The much anticipated first Second Wave Positive Psychology (PP2.0) Summit is fast approaching; leaders in PP2.0 from around the world will be gathered in Toronto at the 9th Biennial International Meaning Conference between July 28-31 to explore the exciting new vistas of research and interventions in second wave positive psychology.
A few months ago, I answered the basic question: What is Second Wave Positive Psychology and Why is it Necessary? This time, I want to answer the obvious next question: How do we embrace the dark side to make life better?
Imagine your life as a tapestry. Don’t you think that it will look richer and more beautiful when it is woven with threads of multiple colors, including different shades of darker hues? Thus, the challenge is this: How do we accomplish this in real life? How do we do it?
I propose that the following dialectical principles can enrich your life and contribute to your personal growth by integrating whatever obstacles and problems life may throw at you.
Becoming Wiser and Better Through the Synthesis of Opposites
This dialectical principle is based on Hegel’s synthesis of opposites. A better policy can emerge by incorporating the best ideas from two opposing proposals. A better strategic plan can be found in preparing for the worst while anticipating the best, rather than focusing only on the opportunities. A more helpful way to understand human nature or human behavior is to acknowledge the human potentials for both good and evil.
By definition, tragic optimism (Frankl, 1985; Wong, 2009a) involves a pessimistic assessment of reality and a courageous affirmation of faith and hope at the same time. In taking a stance of tragic optimism, one is able to maintain hope against hope.
In fact, PP2.0 represents a case of the synthesis of negative psychology and positive psychology, resulting in a new perspective of psychology that attempts to fix what is broken and achieve what is good and whole—all at the same time (Wong, Ivtzan, & Lomas, 2016).
Becoming More Balanced and Flexible Through the Co-Existence of Opposites
This dialectical principle is also based on the Taoist concept of Yin-Yang. This is the cornerstone of Chinese positive psychology (Wong, 2009b), but also a common human experience. Pure happiness is less common than the experience of co-valence—a mixture of both positive and negative emotions, such as hope and fear (Lazarus, 2003) or love and jealousy (Pfeiffer & Wong, 1989). There may be moments of unalloyed ecstasy, but, most of the time, our emotional life is fluid and complex (Lomas & Ivtzan, 2015).
The co-existence of opposites naturally results in a more balanced or moderate response because of the countervailing effect of opposites. In other words, this dialectical principle helps us achieve the virtue of the golden mean according to Aristotle or the middle way according to Confucius. Recently, positive psychologists have also come to the same conclusion (Grant & Schwartz, 2011) that there can be too much of a good thing.
Another benefit of the Yin-Yang principle is that it helps us to be more mentally flexible. For example, Wong and Sproule (1984) have shown that locus of control can be best represented by two independent dimensions rather than two opposite poles on the same dimension. We don’t have to be torn between two choices. In fact, we can practice both internal and external control in certain situations, such as trusting in our own effort as well as God’s help in providing good weather if we are farmers or fishermen.
Imagine the cognitive flexibility and adaptive power we will enjoy if we are able to hold two opposite ideas as two parallel dimensions. The dynamic interactions in this two-dimensional spaces allows us various coping options. In fact, Wong’s (2012) dual-system model is exactly based on this kind of dialectical interplay between two co-existing adaptive systems (approach and avoidance) to ensure optimal levels of adaptation and well-being.
Keye’s (2007) two-dimensional model of mental health is yet another example of dialectical thinking. All kinds of positive psychological constructs can be re-conceptualized in terms of an interactive two-dimensional space rather than two opposite poles on a single continuum. This kind of thinking can also revolutionize our ways of measuring outcomes.
Becoming More Aware and Appreciative of the After-Effects of the Opponent Process
The opponent process is the dialectical principle that when one emotion is experienced strongly, its natural after-effect is the opposite emotion. Solomon’s (1980) opponent process theory emphasizes the costs of pleasure and the benefits of pain. Too much exposure to pleasure may lead to the problem of addiction, while exposure to stress and anxiety may lead to the after-effect of joy or relief. Todd Becker (2016) suggests that “the pleasure resulting from running, hard work, cold showers, or skydiving is superior to the pleasure from sweet desserts or scratching an itch.”
There are common experiences related to the opponent process. For example, an object is valued more after it has been lost and then found after much anxious search; food tastes better after a period of hunger; and the joy of eureka is greater after a long period of failed experimentation. Such after-effects provide a fertile ground of generating positive feelings indirectly through intentional but judicial exposure to difficult experiences.
The opponent process also highlights the important sequential effect of circumstances and the need to pay more attention to contextual factors. Thus, a high score of happiness because of newfound relief from a very stressful situation has a very different quality than a similar score from an individual living in comfort and prosperity.
Becoming Stronger and More Spiritual Through Self-Transcendence
Frankl’s (1985) self-transcendence principle is the most powerful dialectical principle of weaving dark experiences into a beautiful tapestry. His psychology of suffering was developed and tested in the Nazi death camps and has helped millions of people who have read his all-time bestseller Man’s Search for Meaning.
His most important insight is that every experience of suffering can become a stepping stone towards personal growth if it triggers in us the process of self-transcendence—the reorientation of stepping out of the limitations of the self and situations towards serving something bigger or greater.
[Self-transcendence] denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. (Frankl, 1985, p. 133)
As a case in point, Frankl’s (1985) epiphany that his suffering at the Nazi concentration camp would prepare him to teach others how to find meaning in suffering gave him a sense of meaning through reframing the situation in a larger context and the future meaning to be fulfilled.
I cannot imagine a worse hellhole on earth than a Nazi death camp. If this important dialectical principle helped Frankl and other prisoners in the concentration camps, surely it can be of help to you. For a more detailed description of the mechanisms and practices of self-transcendence in psychological terms, please read Wong (2016a, 2016b).
The above four dialectical principles show us the actual operations of how to embrace the dark side of life in a way that will enhance our well-being, meaning, and resilience regardless of how horrible our circumstances. PP2.0 is able to enrich our lives by adding more depth and texture to our existence because of these dialectical principles.
I have recently proposed that nothing less than a fundamental paradigm change in epistemology and methodology is necessary to integrate the dark side of life (Wong, Ivtzan, & Lomas, 2016). The dialectical principles described here encompass both the holistic and reductionist epistemology in the service of humanity. Taylor (2001) has long argued that the epistemological divide between positive psychology and humanistic psychology is a false one. PP2.0 requires a relational and collaborative framework (Gergen, 2016), which will preclude such a divide.
With respect to research methodology, the mechanistic componential approach of PP1.0 is complemented by the person-centered phenomenological approach in PP2.0 (Wong, 2016c). This more inclusive development will open up many new opportunities for research and interventions that will benefit both psychology and society.
Finally, the dialectic thinking described here also encourages researchers to delve into broader literature that advocates different views. This practice will avoid a common shortcoming in positive psychology research that tends to ignore older and broader literature (Ryff, 2003) and the tendency to use simple tests to measure complex constructs without much regard to construct validity.
All the above issues will be discussed in the forthcoming Meaning Conference, July 28-31, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. Whether you are a researcher or practitioner, you will find plenty of new ideas that can transform your career. If you have not registered yet, please do it now.
- Becker, T. (2010). The opponent-process theory of emotion. Getting Stronger. Retrieved from http://gettingstronger.org/2010/05/opponent-process-theory/
- Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning (Revised & updated ed.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
- Gergen, K. J. (2016). Toward a visionary psychology. The Humanistic Psychologist, 44(1), 3-17.
- Grant, A. M., & Schwartz, B. (2011). Too much of a good thing: The challenge and opportunity of the inverted U. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(1), 61-76.
- Lazarus, R. S. (2003). Does the positive psychology movement have legs? Psychological Inquiry, 14(2), 93-109.
- Lomas, T., & Ivtzan, I. (2015). Second wave positive psychology: Exploring the positive-negative dialectics of wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies. doi: 10.1007/s10902-015-9668-y
- Pfeiffer, S., & Wong, P. T. P. (1989). Multidimensional jealousy. Journal of Personal and Social Relationships, 6, 181-196.
- Ryff, C. D. (2003). Corners of myopia in the positive psychology parade. Psychological Inquiry, 14(2), 153-159.
- Solomon, R. L. (1980). The opponent-process theory of acquired motivation: The costs of pleasure and the benefits of pain. American Psychologist, 35(8), 691.
- Taylor, E. (2001). Positive psychology and humanistic psychology: A reply to Seligman. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 41(1), 13-29.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2009a). Viktor Frankl: Prophet of hope for the 21st century. In A. Batthyany, & J. Levinson (Eds.), Existential psychotherapy of meaning: Handbook of logotherapy and existential analysis. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen. (Early version available here.)
- Wong, P. T. P. (2009b). Chinese positive psychology. In S. Lopez (Ed.), Encyclopedia of positive psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 148-156). Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2012). Toward a dual-systems model of what makes life worth living. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 3-22). New York, NY: Routledge.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2016a). Meaning-seeking, self-transcendence, and well-being. In A. Batthyany (Ed.), Logotherapy and existential analysis: Proceedings of the Viktor Frankl Institute (Vol. 1; pp. 311-322). Cham, CH: Springer.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2016b, July). Self-transcendence: A paradoxical way to become your best. Presidential address (to be) presented at the 9th Biennial International Meaning Conference in Toronto, ON, Canada.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2016c, August). Meaning-centered approach to research and therapy, second wave positive psychology, and the future of humanistic psychology. Carl Rogers Heritage Award address presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Denver, CO.
- Wong, P. T. P., Ivtzan, I., & Lomas, T. (2016). Good work: A meaning-centred approach. In L. G. Oades, M. F. Steger, A. Delle Fave, & J. Passmore (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell handbook of the psychology of positivity and strengths-based approaches at work (pp. 0-0). West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
- Wong, P. T. P., & Sproule, C. F. (1984). Attributional analysis of locus of control and the Trent Attribution Profile (TAP). In H. M. Lefcourt (Ed.), Research with the locus of control construct (Vol. 3): Limitations and extensions (pp. 309-360). New York, NY: Academic Press.