is the Ancient Chinese Secret to Resilience and Happiness?
Culture affects us in numerous and significant
ways. It influences how we think (Nisbett, 2003), what we value
(Hofstede, 1984; Leong & Wong, 2003), how we behave (Brislin,
1999) and how we cope (Wong & Wong, 2006). Culture shapes psychology,
especially positive psychology, because it is value-laden.
Consistent with the current wave of cross-cultural
psychology and international psychology (Emmons, 2006; Kim, Yang,
& Hwang, 2006; Lehman, Chiu, & Schaller, 2004; Triandis,
1994), the next stage of development of positive psychology (PP)
is to go global. The hedgemony of American psychology will hinder
the discovery of universal principles and cultural specifics in
positive psychology. Integration between Eastern and Western perspectives
of PP would be a good start towards internalizing PP (Snyder &
in positive psychology
The positive psychology as advocated by Martin Seligman and associates
(Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Snyder & Lopez, 2005)
is the product of American culture with its ideology of liberal
democracy, positive expectations and individualistic values; it
is best for a time of peace and prosperity. Recently, researchers
begin to pay some attention to cultural differences in the good
life (King & Napa, 1998; Haidt, 2005).
There is increasing evidence that cultural values
and cultural beliefs influence such matters as what constitutes
the good life and optimal functioning (Haidt, 2005; Leong &
Wong, 2003; Lopez, Edwards, Magyar-Moe, Pedrotti, & Ryder, 2003;
Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Snyder & Lopez, 2007).
What constitutes Chineseness
Culture is a multidimensional construct that encompasses people,
history, geography, politics, customs, language, and influential
philosophies and religions. Being a Chinese means at least three
things: descendants of the Chinese race, bearers of the burdens
of Chinese history, and recipients of some fundamental Chinese cultural
beliefs stemming from Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. These
are the three common elements shared by Chinese people everywhere.
Culture is also in our genes, which predispose
us to act in certain ways (Baumeister, 2005; Boyd & Richerson,
2005). The Chinese people might have been through the process of
natural selection, bred to adapt to all kinds of extreme adversities
over the past six-thousand years. The collective history of having
endured and survived numerous natural disasters, oppressive regimes,
and foreign occupations has endowed Chinese people with the character
strengths of endurance and patience. Being the largest nation with
the longest history also gives Chinese people a sense of national
pride and individual dignity. The teachings of Confucianism, Taoism,
and Buddhism have provided the wisdoms to cope with the complexity
and vicissitudes of life. Their ways of thinking and their unique
language system may have restructured their brains and predisposed
them to relate to the world in unique ways. Together, these factors
shape the Chinese PP.
Overview of the
This paper first briefly introduces Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism
as cornerstones of Chinese culture. These three dominant schools
of philosophy provide a distinctly different conceptual framework
for Chinese PP.
The paper then identifies the six pillars of
Chinese cultural beliefs and shows how these beliefs contribute
to the unique set of signature strengths and virtues of the Chinese
people. Finally, the paper contrasts the different perspectives
of Chinese and American PP.
The beginning of Chinese philosopy can be traced back to I-Ching
(the Book of Changes). This ancient compendium of divination has
influenced both Confucianism and Taoism and continues to be a major
source of Chinese metaphysical principles, such as Yin-Yang.
The flourishing of classic Chinese philosophy
began during the Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 BC) of the breakdown
of Zhou dynasty and annexations by warlords and continued during
the subsequent Warring States Period (475-221 BC). Paradoxically,
these two periods of continued warfare, hardship and uncertainty
witnessed the emergence of Hundred Schools of Thoughts, which contain
many of the seeds of Chinese PP.
The most prominent schools were Confucianism,
Taoism (also spelled Daoism), Mohism, and Legalism. The most influential
classics Analects of Confucius (Kong Fu Tze) and Tao Te Ching by
Lao Tze appeared about 600 BC, also the time for emerging Greek
It was founded by Confucius (Kung Fu-tze, 551-479 BC) and elaborated
by Mencuis (372-289 BC). Confucianism is most responsible for shaping
the Chinese culture. Witnessing the decay of social order and escalation
of wars, Confucius sought to realize the ideal of social stability
and world peace through the cultivation of individual virtues. His
teachings on personal and political ethics were recorded by his
students in the Analects (Soothill, 1968),
Confucius taught that educated gentlemen should
practice the following five virtues in order to live a happy and
- Yen is the virtue of benevolence, kindness,
compassion, and humanity.
- Yi is the virtue of righteousness and uprightness.
Yi also encompasses zhong (faithfulness, loyalty and conscientiousness)
and shu (forgiveness, altruism and consideration of others.) This
virtue incorporates the Golden Rule, “What you don’t
want yourself, don’t do to others.”
- Li is the virtue of propriety, politeness
and good manners. It dictates what constitutes correct behavior
in different kinds of relationships, e.g., filial piety for children
towards parents and respect for authority. It also prescribes
proper behaviors for ceremony and worship.
- Zhi is the virtue of knowledge, prudence
and wisdom, which can be acquired from studying the classics and
learning from the others.
- Xin is the virtue of faithfulness and integrity,
which inspires trust.
It is worth noting that except for the virtue of Zhi, all other
four virtues are essential for maintaining stable and harmonious
relationships. In sum, the good life consists of finding one’s
proper place in society and dutifully performing one’s role.
Confucianism discourages the self-centered pursuit of individual
happiness and success, because such pursuit will disrupt social
order and harmony.
Taoism advocates the ideal of returning to the simple and natural
way of life as a way of coping with the hardships and uncertainties
of life. It was founded by Lao Tze and elaborated by Zhung Tze.
The word Tao literally means the way -- the ultimate creative principle
that gives birth to the universe and nourishes everything in the
cosmos. Conceptually, it is similar to God, but Lao Tze prefers
to call it as “the way of nature”.
One of the profound insights of Lao Tze is the
duality of nature. All things in nature exist in duality or polarity.
The two opposites complement each other and make the existence of
each other possible. Goodness does not exist without evil. Happiness
does not exist without unhappiness. Lao Tze observes: “Fortune
owes its existence to misfortune, and misfortune is hidden in fortune”
(quoted by Chen, 2006, p.92).
When the negative and positive are seen as an
integrated whole, problems and stress disappear. Problems occur
because of our ignorance of the way of nature. This belief in duality
is essential to Chinese PP and questions the wisdom of single-minded
pursuit of signature strengths and positive experiences as advocated
by many American positive psychologists. According to this dualistic
view, one’s strength may contain the seed of self-destruction,
while strength may be hidden in one’s weakness. It is never
wise to exclusively focus on developing one’s signature strengths
or maximizing positive experiences.
Related to duality is the ubiquitous pattern
of change. Things in nature are cyclical – day and night,
change of seasons, life and death, etc. Everything reverses to its
opposite. Reversals of fortune are the way of nature. Therefore,
we should not be overjoyed when times are good or be depressed when
times are bad. To know the principles of duality and change is the
key to adapting effectively to the vicissitudes of life. The wisdom
of being flexible and accepting setbacks enables one to takes things
Taoism teaches contentment as a natural way
of life. It teaches us not only how to be free from worries, but
also how to achieve happiness, which comes from contentment. Craving
for happiness and success leads to moral depravity and personal
destruction, while contentment leads to happiness and health. Contentment
involves overcoming cravings when times are good and overcoming
worries when times are bad; thus, contentment is always there regardless
of reversals of fortune. Contentment leads to humble, selfless devotion
to the well-being of humanity.
Following the natural way of life also means
learning the wisdom of “do nothing”. Learn to be like
the birds in the sky or fish in the river, free from worries and
free from striving. If we learn to let go of our striving and craving,
things will take care of themselves. Surrender our own impulse to
strive and control, but allow nature to take its course. Learn acceptance
and stop interfering. The art of “do nothing” comes
from meditation and learning the wisdom of the Way. Learning the
Way is the ultimate guarantee of happiness and contentment.
The Buddhist Perspective
Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama as a system of mental
cultivation in order to achieve spiritual liberation from suffering
through awakening of the mind from delusion and greed. Mahayana
Buddhism (great vehicle) was later developed in China which stresses
the ideal of Bodhisattvas – enlightened individuals who are
moved by compassion to save all sentient beings from sufferings.
The basic tenets of Buddhism are the Four Noble
- The Truth of Suffering (Dikkha) –
Life is full of suffering. This realization is the necessary first
step towards enlightenment, therefore, an essential ingredient
of Chinese PP based on Buddhism. Suffering includes not only pain
and distress caused by adversities, but also mental vexation,
frustration, disappointment, and anxiety that come from greed,
ignorance and attachments to worldly possession.
- The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
(Tanha) – Suffering comes from craving for happiness and
aversion of pain; both of these psychological mechanisms are rooted
in primordial ignorance and delusion about life (Chen, 2006).
Craving for happiness necessarily causes us to fear or reject
anything that causes unhappiness or pain. Attachment to possession
and achievement invariably leads to disappointment and disillusionment,
because everything is impermanent. Thus, the positive psychology
of pursuing positive experiences and avoiding negative experiences
is counterproductive, because the very focus on happiness contains
the seed of unhappiness and suffering. Failure to embrace life’s
experience in its entirety is at the root of suffering.
- The Truth of Liberation from suffering
(Nirvana) – We can be liberated from suffering by transforming
our craving and aversion through enlightenment. When we attain
this state of perfect peace, serenity and compassion, we are free
from greed, hatred and delusion. This state also transcends all
dualities, such as death and rebirth.
- The Truth of the Eightfold Path (Magga)
-- Liberation through enlightenment can be achieved through the
eightfold path. The eight disciplines can be grouped into three
- Morality – right speech, right
action, right living, right effort
- Meditation – right mindfulness,
- Wisdom – right thought, right
Mindful meditation is an essential exercise
in the process of attaining enlightenment. It cultivates awareness
and concentration, while remaining non-judgmental, regardless of
what happens externally or internally. It develops the mental condition
of self-acceptance and self-transcendence.
Compassion is a natural outcome of enlightenment
and wisdom. An enlightened view of the self leads to compassion.
Wisdom leads one to surrender ego to be part of the larger self;
the practice of love and compassion leads to wisdom.
Buddhism does not seek to relieve people’s
suffering and make them feel happy. Instead, it seeks to free them
from ignorance and craving. Healing and happiness are the byproducts
of enlightenment and compassion rather than the results of worldly
or world views
Worldviews are assumptions and beliefs based on history, experience
and influential thinkers of a particular culture (Tweed & Conway,
2006). The following six cultural beliefs are most widespread and
dominant in Chinese way of thinking: Uncontrollability of the world,
ubiquity of change, fatalism, dualism, collectivism and utility
The first two worldviews reflect the perceived
harsh realities of life; the other four worldviews reflect psychological
adaptations to such perceptions and beliefs. Thus, unlike Americal
PP, the Chinese PP begins with the assumptions that normal life
is mostly negative and beyond our control. As a result, Chinese
have developed strengths and virtues that enable them to survive
of the world
People perceive the external world as largely beyond their control.
Individuals are not able to prevent or control powerful cosmic,
natural and political forces that impact their lives. Earth quakes,
floods, draughts, and hurricanes often claim hundreds and thousands
of lives. Historically, Chinese people rarely had the power to select
their government through voting. Dynasties were regarded as mandated
by Heaven, but in the process of change of government, millions
of lives are sacrificed.
Imagine yourself among the farmers living in
a remote village. The only life you know is unrelenting poverty
and hunger in spite of back-breaking labor. Life is at the mercy
of not only the natural elements, but also the bandits and corrupt
officials. There is no security and protection from anyone. When
people grow up in this kind of harsh and unyielding conditions,
it is only natural that they formulate a view that the world is
Or image yourself living in the war zones in
Baghdad or Darfur, where every day is a bad day. Realizing that
the world is a dangerous place beyond one’s control challenges
one to accept the harsh reality and learn to transform one’s
thoughts and behavior to maintain a sense of sanity and contentment.
That is exactly what Buddhism and Taoism have been so influential
Ubiquity of change
To the traditional Chinese people, the world is not only uncontrollable
but also unpredictable. Since individuals have no control over most
events and situations in their lives, they have no way to predict
how life will turn out. The vast sweep of Chinese history further
reinforces the perception that everything is in a flux and life
is often characterized by reversals of fortune. For example, the
underclass in one regime may suddenly become the upper-class when
there is a regime change. As the axiom goes, life is as predictable
as the weather. Confucianism tries to reduce chaos by emphasizing
social orders and stable relationships. Taoism emphasizes the need
to be as flexible as water in adapting to changes. Buddhism teaches
people that the world as we know it is just passing delusion. All
these teachings prepare people to face the vicissitudes of life
It is the belief that spiritual and cosmic forces are deciding the
fate of individuals and their daily affairs. Since the world is
uncontrollable and unpredictable from the perspective of individuals,
belief in fatalism seems to be inevitable. Fatalism recognizes the
limits of rationalism and materialism and acknowledges the transcendental
reality that is shrouded in mystery. Only sages with great spiritual
insight, like the historical Buddha and Lao Tze, are able to gain
some insight into the transcendental reality.
Divining and fortune telling remain popular
among Chinese people since the ancient days of I-Ching. One can
consult fortune tellers trying to have a glimpse into the future,
even though one cannot change fate. Interestingly, many highly educated
Chinese believe in luck; they believe that when they are visited
by good luck, then everything they do will flourish, but when they
are visited by bad luck, then their best efforts will still fail.
One benefit of belief in fatalism is that it
makes unexplainable adversities more bearable. When one attributes
suffering to karma, fate or bad luck beyond one’s control,
then one is freed from shame and guilt. When there is a breakup
in relationship, the most common attribution is that the karma for
togetherness is gone, thus, removing the need for blaming.
Duality of nature
Emphasized by Taoism, the belief in duality recognizes the co-existence
of opposites and accommodates discordant ideas. The symbol of Yin
Yang expresses best the dynamic balance between opposites in human
nature as well as in the human condition.
Because of dualistic beliefs, Chinese PP rejects
the distinction of negative psychology and positive psychology as
a false dichotomy. From the Chinese perspective, there is no clear
distinction between curative and preventive medicine, because the
principle is always the restoration of balance within the biological
systems. Similarly, there is no distinction between negative and
positive psychology because the same principles are used to achieve
psychological balance and integration. Chinese PP does not claim
that happiness can trump suffering or virtues can prevent evil.
Chinese people have learned from thousands of years of history that
suffering and evil will be forever with us and the best one can
do is to maintain an uneasy balance so that good will not be overwhelmed
The Chinese PP posits the duality hypothesis
– the optimal positive outcomes can be achieved not by accentuating
the positive and avoiding the negative but by embracing and integrative
both the positive and negative. This duality hypothesis can be applied
to life review. One can compare the outcome of reviewing only pleasant
memories and positive experiences with that of reviewing both positive
and negative experiences. This duality hypothesis can also be tested
in management science. This hypothesis would predict that a strength-only
approach would be inferior to the dualistic approach, because any
individual is only as strong as his or her weakest point. Eventually,
one will pay a high price by turning a blind eye to one’s
Crowdedness and the enormity of life’s problems make it necessary
for people to learn how to get along with each other and how to
work together to find solutions. Confucianism has also instilled
into the Chinese mindset the imperative of collectivist beliefs.
As a result, collectivism is widespread in East Asian cultures (Triandis,
People with collectivist beliefs have the tendency
to look at both figure and ground rather than focus on the figure
(Nisbett, 2003). Similarly, collectivist beliefs place group interests
above self-interests. Thus, instead of seeking optimal functioning
and happiness for the individual, collectivism seeks optimal harmony
and benefit for the group, whether it is the family or the company.
By the same token, the traditional Chinese people invest in developing
and maintaining good relationships, and would not want to ruin friendship
because of expedience or temporary gains. Loyalty to family and
friends is highly valued. While expressing of gratitude is considered
by American PP as an exercise to increase individual happiness,
it is considered by Chinese PP as essential for maintaining good
relationship. To show gratitude for the good things people have
done for you will enable us to forgive the bad things people have
done to you. Similarly, forgiveness is emphasized by American PP
as important for our own well-being; it is valued by Chinese PP
as essential for harmony and good relationship.
Collectivism contributes to the social capital
and increases the likelihood of collective power to defeat a common
enemy. Collective coping is not only humanistic but also effective
simply because of greater resources. It also strengthens civil virtues
and community spirit.
Utility of Efforts
If the first five cultural beliefs make Chinese people feel helpless
and powerless as individuals, belief in the utility of effort reminds
them of their personal responsibility to do their very best in areas
where they can exercise some control. These areas include work ethics
(being studious and conscientious), self-cultivation efforts (cultivation
and accumulation of various virtues), and relational efforts (filial
piety, loyalty towards friends, respect for authority, and harmony
within the group). Considering all six cultural beliefs, the Chinese
people are both high external and high internals and cannot be measured
by unidimensional scales (Wong & Sproule, 1984).
The parable of “The old fool who tries
to remove the mountain” teaches that the utility of efforts
extends across generations and incorporate the masses. According
to the story, onlookers were puzzled by the old man who dug at a
mountain with a shovel. “I am trying to remove this mountain
so that we can go to the next village without having to climb over
this mountain.” “But you are old and this is a gigantic
task,” they said. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, the
old man said, “Yes, I am old, but my children and my children’s
children will continue until this job is done. Other villages may
also join in.”
What is the Chinese
perspective of PP?
Given the above philosophical foundations and pillars of cultural
beliefs, what is the Chinese perspectives of strengths and the good
life? How are they different from the American PP perspectives?
strengths and virtues
The six pillars of cultural beliefs led to the development of a
unique set of strengths and virtues.
Belief in uncontrollability of the world naturally leads to the
strengths of endurance, acceptance and self-transformation. Acceptance
here means more than the Western meaning of cognitive consent. It
may involve surrender of the ego and accepting one’s fate.
Endurance means more than goal-persistence. A popular Chinese idiom
says, “As long as the green mountain remains, there will always
be a supply of firewood.” The idea is that as long as we stay
alive and endure whatever we have to endure, we can always stage
a comeback in the future. Similarly, self-transformation means more
than cognitive reframing, because it may involve a conversation
type of enlightenment and spiritual transformation.
Belief in ubiquity of changes naturally leads
to the strengths of flexibility, resourcefulness, and optimism.
Since everything is cyclical, there is always hope. If we are willing
to be flexible and learn from nature, there is always a creative
way to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem.
Belief in duality leads to the strength of open-mindedness, tolerance
and accommodation. It enables people to embrace all of life, both
negative and positive. It favors the middle path, integration and
holistic thinking rather than the either-or kind of linear dichotomous
Belief in fatalism leads to the strengths of
acceptance, faith and transcendence. It recognizes that the rationality
has its limitations. We should always try to decipher the will of
the Providence. Wars are won when there is harmony among people,
geographical advantages and good luck from Heaven.
Belief in collectivism leads to the strengths
of cooperation, altruism, and social capital. It also results in
more stable families and organizations. There is always strength
in numbers when the problem is too big for any individual.
Belief in utility of efforts leads to the strength
of conscientiousness, responsibility and hard work. If fatalism
encourages dependence on Providence, and collectivism encourages
interdependence between people, then utility of efforts favors independence
of individual efforts.
This set of signature strengths and virtues
have enabled the Chinese people to overcome extreme difficulties
and survive for more than six thousand years. With these Ancient
beliefs and time-tested strengths, they are likely to be around
for another six thousands years.
The Chinese concept
of the good life
Thomas Parker (1979) has made a very astute observation of the American
Our culture presents the ‘gracious life,’ the idea that
one can live without conflict, pain, and deprivation if he is lucky
enough to have the money, good taste, and training that will allow
it…The idea of the ‘gracious life’ is wrong, because
it makes no room for the struggle and agony that is an essential
part of life. It assumes that happiness comes from the absence of
these negative qualities rather than their acceptance as an essential
part of life (p.25-26).
I have also criticized many Americans’
single-minded pursuit of personal happiness and success and their
equally determined aversion to suffering as being wrong-headed.
The Chinese PP embraces life in its totality and integrates both
positive and negative experiences. Balance and moderation are valued
more than achieving optimal levels of functioning and happiness.
Group harmony is considered more important than individual success.
Contentment is the key to lasting happiness. The ideal life according
to the average Chinese down through the years is: Live a plain life
in peace and harmony with one family and neighbors. Happiness is
found in harmonious relationship. Another Chinese idiom says, “Everything
will be prosperous, when there is harmony at home.”
It is true that Westerners and Easterners are more similar than
different at the basic level of humanity. However, given the unique
history and culture of the Chinese, they do have a unique perspective
of PP. American PP can learn something from the Chinese perspective
The most common responses from American positive psychologists are
to minimize the differences. They either declare “We have
already included those Chinese concepts in our systems” or
claim that Chinese concept of self-transformation is no different
from cognitive reframing. Simply adopting a few Chinese concepts
without understanding their cultural and philosophical roots could
result in misappropriation of culture and continued colonization
of Asian psychology. To advance internationalization of PP, it is
important that American PP avoid ethnocentric biases and consider
the different perspectives summarized in Table 1.
Table 1: Different perspectives between Chinese
and American PP
|Linear & dichotomous
||Holistic & dualistic
|Born in peace & prosperity
||Born in wars & poverty
||Balance & integration
||Enlightenment & wisdom
|Change the situation
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** A shorter version of this paper will
be published in The Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology Edited by