school district, or workers facing a tight deadline.

One of the important ideas emerging from positive psychology is that interventions that capitalise on existing assets and strengths may be a highly effective way of solving individual problems (cf. Park, Peterson, & Brunwasser, in press; Peterson & Park, in press-a; Saleebey, 1992). For group-level interventions, good morale may be the master asset. We offer the provocative hypothesis that at least some of the components of morale must exist for any group-level intervention to succeed (cf. Mirvis & Berg, 1977). Is it possible that organisational-change strategies like Appreciative Inquiry work best in groups with high levels of confidence, cohesion, and loyalty (Bushe & Kassam, 2005)? Is it possible that large-scale social programs like the United States War on Poverty have had little success because they failed to address the low optimism of the target population? Even more generally, perhaps groups with high morale are those that allow individual strengths and assets to matter. Positive psychology has grappled with how to define a positive group or institution, and perhaps this idea provides a basis for definition (Peterson, 2006).

In sum, the health and well-being of groups are matters of prime importance. The components of morale that we have tentatively identified may be important indicators of how well a group is doing and may even be determinants of group success. Morale deserves explicit attention from positive psychology researchers.


  • 1

    In Korean, the word for morale is sa-gi, originally from Chinese, literally meaning soldier (sa) energy (gi). Sa-gi denotes confident energy and is usually applied to any team of followers (never leaders) as a whole and occasionally to individuals.

  • 2

    Given the popularity of the concept in the military, it is not surprising that morale was studied most frequently in the immediate aftermath of both World War I and World War II (Boring, 1950).

  • 3

    We can imagine that some of the components of morale may have occasional downsides. Groupthink, for example, seems more likely in groups with high cohesion (Janis, 1982). Maladaptive persistence might be an unintended side effect of high confidence and optimism (Peterson, 1999). A sense of moral rightness might work against whistle-blowing. And so on. These are empirical questions in need of eventual answers, but they should not be the sole focus of research at the present time, lest the study of morale become just another instance of business-as-usual problem-focused psychology.