President's Column - December 2001

A New Algebra for Positive Psychology
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada

All through the Positive Psychology Summit in Washington, DC, October 5-8, 2001, there was a constant undercurrent, tugging at the participants for an effective response to September 11. Indeed, many speakers did acknowledge the challenge posted by this national tragedy to positive psychology, but their responses tended to focus on "happiness" and "the good life" and minimize the negative. For example, several participants suggested the need to replace fear with courage, but courage without fear would no longer be courage, because courage, by its very nature, requires the capacity to act in the presence of fear, even exaggerated fear.

The same lack of understanding of the duality of positive psychology is evident again and again as the elite "talking heads" and pundits question the wisdom of the Administration in issuing repeated warnings of terrorist attacks, but at the same time advising Americans to get back to their normal routines. "How can life return to normal, when the President keeps on scaring us?" they asked with a not-not-so subtle hint of sarcasm.

Such comments have prompted me to make the following points:

  1. Normal life, as understood by most people in other parts of the world, necessarily involves suffering, pain and the threats of troubles beyond their control. Normal life, for them, never means a leisurely walk through the park or an uneventful joy ride on a superhighway. Indeed, many Americans have been spared from the harsh realities and sorrows familiar to people in other countries. However, as Jeff Greenfield has wryly observed, America's luck finally ran out on September 11. Welcome to the family of suffering nations!
  2. There is no such thing as pure and unalloyed happiness. The good life, no matter how it is conceptualized, can never be free from evil. We need to be confronted with the reality of the duality of human nature and the human condition. Just as depicted by the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol, good must coexist with evil, courage with fear, hope with despair, and joy with sorrow. Americans, especially psychologists, are so used to the dichotomous way of thinking that they often have difficulty grasping the reciprocal and interactive processes of duality.
  3. Many positive psychologists still believe in the algebraic summation of positive and negative experiences. Thus, if you have 4 positive events, and 2 negative events, the net result would be 2, because 4 plus (-2) = 2. From this perspective, the best way to achieve happiness or attain the good life is to avoid and minimize negative experiences. Suffering is simply viewed as an unnatural and unwelcome intrusion into our otherwise happy existence.
  4. A mature positive psychology, on the other hand, demands a new algebra:
    4 plus (-2) = 6. The reason for this new algebraic summation is that once we enter the defiant human spirit or the spiritual dimension into the equation, as proposed by Viktor Frankl, the negative is transformed into positive. Logotherapy, Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism, have all advocated some form of mature positive psychology. For example, Jesus Christ proclaims that blessed are those who mourn, and blessed are those who are persecuted. Apostle Paul epitomized the positive psychology of Jesus: Paul was often sorrowful, yet exceedingly joyful. Similarly, according to the positive psychology of Buddhism, we can maintain serenity in the midst of suffering. Dalai Lama believes that if you are familiar with Buddhist teaching and practice, "then your mind is well equipped for death or all different kinds of suffering. So when these things actually happen, you feel, 'Oh, it is normal.' And so you cannot disturb your inner peace" (Hewitt, 1996, p.172).

My presentation at the Positive Psychology Summit "Tragic optimism, realistic optimism, and mature happiness" illustrates this new algebra of positive psychology. In that paper, I proposed that through affirmation of meaning and acceptance of reality, through faith and courage, we can learn to develop a greater appreciation of life, a greater capacity for hope and happiness, and live a more meaningful and fulfilling life. The greater good that comes out from evil is not more happiness, but a more mature happiness. The transformation is more qualitative than quantitative. Thus, in spite of Anthrax threats and other forms of Terrorism, we can indeed go about the business of everyday living. However, we do not return to the superficial type of normal life, untouched by tragedy; instead, we have learned to lead a deeper, more purposeful normal life, strengthened by tragedy.

The new science of positive psychology should not be limited to redirecting our focus from negative to positive human experiences. To me, the real challenge of positive psychology is to understand the resources and processes that transform the negative and integrate it with the positive, resulting in a more mature and heroic type of positive experiences.

In this Christmas season, our thoughts naturally turn to the birth of Jesus Christ. But without his death and resurrection, the gospel of Jesus would not have had an enduring and unparalleled appeal to the world.

To all the members of the Meaning Network, and to all my readers, my wish and prayer is that in the coming new year, you will truly experience the new algebra of positive psychology as exemplified by Jesus.

Hewitt, H. (1996). Searching for God in America. Dallas, TX: Word Publishing.