President’s Report for the Positive Living Newsletter (May 2017). Read the rest of the newsletter here.

“The wound is the place where light enters you.” — Rumi

The current tense political climate at home and abroad has the same feeling as the dreadful days after 9/11, which injected a tragic sense of life into the American psyche. Perhaps we have never truly recovered from that national trauma, and today’s malaise indicates that “a sizable chunk of the country is in a sour mood. Our politics are unusually disheartening. There’s still a hole in the American heart” (Weber, 2016).

In a similar vein, Marr (2016) observes that:

Before 9/11, I lived in a world of optimism. The future seemed bright. And then in an instant everything turned dark, the future hazy and ominous. Now we live in a world of danger. People thrive on dystopian fiction. Terror attacks are common. Young people scoff at how naïve we were back then.

Is Positive Psychology Also Guilty of Naïve Optimism?

Positive psychology in its early stage of development shared the same naïve optimism of the American culture (Ehrenreich, 2009). I still have a very vivid memory of the first International Positive Psychology Summit, which took place in 2001 at the Gallup Center in Washington less than one month after 9/11. I can still sense the tense atmosphere at Maryland Airport, teeming with security guards and soldiers armed with semi-automatic machine guns.

During the conference, the elephant in the room of 9/11 could be felt in many conference sessions as well as during informal conversations at the hallway, because this event posed a real challenge to the fledgling science of positive psychology. Conference attendees were wrestling with the obvious question: What is positive psychology’s response to 9/11? There were no ready answers, especially at the time when almost all positive psychologists still believed that positive psychology was a science of happiness for an age of peace and prosperity.

Why Do We Need Tragic Optimism and Mature Happiness?

Coincidently, my presentation at the conference was entitled Tragic Optimism, Realistic Pessimism, and Mature Happiness (Wong, 2001a). It was based on my research on Viktor Frankl’s concept of tragic optimism (Frankl, 1985; Wong, 2009a; Wong et al., 2004) and the perspective of existential positive psychology (Wong, 2009b). My talk explicitly advanced the notion that positive psychology’s answer to suffering and trauma is a mature, deep kind of happiness resulting from tragic optimism—faith in the potential of transforming tragedies into triumphs.

In fact, I argued at the conference that only through embracing a tragic sense of life—with all its inevitable suffering, fragility, and brevity—can we develop a deep, mature happiness characterized by inner peace, contentment, meaning, acceptance, and the feeling of being connected with God; this is very similar to lay people’s understanding of happiness in many countries, as reported by Delle Fave et al. (2016).

Right after the summit, I briefly described a new equation of this mature happiness (Wong, 2001b). This present article elaborates on the role of existential courage, faith, and meaning in developing a mature happiness, which is widely known in countries that have experienced a lot of suffering and trauma. I do hope that this existential positive psychology’s response to dangerous times is helpful to my INPM family and beyond.

Realistic Pessimism or Realistic Optimism

In contrast to my thesis on tragic optimism, the leaders of positive psychology announced at the end of the first Positive Psychology Summit that their response to 9/11 was realistic optimism. In other words, people can just go on with their lives without worrying if they consider 9/11 as a rare, isolated incident since, realistically, terrorist attacks on American soil are far less likely to occur than, say, being hit by a thunderbolt.

Realistic Optimism is not Supported by Facts

I do not know how reassuring or comforting this positive psychology answer was, but such optimism was clearly not consistent with the facts of terrorist attacks on US Soil, according to Washington Post (Plumer, 2013). Furthermore, results from APA’s survey on stress in America, as reported by USA Today, show that a high percentage of Americans are still stressed out by terrorism and mass shootings (Shamus, 2017) as shown in Figure 1.

It seems a truism to most people that the world is a dangerous place. It is dangerous not only because of people who do evil, but also because of people who inflict suffering on others in the name of a lofty ideology or good cause. Humanness is the first casualty in the midst of power struggles, class warfare, and cut-throat competition.

The world is being torn apart by huge income gaps, injustice, wars, poverty, and the polarization of political views. Many people are frustrated, angry, struggling, or depressed. They are more fearful of what evil people in authority will do to them than they are of evil spirits. In all my interactions with people from all walks of life, I have not met anyone who has had an optimistic view about the current situation; they do not succumb to despair only when they cling to some kind of hope or ideal and are willing to muster their courage to overcome the dark forces.

Figure 1. Most commonly reported factors adding to stress in the past 10 years (Shamus, 2017).

It seems a truism to most people that the world is a dangerous place. It is dangerous not only because of people who do evil, but also because of people who inflict suffering on others in the name of a lofty ideology or good cause. Humanness is the first casualty in the midst of power struggles, class warfare, and cut-throat competition.

The world is being torn apart by huge income gaps, injustice, wars, poverty, and the polarization of political views. Many people are frustrated, angry, struggling, or depressed. They are more fearful of what evil people in authority will do to them than they are of evil spirits. In all my interactions with people from all walks of life, I have not met anyone who has had an optimistic view about the current situation; they do not succumb to despair only when they cling to some kind of hope or ideal and are willing to muster their courage to overcome the dark forces.

A Case for Realistic Pessimism

According to McMahon (2017), down through history, the prevailing view in all countries was that the life was hard and full of suffering; people’s primary concern was how to best survive rather that how to be happy. The expectation that life owes them happiness is a very recent and Western phenomenon. McMahon concludes:

Most religions and philosophies suggested that the best way to deal with suffering was to look it in the eye. Yet what all of these traditions shared was the belief that suffering, though pervasive, could be overcome through discipline and sacrifice.

Thus, the starting point of developing tragic optimism is to confront suffering and overcome it.

The bad news is that an honest, realistic assessment of the bleak circumstances may contribute to feelings of depression. The good news is that research on depressive realism (Ackermann & DeRubeis, 1991; Alloy & Abramson, 1979) and defensive pessimism (Norem & Cantor, 1986) has shown that realistic pessimism makes us wiser and better prepared to cope with negative outcomes. More recent research also shows that high anxiety subjects are faster in detecting social threats (El Zein, Wyart, & Grèzes, 2015).

More importantly, realistic pessimism provides the negative motivations that trigger our quest for meaning and enable us to transform tragedies and traumas into triumphs and achievements. Frankl (1985) liked to quote Nietzsche: “What which does not kill me, makes me stronger” (p. 103). In a similar vein, Heller Keller (1903): said: “The world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” Edwin Hubbell Chapin observed: “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seamed with scars” (as quoted in Gilbert, 1895, p. 567). These quotes reinforce McMahon’s argument for “discipline and sacrifice” in order to overcome suffering and make life better.

In sum, the real challenge of existential positive psychology is to understand the inner resources and processes needed to transform traumatic events into a mature and heroic type of positive mental state that remains confident and hopeful amidst the storm. To survive and flourish in today’s chaotic and dangerous environment, we need to pursue mental toughness rather than hedonic happiness.

Mental toughness cannot be acquired without undergoing some hardships and struggles. It can be developed through (1) disciplining our minds through practicing mindfulness; (2) cultivating courage through faith and a willingness to face whatever life throws at you; and (3) cultivating meaning no matter what. Tragic optimism comes from a well-disciplined and toughened state of mind.

Courage, Faith, Meaning, and Mature Happiness

“There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage,” says Barbara Ehrenreich (2009, p. 6). Positive thinking is often based on illusion, whereas existential courage demands that we confront the dark reality. Tragic optimism is very different from naïve positive thinking because it is based on realistic pessimism and existential courage.

The Need for Existential Courage

Frankl (1985) demonstrated that the defiant power of the human spirit is essential in surviving the Holocaust and dangerous times. Seligman (2011) also acknowledged that courage is needed to increase one’s likelihood to flourish throughout life.

Unfortunately, the positive psychology research of courage tends to shy away from existential issues. Pury, Brawley, Lopez, and Burnett (2016) defined courage as “voluntarily facing personal risk in pursuit of a worthy goal.” According to Pury and Lopez (2016), the fundamental questions addressed in their edited book on courage were: What is courage? How does it come about? How can understanding it improve individual lives, organizations, and society? Existential courage received little attention in their answers to the above questions.

This article focuses on essential courage—the courage “necessary to make being and becoming possible” (May, 1975, p. 4). Growing up, we can all relate to the following kinds of existential courage:

  1. The courage to grow up in the face of an uncertain future and confusing demands.
  2. The courage to live in the face of inevitable sufferings, such as sickness, loss, or death.
  3. The courage to pursue your dreams or life goals despite obstacles, risks, and failures.
  4. The courage to do the right thing and stand up for your values in the face of threats and real dangers.

I believe that Maddi (2004) is the first psychologist to operationally define existential courage in term of hardiness, which consists of the attitude of commitment (vs. alienation), control (vs. powerlessness), and challenge (vs. security). After reviewing available research, Maddi concluded that hardiness can be measured and trained to increase existential courage.

A simple method I use to increase existential courage with my clients is a three-step exercise: (1) I need courage for everything in life; (2) I already have the capacity for courage; (3) I must use my courage to overcome this current crisis. This method of self-talk has worked well with my clients. Existential optimism gives people new grounds for hope and action even in seemingly hopeless situations.

The Power of Faith and Belief

Another major source for hope is faith. The important role of hope in maintaining one’s well-being and health has been well documented (Snyder, 2000). It is difficult to conceive how we can maintain hope and confidence in the face of bleak prospects without faith, be it religious faith, trust in others, or self-confidence. In short, one cannot survive without faith or belief. Once you lose faith in yourself or in humanity, you will be overwhelmed by waves of hopelessness and helplessness, which will make you vulnerable to depression or suicide.

Faith open doors, expands your horizon, and allows you to see the rainbow at the end of a storm. Faith enables you to attempt the impossible and take the first step to embark on a long and dangerous journey. A person of faith is a person of unshakable confidence and unwavering determination. Together, faith and courage are the wings that enable you to soar over the tall mountains and through the dark storms.

Tolstoy wrote: “Faith is the sense of life, that sense by virtue of which man does not destroy himself, but continues to live on. It is the force whereby we live.” Therefore, we should not lose faith in one’s own ability, in humanity or in God. When we keep the faith, everything is possible.

The Pivotal Role of Meaning

When people go through very difficult times, meaning, rather than positive affect, becomes more important in maintaining well-being (Frankl, 1985; Wong, 2012). Frankl often quoted Nietzsche’s statement: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In other words, when a trauma is framed in the context of a larger positive meaning, it becomes not only more bearable but also a source of motivation.

In addition to being a protective factor, meaning also serves as the basis for hope in extreme situations. The pursuit of meaning is always future-oriented; it motivates people to strive towards a worthy goal. Even in extreme situations, such as the Holocaust or dying from incurable cancer, one can still discover meaning.

Figure 2. An integrative meaning-centred model of a good life.

According to my meaning hypothesis for a good life (Wong, 2015), meaning is the key to well-being and virtue, as shown in Figure 2. Leading a meaning-centred life contributes both to well-being and to virtue. The spiritual dimension of meaning enables us to become truly functioning human beings and transcend all the limitations of this life. A meaning-centred, mature happiness is good for both physical and mental health.

Mature Happiness for Mature People

When people mature psychological or spiritually, they will experience mature happiness. When they give up the illusions and expectations that the world owes them happiness, fairness, and a good job—when their mind is equipped for suffering, injustice, and death—then nothing in the world can rob them of their inner peace. Furthermore, by focusing their minds on something good and meaningful, by believing in life and all its goodness, beauty, and possibilities, they will be able to experience mature happiness in spite of the messy condition they are in.

This kind of happiness may be referred to as Noetic happiness, because it involves an existential/spiritual dimension. The mature happiness of inner harmony, contentment, and connectiveness reflects the positive meaning state of being at peace with self, others, and the world. This approach may be called the attunement model of happiness (Haybron, 2013; Wong, 2014).

Existential Positive Psychology’s Answer to Dangerous Times

I have presented evidence that tragic optimism is a more reasonable answer to times like this than realistic optimism. I have also presented the case that mature happiness can come from accepting and suffering without losing faith. My thesis on tragic optimism is derived from the perspective of existential positive psychology. I propose that, ultimately, many of our problems can only be resolved at the existential-spiritual level, from where we draw our strengths, comforts, and wisdom.

It is deeply gratifying that, in the past few years, existential positive psychology (Wong 2001a, 2009b) has gained more recognition from both the positive psychology circle (Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, & Worth, 2016; Tran, 2014; Wong, 2011) and the humanistic-existential community (Batthyány & Russo-Netzer, 2014; Batthyány, Russo-Netzer, & Schulenberg, 2016, Wong, 2017).

This is probably due to the increasing realization of the need to embrace the dark side of the human existence as the natural context for psychological well-being, just as medical science needs to embrace the dangerous environment of bacteria, viruses, and toxins as the context for physical health. Research on tragic optimism illustrates that the existential perspective is the way to “show how positive psychological approaches can speak to both trauma and suffering…and existential issues” (Linley, Joseph, Harrington, & Wood, 2007, p. 12).


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Wong, P. T. P. (2017, May 16). Courage, faith, meaning, and mature happiness in dangerous times. Positive Living Newsletter.