Chinese Positive Psychology

What is the Ancient Chinese Secret to Resilience and Happiness?
© Paul T. P. Wong
Ph.D. C.Psych
Toronto, Ontario

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 & Lopez, 2007).

Cultural differences 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 paper
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.

Three dominant Chinese Philosophies
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 philosophy.

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 harmonious life:

  1. Yen is the virtue of benevolence, kindness, compassion, and humanity.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. Zhi is the virtue of knowledge, prudence and wisdom, which can be acquired from studying the classics and learning from the others.
  5. 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 in stride.

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 Truths:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 categories:
  • Morality – right speech, right action, right living, right effort
  • Meditation – right mindfulness, right meditation
  • Wisdom – right thought, right understanding

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 success.

Cultural beliefs 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 of efforts.

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 extreme adversities.

Uncontrollability 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 uncontrollable.

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 in China.

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 with equanimity.

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 by evil.

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 Achilles’ heel.

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, 1994).

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?

Chinese signature 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 thinking.

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 culture:
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

American PP Chinese PP
Individualist Collectivist
Linear & dichotomous Holistic & dualistic
Born in peace & prosperity Born in wars & poverty
Individual happiness Group harmony
Value happiness Value contentment
Optimal experiences Balance & integration
Scientific reasoning Enlightenment & wisdom
Materialistic worldviews Transcendental worldview
Change the situation Change oneself
Experimental evidence Historical evidence
Positivist paradigm Constructivist/narrative paradigm

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** A shorter version of this paper will be published in The Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology Edited by Shane Lopez.

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