My editorial (Wong, 2004) for the first issue of International Journal of Existential Psychology & Psychotherapy was entitled “Existential Psychology for the 2lst Century”. At the beginning of this article, I already articulated my new vision for existential positive psychology:
“What is existential psychology? By definition, it is the psychology of human existence in all its complexity and paradoxes. Human existence is more than an abstract concept; it involves real people in concrete situations. Unencumbered by its philosophical roots, existential psychology needs to become the practical psychology of everyday living – how to survive and thrive in the midst of tensions between good and evil, hope and despair, love and hate, courage and safety, agency and community. It is about the high dramas of coping, dreaming, and transformation. It is the mature, positive psychology of how to live and die well in spite of the conflicts and tensions that pervade human existence. Shifting through the colliding narratives and contradicting ‘facts’, existential psychology seeks to address fundamental questions relevant to the survival of humanity and the well-being of every individual.” (p. 1)
Those research questions included:
- What does it mean to exist and live as a human being….What are our deepest yearnings and most cherished dreams? What are the highest riches of human aspirations?
- What does it mean to be authentic and fully alive? How can we discover our true identity? …How do we maintain a passion for living, when things are not going well? How can we function fully, develop our full potentials, and remain optimistic in an oppressive or hostile environment?
- What are the givens of human existence? What is the structure of human existence in all its complexity and duality? What is the meaning of suffering, pain and death? What is the meaning of life in light of these negative givens? …How can we integrate both the negative and positive givens to facilitate personal growth and community development?
- What are the forces that shape the human condition? What are the social and psychological underpinnings of the horror of war and atrocity? How can we change the conditions that perpetuate human misery and injustice?
The bolded sentences highlight the important questions for the new science of flourishing through suffering, which has consumed all my time and energy during the past 20 years. At the time I released this editorial, I was very clear that our hope for answering these challenging questions was a holistic methodology, as articulated in my conclusion for that editorial:
“In order to create a body of knowledge regarding all aspects of human existence, the journal will value the subjective, phenomenological experiences of the person, as well as the objective, observable and measurable behaviours. It does not see any contradiction between the holistic study of the whole person and the quantitative, experimental research of certain psychological attributes; both approaches can enrich our understanding of human existence. Life is full of paradoxes, puzzles and mysteries. Therefore, I would like to see creative, innovative methods to illuminate the seemingly incomprehensive, inexplicable wonders and horrors of human existence.” (p. 2)
Now, fast forward to the end of 2020. Over the years, my vision has remained the same (Wong, 2009, 2016a) but many good things have happened since 2004 to justify a change of the journal’s name to International Journal of Existential Positive Psychology—the only peer-reviewed journal totally devoted to the integration of existential psychology and positive psychology.
In this new editorial, I will detail some of the new developments that represents both progress and new challenges in this new field of integrative and holistic research of existential positive psychology.
Reframing a Positively Oriented Existential Psychology (Wong, 2004) as Positive Existential Psychology (PP 2.0; Wong, 2010, 2011)
My primary motivation for the journal title change is to attract more contributions from positive psychologists and have more impact on positive psychology and mainstream psychology. Elsewhere, I have articulated numerous reasons for the emergence of PP 2.0 (Wong, 2015; Wong & Roy, 2018; also see Wikipedia, 2019).
Another compelling reason for PP2.0 is that during the coronavirus pandemic, its message of how to survive and thrive through suffering seems more attuned to people’s psychological need than the message of how to flourish without any regard to the very trying circumstances. The cherry tune of happiness may be jarring to the ears of all those who are either grieving the death of a loved one due to Covid-19 or worrying about testing positive and dying from it.
Unfortunately, there is still resistance to my attempts to re-orient the course of positive psychology (Wong, 2019a). Perhaps, this is expected according to Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions (1962). This may also be due to the willful blindness (Heffernan, 2012) to recognize at least the two main reasons for the course correction:
- It is not possible for human beings to fully flourish without taking into account suffering, the inescapable reality of human existence (Fowers et al., 2017; Wong, 2019b). According to Contestabile (2018), increased global mobility increases the risk of a pandemic, and technological and cultural changes pose new risks for suffering, which “cannot be compensated by happiness across individuals.”
Life is basically tragic, especially in the era of COVID-19 (Wong, in press-a). In addition to natural disasters and social-economic stressors, much of human suffering is existential (Bates, 2016). Basically, we were all born alone, are struggle alone, and then will die alone. A pervasive sense of existential loneliness accompanies every stage of human development because of the lack of connections and harmony within us, with others, and with a transcendental reality. We cannot be fully happy if we cannot adequately address the basic disunity and disharmony according to Erich Fromm (1959). He argued persuasively that this deep-seated need for inner harmony drove us to strive for the experience of unity and balance in all spheres of being.
- It is not possible for positive psychology to fully understand of the richness and complexity of human flourishing by depending only on the outdated epistemology of positivism and the ideology of materialism and scientism (Wong & Roy, 2018). For example, the deep and profound meaning of human existence may be reduced to a simple set of inadequate operational definitions because of the young researchers’ own lack of deep understanding of life and the vast existential literature (Wong, 2016b); publications based on such simple measures without adequate construct validity will not contribute to our understanding of existential meaning as a human phenomenon.
Exciting New Theoretical Developments in PP 2.0: Their Heuristic Values for Research and Interventions
Here, I will just introduce a few theories which are potentially fruitful. At the heart of PP 2.0 is the need for understanding dialectical Yin-Yang interactions to achieve a dynamic balance between opposites (Lomas, 2016;Wong, 2012). It is fundamental to study and understand how to navigate the interactions between the bright and dark sides of human personality and situations to yield optimal wellbeing.
The deep-and-wide hypothesis (Wong & Worth, 2017) about the creative problem- solving process is just part of the efforts to understand what is good and beneficial about negative emotions. This theory will complement Fredrickson’s (2001) broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.
The development of a taxonomy of suffering is the foundation of a science of flourishing through suffering (Fowers et al., 2017; Wong, 2019b, 2020b). More refinement is needed for a comprehensive taxonomy of suffering and measurement of suffering (Anderson, 2014; Joye, 2011).
The development of a deep joy amidst suffering is also an important area of a new outcome measure that factors in suffering (Wong & Bowers, 2018). This kind of mature happiness is based on learning how to achieve a dynamic balance between the positive and negative life force in each context. Accordingly, sustainable durable wellbeing can only be achieved when we are able to achieve an adaptive balance between our existential yearnings for love, meaning, and faith (the golden triangle), with the ancient dark emotions – guilt, shame, and fear (Mayer et al., in press; Wong, 2019c) or the tragic triad of guilt, suffering, and death (Frankl, 1985).
This involves self-transcendence over negative emotions to maintain inner peace and over egotistic interest to serve others. Mature happiness, a positive mental state of inner peace, harmony, and contentment, is based on a deep spiritual or philosophical understanding and the ability to manage a dynamic balance between opposite forces with wisdom, courage, and meaning/purpose, as shown in Figure 1.
Dialectical Mandala Model of Mature Happiness
There are reasons to believe that this is a distinct third types of happiness, different from hedonic happiness and eudaimonia. Mature happiness can also be understood as deep happiness (Delle Fave et al., 2016) with its emphasis on harmony, or authentic-durable happiness (Dambrun et al., 2012) with its emphasis on contentment and inner peace.
Indeed, my concept of mature happiness is very similar to the Buddhist concept of happiness. According to Thich Nhat Hanh (2014), the secret to happiness is seeking peace, not excitement; to transform suffering, not running away from it. Furthermore, Ekman et al. (2005) defined happiness as:
“a state of flourishing that arises from mental balance and insight into the nature of reality. Rather than a fleeting emotion or mood aroused by sensory and conceptual stimuli, sukha is an enduring trait that arises from a state of mental balance. It entails a conceptually unstructured and unfiltered awareness of the true nature of reality.” (p. 60)
Dambrun et al. (2012) have developed an authentic-durable happiness based on contentment and inner peace. They have also found evidence that self-transcendence values are related to authentic-durable happiness and should make it more resistant to the impact of negative circumstances. In short, the unique nature of mature or durable happiness is that it is based on cultivating inner balance and self-transcendence in troubled times.
The self-transcendence paradigm of wellbeing and personal growth is probably the most important theoretical development. It is similar to The Connections Paradigm by Dr. David Rosmarin (2021) which involves the connection of two complementary and opposites in three major domains of life: inner connection, interpersonal connection, and spiritual connection. The main difference is that my paradigm focuses on realizing connections with the self, with others, and with God thru self-transcendence and personal sacrifice.
Simply put, self-transcendence involves a fundamental reorientation from an egotistic focus or selfishness, to selflessness and caring for others or something greater than oneself, even when it entails sacrifice. This is essentially a paradoxical model of personal growth and self-actualization through self-transcendence and suffering (Wong, 2016c). The new science of self-transcendence as a uniquely human phenomenon is the central theme of PP 2.0 (Frankl, 1966, 1985; Kaufman, 2020; Wong, 2016c, 2020a; Yaden et al., 2017).
In retrospection, I’m grateful for my long conversations with Dr. David Bakan while teaching at York University more than 30 years ago. He sought me out for dialogues because I was an experimental psychologist who happened to be a Christian. He was curious about my thoughts about his Jewish-Freudian integration (Bakan, 1958). These discussions with the author of Duality of Human Existence (Bakan, 1966) and Disease, pain, and sacrifice: Toward a psychology of suffering (Bakan, 1968) sowed the seed for my self-transcendence paradigm of holistic wellbeing. Bakan actually believed in the triad of human experience, which consisted of Agency, Communion and Spirituality:
- Agency = a sense of ego and divine calling, responsible for progress in science and prosperity and the feelings of isolation and absurdity.
- Communion = a need for connection with others and belonging to a community to mitigate against the downside of agency.
- Spirituality = God is the projection of our agency and communion and represents our needs for redemption or cure of the human soul from sins (Gorday, 1998). Existential suffering results from sacrificing or surrendering an important part of one’s self for the “good of the whole” as demonstrated by Abraham’s sacrifice of his son for his tribe, Job’s sacrifice for his own integrity, and Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity. In all three areas of human experiences, some -detachment is necessary.
This may be an oversimplification of Bakan’s views on the relationship between religious faith with personality. However, it is enough for me to influence my interpretation of Frankl’s logotherapy (1985; Wong, in press-b), resulting in the self-transcendence paradigm of PP 2.0.
The Golden Triangle
According to PP 2.0, the golden triangle of meaning, relationship and spirituality (see figure 2) constitutes the three pillars of positive mental health. There is a vast literature supporting each of these three pillars. For meaning, see Wong (2012) and Hick & Routlege (2013). For relationship, see Ainsworth (1989) and Harvard Health Publishing (2017). For spirituality, see Koenig (2009) and Weber & Pargament (2014).
According to the self-transcendence paradigm, the root causes of mental illness and existential suffering lie in our brokenness in all three areas. We are broken within ourselves—with our constant inner conflict and tumult in a divided self. Similarly, our relationships with family, friends, and the community are broken—torn by endless misunderstanding, conflicts, and the struggle for dominance. Our union with God is broken—we are separated from God by our unbelief, ignorance, pride, and sin.
Therefore, the cure for human suffering and the restoration of happiness depend on the healing and transformation of brokenness into wholeness and oneness. Regarding the inner connections, the key to human happiness and mental health is learning how to maintain a dynamic balance between the heart’s desires and mind’s rational judgement or between the dark and bright side of personality. For example, my integrative meaning therapy (Wong 2010, 2016d, 2020c) focuses on the fundamental human needs for meaning, relationship, and spirituality, with the human quest for meaning (self-transcendence) as its central organizing theme, and connections, balance, and harmony as the desirable outcomes for wellbeing.
The New Frontiers of Empirical Studies and The New Research Agenda
The new theoretical developments (seen above) can generate a great deal of exciting research that can both expand and transform our understanding of human flourishing and wellbeing. There has already been a lot of creative energy on the empirical front. In addition to the two special issues of Counselling Psychology Quarterly on Second Wave Positive Psychology (Wong, 2019d), and the special issue of Frontiers in Psychology on the new science of existential positive psychology (Wong et al., in press), there were numerous research studies related to existential positive psychology (e.g., Ivtzan, et al., 2015; Batthyány &,Russo-Netzer, 2014).
With respect to the holistic research methodology for the integrative PP 2.0, I have already proposed some preliminary ideas of integrative humanistic-existential psychology research with positive psychology research (Wong, 2011, 2016e). PP 2.0 embraces William James’ (1912) radical empiricism which “bridges the split between subjective and objective, qualitative and quantitative.” (Wong, 2011b, p. 410) Moving beyond artificial confines of experimental research, “such radical empiricism would also examine all recorded human activities, from history, anthropology, literature, and religion to shed light on the human condition and the person.” (Wong, 2011b, p. 411).
This holistic methodology also insists on the imperative of including a component of existential-phenomenological experience for all quantitative studies (Wong, 2016e). This component is essential to check whether the outsider’s view of the experimenter is consistent with the insider’s view of participants. This mixed methodology will prevent experimenters from coming to wrong interpretations of their quantitative data.
Here is my latest proposal of a dual-system approach to research on human flourishing through suffering (figure 3). Basically, my proposal involves a paradigm shift of including suffering or unpleasant condition as an independent covariable. Results from such research will yield a more complete understanding of global wellbeing in the context of unavoidable human miseries, both subjective and objective (Anderson, 2014).
A complete model of wellbeing (PMP refers to Personal Meaning Profile)
- Normal life conditions are seldom normal because of (a) our inherent limitations and foibles, and (b) the inevitable suffering. That is why the old science of pursuing happiness does not work especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
- The new science proposes that (a) the approach and avoidance systems must work together, (b) any setbacks during the pursuit of happiness will trigger the aversive system, and (c) in coping with the inevitable suffering, we are capable of transforming it to achievement and mature happiness.
- Thus, by embracing suffering, the approach system has a better chance of success and the avoidance system has a better chance of transforming suffering into success. Therefore, flourishing is more likely if we embrace suffering.
- We need to embrace the dark side of life as the other half of the complete circle of wellbeing. True positivity, whether happiness or character strength, can only be seen in the darkness.
The above principles indicate that PP 2.0 may be the most exciting new development in positive psychology and existential psychology because it changes the paradigm of wellbeing research in important ways that deepen our understanding of wellbeing.
Paradoxically, we need to have the courage and humility (e.g., Van Tongeren & Van Tongeren, 2020; Wong, 2020b) to remove our defence mechanisms, and embrace the reality of suffering honestly. Only then can we be liberated from the negative emotions, such as fear, anger, and resentment, to the freedom of pursuing our highest aspirations for a fulfilling life and a compassionate society.
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Wong, P. T. P. (In Press). Existential Positive Psychology (PP 2.0) and global wellbeing: Why it is Necessary During the Age of COVID-19. IJEPP.