New Algebra for Positive Psychology
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
- 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!
- 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.
- 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
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