This editorial abstract was submitted by Paul T. P. Wong, Claude-Hélène Mayer, Victoria L. Bowers for the Frontiers special issue on COVID-19 and Existential Positive Psychology (PP 2.0): The New Science of Self-Transcendence. This is the full version of the abstract with a reference list.
COVID-19 has changed everything. It has demonstrated clearly that no matter how young and healthy one is, or how much one dismisses the reality of the pandemic, one can still get infected with the potentially deadly virus. It has exposed the weaknesses of an individualist and pleasure-seeking society like America in combating the coronavirus (Friedman, 2020). It has taught us that physical wellbeing can be sustained during the pandemic only when we remain vigilant about the danger of COVID-19 and assume the social responsibility of practicing good public hygiene of wearing masks, hand washing, and being social distanced.
Likewise, COVID-19 has exposed the inadequacy of positive psychology (PP 1.0), which was born in times of peace and prosperity and designed for life in neutral and positive territories. It has shown clearly that no matter how much one pursues happiness and individual signature character strengths, no matter how hard we try to avoid or ignore unpleasant topics like death, suffering, and human weaknesses, our mental health is not immune from the adverse effects of all the bad things and bad news from the pandemic. It is normal for us to feel anxious about our health, economic downturn, and an uncertain future (CAMH, 2020); it is also natural to see an increase in loneliness because of social isolation (Hwang et al., 2020).
In contrast, existential positive psychology (PP 2.0) was born in times of war and adversity, designed for life in territories from negative 10 to positive 10 (Wong, 2009, 2011a). From this perspective, the best news or the most exciting opportunity from COVID-19 is that people are beginning to pay attention of the main thesis of PP 2.0 that life is a constant struggle in a difficult and dangerous world, and the only way to achieve sustainable wellbeing is to embrace and transform the inevitable suffering and inherent human weaknesses into our advantage for personal growth, happiness, and success.
There is already growing research supporting the idea that the dark side of human existence is essential to complete the circle of wholeness. Any equation of happiness and wellbeing must factor in the misery index of macro stressors, such as natural disasters and pandemics, and micro factors, such as personal limitations, painful memories, or emotions (Fowers et al, 2017; Van Tongeren & Van Tongeren, 2020; Wong, 2019a, 2020a, 2020b).
PP 2.0 may be the most exciting development in positive psychology because it changes the paradigm of wellbeing research in important ways and deepens our scientific understanding of wellbeing. In this paper, we want to briefly identify a few fundamental areas of research and interventions from this new orientation:
- Optimal wellbeing and mature happiness (Wong & Bowers, 2018) can be achieved through learning how to make the best use of the dynamic and dialectic interplay between positive and negative life experiences in each context. The ancient Yin-Yang dialectic or the contemporary dual-system model (Wong, 2012) provides a blueprint of how to navigate between opposite forces, such as good and evil, self and other, which are prevalent in life (Deng et al., 2020; Lomas & Ivtzan, 2016; Wong, in press; Wong & Bowers, 2018).
- Global wellbeing can only be achieved by meeting both our existential yearnings for love, meaning, and faith, and overcoming the triad of ancient dark emotions – guilt, shame, and fear (Mayer et al., in press; Wong, 2019b) or the tragic triad of guilt, suffering, and death (Lukas, 1990). Faith in God or a higher power, loving relationships, and meaningful work represent our essential needs for mental health, just as food, water, and air are essential for our physical health. People in different cultures can have their own ways of expressing and fulfilling the same existential yearnings (Wong, in press).
- Resilience is no longer defined in terms of bouncing back. The PP 2.0 approach believes that a resilient mindset (Wong, 2020a, 2020b) represent a new way of confronting and seeing the world as full of suffering, but also full of overcoming (Apter, 2020; Vozza, 2020). All the good things we value and cherish are on the other side of fear; we will not be able to fulfill our dreams without a resilient mindset to embrace sacrifice and to go through the gates of fears and suffering (Wong, 2020b).
- Self-transcendence is the central theme in the new science of suffering through meaning seeking and meaning making (Frankl, 1985; Kaufman, 2020; Wong, 2016). It does not matter whether you live a privileged and luxurious life, or live in conditions of poverty or traumatic stress, all pathways leading to healing and flourishing involve the central mechanism of self-transcendence (Wong, 2020a). Simply put, self-transcendence involves a fundamental shift in one’s life attitude, from an egotistic focus to caring for others or something greater than oneself.
- 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)
In sum, PP 2.0 leads to the development of a deeper, more complete understanding of healing and flourishing during the pandemic through cultivating meaning and virtues. When properly understood and fully accepted, this new science represents an economic and realistic way to transform both individuals and societies for all nations, whatever their cultures or circumstances. Therefore, PP 2.0 deserves the attention of wellbeing researchers, mental health practitioners, and policy makers.
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Wong, P. T. P., Mayer, C.-H., & Bowers, V. L. (In press). Existential Positive Psychology (PP 2.0) and the New Science of Flourishing Through Suffering [Special Issue Editorial Abstract]. Frontiers. http://www.drpaulwong.com/existential-positive-psychology-pp-2-0-and-the-new-science-of-flourishing-through-suffering/