Abstract

Recent developments in positive psychology and wellbeing research are moving away from the narrow positive focus of individual wellbeing towards the broader context of existential universals, multiculturalism, and ecological concerns. This paradigm shift towards existential positive psychology (EPP) is characterised by dialectical interactions between the dark and bright sides of life, and wisdom from East and West. This chapter aims to accomplish four objectives: (1) Provide a brief review of the relationship between humanistic and positive psychology; (2) Critique both humanistic and positive psychology; (3) Give a cultural critique of WEIRD biases; and (4) Propose a process oriented tripartite general theory of global flourishing, consisting of Meaningful living, Meaningful suffering, and Multicultural perspective. This chapter concludes that this 3 M model enables us to rise above the humanistic-positive psychology divide and contributes to a global flourishing beyond WEIRD biases.

Keywords: global flourishing; wellbeing; meaning, suffering, culture, multiculturalism, injustice,

 Note: This paper includes some text and material from an unpublished blogpost on the author’s personal website (Wong, 2013a).

Times and conditions have changed significantly since the early 2000s, when positive psychology (PP) emerged as a subdiscipline of psychology. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the human condition (De Kock et al., 2022; Govender et al., 2020; Jacobi et al., 2022; Shiba et al., 2022; Wong, Arslan, et al., 2021), the prospect of the Russia-Ukraine war escalating into global nuclear conflict (Sanger & McKinley, 2022), anxiety over the climate crisis (Mental Health UK, 2021; Mufarech, 2022; Passmore et al., 2022), the growing threat of global recession (Rogoff, 2022), and the worldwide mental health crisis (CAMH, 2022; McPhillips, 2022) have created a perfect storm of human misery.

In addition, most people are suffering in their private hell of inner struggles with the human bondage of shame, guilt, and fear or additions for sex, wealth, fame, power, or drugs. The tragedy is that they cannot escape from themselves no matter where they go. Even the healthy striving towards a worthy life goal still involves sacrifice, suffering, and the prospect of death. No wonder many people as asking: How can I be happy when the world is so cruel, and life treats me so unfairly? What is the point of striving when the end is death?

In times like these, the inadequacy of traditional positive psychology becomes apparent, because it is principally focused on “understanding how people rise from zero to positive eight” (Gable & Haidt, 2005, p. 103). The COVID-19 pandemic has awakened us to the reality of existential suffering (Bland, 2020; Mayer, 2021) and the danger of pursuing happiness and avoiding pain (Wong, 2011a; Zerwas & Ford, 2021). Most of the positive psychology interventions are irrelevant for people struggling for survival or for some relief from their pain.

The time for existential positive psychology (EPP) based on logotherapy (Frankl, 1946/1985; Wong, 2020a) may have arrived, because it is fundamentally concerned with the questions of how we can find meaning in suffering and how we can turn tragedy into triumph (Wong, 2019a, 2021; Wong, Mayer, et al., 2021). In short, current existential crises confront people with the choice to either succumbing or transcending their suffering (Bland, 2020).

In this chapter, I will make the case that humanistic psychology (HP) and positive psychology (PP) need to work together in order to meet the urgent mental health needs in the world and achieve global flourishing (Wong & Laird, accepted; Wong et al., accepted).

 

A Brief Review of the Humanistic-Positive Psychology Divide

Over the last two decades, there has been a lot of back and forth between the humanistic and positive psychology camps covering many areas. Understandably, the humanistic camp complains loudly about being snubbed by Seligman and his associates. Robbins (2008) writes that:

Positive and humanistic psychology overlap in thematic content and theoretical presuppositions, yet positive psychology explicitly distances itself as a new movement, despite the fact that its literature implicitly references its extensive historical grounding within humanistic psychology. (p. 96)

McDonald and O’Callaghan’s (2008) article criticized PP for favouring particular modes of functioning by classifying and categorizing character strengths and virtues and supporting a neo-liberal economic and political discourse. Larry Davidson (2010) argued against reductionism on philosophical grounds:

To the extent that humanistic psychology has its roots in the humanist tradition, it shares this conviction that the human cannot be understood except in its own terms. (p. 136)

There are also attempts towards reproachment from both sides; however, each side still claim ownership of the entire field. According to Stephen Joseph (2021):

Both positive psychology and the person-centered approach share a common aim to promote human flourishing. Centrally, the paper suggests that respecting the humanistic image of the human being and, consequently, influencing people’s social environment to facilitate personal growth would mean a step forward for positive psychology and would promote cross-fertilization between positive psychology and the person-centered approach instead of widening their gap. In this article I want to elaborate on what I mean when I say that the person-centered approach is a form of positive psychology. (p. 1)

On the other hand, Schneider (2011) wonders why can’t everyone get along, given our shared interests concerning what it means to be fully human. Yet positive psychology appears to oversimplify the experience of human flourishing; therefore, the solution is to create a humanistic positive psychology.

Schneider (2009) shows that humanistic psychology provides a much richer and more transcendental vision of human existence. He proposes an awe-based wisdom, which encourages acceptance of existential anxieties and vulnerabilities, at the same time embracing the wonder and mysteries of being. When people recognize that they are part of something much greater than themselves, they will have the capacity to be both courageous and fluid in dealing with disappointment, anger, and suffering.

Similarly, Churchill and Mruk (2014) are also in favour to continued dialogue:

We in the humanistic tradition continue to appreciate and place our trust in the power of dialogue. Psychologists on both sides of this epistemological boundary might therefore benefit from focusing on the possibilities offered by an interface between the two approaches rather than on a divide that is far more likely to push us apart. (p. 90)

Waterman (2013) provided a good documentation of the humanistic-positive psychology divide, citing Friedman and Robbins (2012), Held (2004), Rich (2001), and Taylor (2001), who represent the humanistic critiques of Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000). However, Waterman also recognized the occasional futile efforts at rapprochement (Froh, 2004; Joseph & Linley, 2004; Linley et al., 2006; Rathunde, 2001; Robbins & Friedman, 2008; Schneider, 2011).

Positive psychology’s position is that the insights and contributions of humanistic psychologists are not very useful because of the lack of rigor in their phenomenological research. Therefore, Waterman (2013) concludes that the two camps should go their separate ways because of the deep and seemingly irreconcilable philosophical differences. This pessimistic assessment is not well received by the humanistic camp.

Regarding methodology, the bone of contention between humanistic and positive psychology in not qualitative versus quantitative research; the real issue has to do with whether researchers or participants determine the outcome and interpretation of the research (DeRobertis & Bland, 2021). Similarly, Gergen (2016) recommends that “the respondent’s voice [be] prominent in fashioning the conclusions.” (p. 9)

I have some empirical evidence to demonstrate the importance of hearing research participants’ voice. For example, Hiroto & Seligman, (1975) conclude that if college students were exposed to an insoluble problem (e.g., insoluble puzzle), most of them would become “helpless” because, a little while later, they would not work on a problem that was actually soluble. To me, their conclusion sounded like a case of confirmation bias, because if college students could be reduced to a state of helplessness so easily, they would not graduate from university. By asking participants about their causal attributions I (Wong, 1982, 1993) was able to discover that the so-called “helpless” subjects were actually able to detect the non-contingency manipulation and decided not to waste energy in a situation rigged by the experimenter.

The above examples illustrate that if researchers simply ask, “What was going through your mind?” or “What was the reason for your response?” in the psychology lab, they may be surprised that many of the widely accepted findings in psychology journals and textbooks may have to be revised. Indeed, such a participant-dominant method may revolutionize psychology research and challenge well-established psychology findings (Wong, 2016a).

Personally, I believe that a PP inspired and influenced by HP has more depth and enduring influence than a PP without a rich humanistic heritage (Wong & Tweed, 2022). For example, for humanistic psychologists (Maslow, 1954; Rogers, 1961/1995), the responsible and ethical use of freedom is essential to become fully functional human beings. They argue that people can achieve their vision of the good life only when they can exercise their freedom responsibly to choose their own authentic path and achieve worthy life goals that can benefit not only themselves but also others. In contrasts, positive psychologists doing research on meaning in life seldom include responsibility as an important factor (King & Hicks, 2021).

It may be argued that there has always been a spirit of optimism and positive thinking in the American psyche (Ehrenreich, 2010). The wide appeal of PP may be based on successfully tapping into the same yearning for happiness which initially led people to embrace HP. I believe that if Waterman takes a broader and longer view, he may have agreed that cooperation or integration between HP and PP is both desirable and attainable. In fact, I would even argue that the future of psychology may depend on such integration between these two camps.

That is why since 2000 I have been pursuing the mission of bridge-building between these two camps through international meaning conferences (INPM, 2021). I have invited leaders from both camps to these conferences to encourage dialogue and mutual understanding. To name a few, over the years I have brought C. R. Snyder, George Vanier, Chris Peterson, Robert Emmons, Laura King, Todd Kashdan, and A. S. Waterman on the PP side, and Ernesto Spinelli, Emmy Van Deurzen, Kirk Schneider, Louis Hoffman, Harris Friedman, and Jonathan Raskin on the HP side. There is some value to open and honest dialogues between the two camps. They may not agree with each other, but at least they may have a better mutual understanding (Wong, 2016b).

New developments in research indicates that some integration has already taking place on both sides of the divide. There are hopeful signs that the second generation of positive psychologists are more open to HP (Linley & Joseph, 2004; Sheldon et al., 2011; Kashdan & Ciarrochi, 2013) and HP is more willing to embrace PP (Robbins & Friedman, 2008; Schneider, 2011; Wong, 2009a, 2011a)

In a recent article published in the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, Seligman (2019) discusses initial efforts to transform the field of psychology in the direction of wellbeing rather than sickness. In addressing his critics, Seligman acknowledges that he failed to adequately credit humanistic psychologists for pre-empting many of his own findings and ways of thinking:

In our inaugural article on Positive Psychology, Mike Csikszentmihalyi and I foolishly lumped Humanistic Psychology with crystal healing and aromatherapy and, for my part, I apologize for this unwarranted slight. (p. 18)

However, at the end in discussing the future of PP, he maintains his uncompromising stance of focusing only on the positive:

There is much more for us to aspire to than less suffering. We can also aspire to more PERMA—that is, more well-being. It is vouchsafed to us not only to witness the turning of the world but also to actually turn the world toward well-being. We can remake politics, religion, arts, medicine, and science to become the engines of well-being. (p. 21-22)

A General Critique

PP has taken the world of psychology by storm since Martin Seligman’s presidential address at the American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention of 1998 (Fowler et al., 1999), but the backlash was fast, mostly from humanistic psychologists (Bohart & Greening, 2001; Ehrenreich, 2010; Held, 2004; Lazarus, 2003; Taylor, 2001). Most of the criticisms against PP can be found in The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Positive Psychology (Brown et al., 2018). Here, I will summarize some of my critiques in Wong and Roy (2018).

 

The Problem of Elitism

Seligman’s (1999) provided his strategic plan for the PP movement based on elitism, with himself as the chief with three prominent researchers as his lieutenants. Given the high-profile of this group, this strategy was an instant success in terms of impact and funding (Wong, 2011b). However, downside of elitism was that it created an insulated group of insiders who publish and promote each other works without citing related important work by researchers who were espouse a different view; thus, they are guilty of citation amnesia and being impervious to criticism. This inevitably lead to a breakdown of critical thinking, resulting in many PP publications with serious deficiencies, such as Fredrickson and Losada’s (2005) critical positivity ratio as refuted by Brown and colleagues (2013).

Similarly, Heintzelman and King’s (2014) conceptual problem regarding meaning in life was mainly due to their lack of understanding regarding Viktor Frankl’s concepts of meaningfulness and the existential vacuum (Brown & Wong, 2015), and George & Park’s (2016) recent paper on measuring existential meaning had the similar conceptual problem for not consulting the existential literature (Wong, 2016c).

 

The Problem of Scientism

A psychological science modelled after STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) can no more prescribe happiness than it can prescribe peace. Such a scientific vision of the good life is as barren as Walden II envisioned by B. F. Skinner. Psychological science has not found a solution to the dark side of human existence, nor has it provided an answer to the human quest for meaning. Hope for a better future will emerge from humanistic science that is broad enough to include a spiritual vision of self-transcendence, faith, and love.

PP research’s blind faith in scientism and positivism amounts to fantasy which may be detrimental to scientific progress (Durston, 2015). An example of scientism is Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s (2000) dismissive remarks about humanistic psychology without compelling empirical support. As DeRobertis (2016) wrote, “Humanistic psychologists have repeatedly shown that they have the ability to be visionary, only to have their creativity coopted and bastardized to fit the positivist paradigm” (p. 20). By ignoring the vast humanistic-existential literature, and yet employing its constructs, it is inevitable that their operational definitions often suffer from a lack of construct validity.

As a case in point, after running Meaningful Living Meetup for many years, I feel more convinced than ever about (a) the urgency to awaken people from their slumber – their meaningless existence without awareness; and (b) the urgent need to go beyond simple self-report measures. Participants attending my Meaningful Living Meetup were required to do pre- and post- self-reports using Diener and colleagues’ (1985) Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) and Steger and colleagues’ (2006) Meaning in Life Questionnaire (MLQ). To my surprise, often these self-reported measured participants’ wishful thinking rather then than real life condition and mental states. For example. Mrs. X’s life was full of bitterness and nurseries, being a divorced and unemployed woman, struggling to supporting herself and her children. When I confronted her high scores on life satisfaction and meaning in life, she simply said that her ratings reflected what she wanted her life to be.

The single most important contribution of humanistic-existential psychology is to make the lived experience of human beings the subject of investigation. Often, “quick-and-dirty” self-reports are convenient for psychology research, but have no real meaning or practical use if they are not backed by phenomenological research of lived experience.

A number of positive psychologists have debunked the myths of PP (Biswas-Diener, 2013; Francis, 2012; Marsh, 2013; Peterson, 2012); they attribute myths to misunderstandings and misapplications. I suggest that these myths may be symptoms of the fundamental problem of scientism, which can only be overcome by a heathy dosage of intellectual humility to be opened minded and appreciative of different paradigms of truth claims, such as phenomenological research and social constructivism. In short, scientism needs to be replaced by a humble science (Templeton, 1998) and a pluralistic perspective. Here are a few fundamental errors:

 

The Problem of Positive-Only Focus

The assumption or belief that by focusing on positives only will automatically make the negatives disappear has never received any convincing empirical proof. Focusing on living happily and ignoring cancer does not make cancer go away; in fact, it may even spread faster. Similarly, focusing on enjoying life and ignoring evil and suffering do not make them go away; unchecked, more serious problems may develop. There is also no evidence that the negative effects of traumatic experiences simply go away by focusing on positive experience.

There is now a critical mass of empirical evidence demonstrating that that there are upsides to the negatives (Kashdan & Biswas-Diener, 2014; Norem & Chang, 2002; Woolfolk, 2002) and downsides to the positives (Forgas, 2014; Gruber et al., 2011; Schumaker, 2006; Wong, 2007a). The positives and negatives cannot be separated; they are two sides of the same coin. Any adequate explanation of human behavior needs to incorporate the negative or dark side of human existence (Ivtzan et al., 2016; Wong, 2011c; Wong 2019a).

Lopez and colleagues (2011) argued that the most promising positive approach is to simultaneously increase one’s strengths and remediate one’s deficiency: “It is very tempting to focus on just the good (or the bad) in the world, but it is not good science and we must not make this mistake in advancing positive psychology” (Lopez et al., 2011, p. 8; emphasis in original).

Some mainstream psychologists also emphasize the importance of a holistic and existential perspective. For instance, Ryff et al. (2014) wrote:

The cure is thus not defined by the alleviation of emotional discomfort, or the attainment of some ideal feeling state, but by being able to take constructive action in one’s life—i.e., being able to live a full and meaningful existence, rather than be ruled by passing emotions. (p. 12)

More recent research shows that it is difficult to be happy all the time because life is full of both pleasure and pain (Whitbourne, 2022). According to a new study by Khazanov and colleagues (2022), one’s feelings of “blah” may be a sign that one is experiencing anhedonia, or “diminished interest or pleasure in usual activities” (p. 256).

Rollo May was right when he said, “One does not become fully human painlessly” (Valle & King, 1978). It is far more difficult to succeed at being a human being than being a success in one’s career. To become fully human, we need to trust the process of continued daily self-improvement and choose the healthy and worthwhile life goal of fulfilling our potentials to serve the greater good. The process of self-actualization involves continually overcoming setbacks, celebrating meaningful moments, and the painful struggle of doing the right thing as an ethical and instrumental agent to create a better life for oneself and society.

I have advocated a balanced approach to positive psychology for a long time (Wong 2011c, Wong 2019a; Wong et al, accepted). According to EPP, the negative existential givens (e.g., meaninglessness, despair, fear of death) are counteracted by positive existential givens (e.g., quest for meaning, the defiant human spirit and faith in God or Higher Power). The dialectical process is an essential part of human beings as psychological agents (Rychlak, 1988).

 

Componential Rather Than Holistic Thinking

PP researchers tend to focus on specific emotions, thoughts, and behaviors rather than the person as a whole. Reductionism may be useful for experimental research, but not very helpful to provide a full account of human phenomena understood holistically, because personhood cannot be reduced to various components.

For example, in research on character, we cannot just focus on individual’s signature character strength. In their influential book on Practical Wisdom, Schwartz and Sharpe (2010) emphasized the importance of cultivating practical wisdom, which is necessary to respond and act in a balanced manner. Similarly, Allan (2015) also emphasized the importance of balancing different character strengths for wellbeing.

 

A Cultural Critique

Wong (2011c) takes a dialectical approach to encompass the whole array of human experience, behaviors, and emotions. PP 2.0 also takes on cultural, ethnic, and geographic variables from across the world with the aim to make it applicable to all people (Chang et al., 2016; Wong, 2013b).

According to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), scientific findings in psychology can “transcend particular cultures and politics and approach universality” (p. 5). However, such confidence is unwarranted since “PP is probably more culture-bound than other sub-disciplines of psychology because what is positive requires a priori value judgments based on social norms and cultural context” (Wong, 2013b, p. 1021). There is increasing evidence that cultural values and beliefs influence such matters as what constitutes the good life and optimal functioning (Haidt, 2005; Leong & Wong, 2003; Lopez et al., 2003; Snyder & Lopez, 2005).

Henrich and colleagues (2010) argued that behavioral scientists have been making broad claims about human behavior that are based on a small and exceptional group of individuals: those characterized by being Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (what these authors referred to as WEIRD). There is no reason to believe that findings based on such WEIRD samples can be generalized to non-Western cultures.

Meaning is highly dependent upon culture. In much of Asian thought, meaning is paradoxical. Investigating any human virtue means also investigating the opposite. We cannot have goodness without knowing evil, or happiness without the experience of sadness. From this viewpoint, positive psychology without embracing suffering is incomplete and limits the depth of meaning achievable (Bargdill & Hoffman, 2011 in Wong et al., 2011).

 

A Paradigm Shift

My obsession with suffering has taught me precious lessons of how to suffer wisely and meaningfully – that’s is how to live a life that is worth suffering and dying for. Viewed this way, a meaningful live is a deep life. Frankl (1988) wrote that:

I readily confess that as a young man I had to go through the hell of despair over the apparent meaninglessness of life…until I could develop an immunity against nihilism – I developed logotherapy (p. 166-167).

Similarly, I had to go through the hell of suffering and despair, until I could develop an immunity against suffering – the existential positive psychology (PP2.0) of meaning and fulfillment through suffering.

Wong (2009a, 2011c) has spent many years of effort to advance EPP as the second wave of PP. EPP is primarily concerned with the existential issues of personal striving for survival and significance in spite of the dark side of human existence, such as suffering and personal mortality.

A classic example of EPP is Emmons’ (1999) research on ultimate concern. He was able conduct rigorous scientific research on this philosophical concept. Similarly, Wong (2014) was able to translate Frankl’s concept of will to meaning into a testable meaning-seeking model.

On the surface, EPP appears to be the mere synthesis of existentialism and positive psychology or the second wave of positive psychology (PP2.0). But at a deeper level, it is a new paradigm asking the toughest question of how to achieve ultimate happiness by transforming hell into heaven (Wong & Bowers, 2018). The suffering hypothesis is designed to show people how transforming into meaningful suffering of personal growth and flourishing much like a flourishing tree sinking its roots into the dark soil.

EPP offers innovative interventions which can offer people new grounds for meaning and hope in the midst of unavoidable suffering (Wong, 2016d; Wong, Mayer et al., 2021; Wong & Laird, accepted). For example, existential gratitude encourages people to think about the lessons or benefits that come from painful experiences, and how one’s best or true self comes from embracing and transforming one’s dark side.

As an example, the following are EPP’s basic stages of flourishing through suffering:

  • Awareness of one’s miserable condition and the need for change.
  • A conscious decision to take responsibility for positive change and creating a better life.
  • A leap of faith of believing in accomplishing the impossible and faith in divine interventions or Providence.
  • A commitment to let go all the things that hold you back, such as fear of failure,
  • A simultaneous commitment to continued improvement each day while pursuing a cherished life goal.

Based on the new paradigm of EPP, the general theory of wellbeing and flourishing is process-oriented and consists of three inter-related hypotheses:

 

The Meaningful Living Hypothesis

Meaning is not a matter of abstracts for arm-chair philosophical debates, but a matter of life and death. Meaningful living depends on the process of meeting our innate spiritual yearning for faith in God or Dao, hope for creating a meaningful life, and loving connections with others (Wong, 1998, 2012a, 2022). Together, these three transcendental values are considered the golden triangle of mental health of wellbeing; when these universal spiritual needs are not met, people will be like fish out of water and develop symptoms of mental illness.

The meaning hypothesis provides a comprehensive framework for both mental health and psychotherapy (Wong 2014, 2015); and the search for meaning rather than meaning-making provides the ultimate human motivation for positive transformation (Wong, 2020b).

The full meaning of meaning can be understood as self-transcendence – the essence of human existence. As Frankl (1946/1985) said:

Being human is always directed, pointing to something or some one other than oneself: to a meaning to fulfil lor another human being to encounter a course to serve or a person to love. Only to the extent that someone is living out this self-transcendence of human existence is he truly human or does he become his true self. (p. 110-111)

Meaning is not value neutral according to Frankl. He took ethics very seriously and he wrestled with the question how to prevent another Hitler and how to educate people to treat each other more ethically (Wong & Reilly, 2017a, 2017b). Frankl’s answer is that we should be prosocial and love our neighbours as ourselves rather than using others as instruments for personal gains.

Alfred Adler (2009), another pioneer in meaningful living, considers community or social interests as the major source of meaningful living:

All the advantages we enjoy in our present culture have been made possible by the efforts of people who have contributed. If individuals have not been co-operative, have not been interested in others, have made no contribution to the whole, their life has been futile, they have disappeared from the face of the earth leaving no trace behind them. Only the work of those people who have contributed survives. Their spirit lives on and their spirit is eternal. If we make this the basis for our teaching of children, they will grow in a natural liking for co-operative work. When they are confronted with difficulties they will not weaken; they will be strong enough to face even the most difficult problems and solve them in a way that benefits everyone. (p. 238)

In a recent article on spirituality’s contribution to mental health, Sallcru (2022) defines spirituality as the transcendental ways of fulfilling human potential. After reviewing the extensive research evidence on the important role of spirituality in mental health and effective psychotherapy, Sallcru concludes: “From a personal perspective and professional capacity, I dare to say (without exaggeration) that spiritual practices could save anyone years of suffering and/or psychotherapy.”

Consistent with Figure 1, an individual’s faith is integral to their journey of mental health and recovery (Lee, 2022). Faith is connected with a sense of community, connection to the larger world, and connection to one’s hope and purpose for a meaningful life.

Figure 1

The Self-Transcendence Paradigm of Global Wellbeing and Flourishing

The quest for meaning is both a search for happiness and significance and a quest for answers to all the frustrating and painful events that have happened to us. For many people living in dire poverty, all they ever ask for is to be able to feed themselves and care for their loved ones. They just want to be free from hunger, discrimination, and injustice. Their meaning system is simple – consisting of freedom, ability to support themselves, and caring relationships. The quest for meaning can be negatively framed as the striving to fill a void of meaninglessness—a void that can never be filled. Alternatively, it can also be positively framed as a yearning to fulfill a dream, a gift, and potential. The Eastern way always places meaning in a larger collective context.

Culturally based myths also play a big part in meaning-seeking and meaning making, according to Hoffman (2009)

Myth is at the core of Rollo May’s (1961, 1991, 1999a, 1999b) conception of meaning. Meaning, in return, is the central element in the existential perspective of mental health…From an existential perspective, meaning is the ultimate ‘coping mechanism,’ but it is also so much more; meaning is a basic human need. Meaning, too, is a central motivating factor that stands behind many behaviors, both constructive and problematic. In one stance, meaning drives us to the most humanistic of ideals; it inspires us to seek great personal change, to serve the greater social good, and to have compassion for the less fortunate. (p. 259-260)

One cannot understand the meaning of life without knowing the difference between two types of searching for meaning, which together enable us to survive and flourish:

  • Negatively oriented search for meaning. The Why and How questions that increase our ability to understand the cause and reason of negative events. It represents the lay scientist and lay philosopher in each of us (Wong, 1991; Wong & Weiner, 1981).
  • Positively oriented search for meaning. The What questions that fulfill our responsibility to create a better future by doing the right thing in each situation and pursuing the right life purpose according to our beliefs, conscience, and abilities. It represents the moralist (saint) and idealist (dreamer) in each of us (Frankl, 1946/1985; Wong, 2016d).

At the highest level, from a narrative perspective, each individual’s life is a story (McAdams, 1993; Schank, 1990). According to McAdams, one’s meaning of life comes from one’s life story (as an author) about one’s experiences in searching and finding meaning and purpose as an actor and an agent within one’s own culture and community.

 

The Meaningful Suffering Hypothesis

Frankl (1946/1985) reasoned that “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death” (p. 88). One cannot live a meaningful life without finding meaning in suffering; thus, meaning and suffering are two sides of the same coin. There are so many sources of suffering, from natural disasters, a culture of brutal competitions, a toxic workplace, or our inner demons of greed, envy, anger, or inferiority complex. Suffering is pervasive and there is no escape from it no matter where we go. Most suffering is beyond our control.

Therefore, “to live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering” according to Friedrich Nietzsche. Suffering ceases to be suffering once it becomes meaningful and contribute to our positive transformation (Wong, 2022):

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life. (Frankl, 1946/1985, p. 76).

The main attraction of the meaningful suffering hypothesis is that it is not suffering but how we respond to it that really that determines whether suffering will make us bitter or better. If we respond positively, suffering would be a golden opportunity for meaningful living, personal growth, and flourishing.

From the suffering hypothesis, we can posit that the end of suffering is the beginning of sustainable happiness because of the wisdom and virtues needed for reducing suffering. To find meaning in suffering is to discover the deepest possible meaning in life:

He who does not know of sorrows / in this valley of sorrows, / does not know of good things, / nor has he tasted love, / for sorrows is the garb of lovers. (Crisogono De Jesus, 1955/1958)

Quest for meaning is more likely to be occasioned by three negative facets of human existence: pain, guilt, and death. Pain refers to human suffering, guilt to the awareness of our fallibility, and death to our awareness of the transitoriness of life (Frankl, 1967, 1946/1985). These negative experiences make us more aware of our needs for meaning and spiritual connection. Neuroses are more likely to originate from our attempt to obscure the reality of pain, guilt, and death as existential facts (Frankl, 1967, 1946/1985).

Whatever the interpretations, suffering constitutes a big part of human existence. Hoffman and colleagues (2009) correctly observe that “While humanistic psychology focuses primarily on human potential, existential psychology responds stating that it is also imperative that we recognize the potential for evil and human limitation.” (p. 19)

 

The Multicultural Hypothesis

Being s a bi-cultural person grants me a unique lens to view human behavior and makes me realize global flourishing cannot be achieved without doing research on both existential universals and their unique experiences and expressions in different cultures (Wong, 2019b).

Ed Diener has also drawn attention to cultural differences in causes of well-being and even in the nature of wellbeing (e.g., Diener & Suh, 2000)

There is already empirical evidence that cultural values and cultural beliefs influence such matters as what constitutes the good life and optimal functioning (Haidt, 2005; Leong & Wong, 2003; Lopez et al., 2003; Snyder & Lopez, 2005). For example, Ryff and her associates (2014) discovered that Japanese people were less affected by negative emotions than their American counterparts. This difference can be easily understood in terms of yin and yang differences in coping. Eastern cultures are more attuned to the tragedies and hardships of life and have learned to cope with patience and endurance—the yin aspects of adaptation and are less likely to expect to immediately eradicate every life problem (Lin, 1935; Tweed et al., 2004).

Positive Psychology is more culture-bound because what is positive requires apriori value judgments based on social norms and cultural context. The wave of cross-cultural psychology (Kim et al., 2006; Lehman et al., 2004; Triandis, 1994) demands that the future of PP needs to focus on the cultural context. The American Psychological Association (2003) has recognized that it is not possible to maintain the position of cultural blindness in light of the massive research evidence on the influence of race and culture. I propose that a truly cross-cultural PP seeks both psychological universals and culturally specific characteristics. It also needs to incorporate human agency, meaning, and cultural context in its research methodology (Chirkov et al., 2011; Kim et al., 2006).

Buddhism is correct that pursuing happiness and avoiding pain is counterproductive because the very focus on happiness contains the seed of unhappiness and suffering; both of these psychological mechanisms are rooted in primordial ignorance and delusion about life (Chen, 2006). The basic tenets of Buddhism are the Four Noble Truths: 1) The Truth of Suffering (Dukkha) – Life is full of suffering; 2) The Truth of the Cause of Suffering (Tanha) – Suffering comes from craving for happiness and aversion of pain; 3) The Truth of Liberation from suffering (Nirvana) – We can be liberated from suffering by transforming our craving and aversion through enlightenment; and 4) The Truth of the Eightfold Path (Magga) – Liberation through enlightenment can be achieved through the eightfold path. The eight disciplines can be grouped into the categories of Morality (right speech, right action, right living, right effort), Meditation (right mindfulness, right meditation), and Wisdom (right thought, right understanding).

Cross-cultural psychology needs to pay equal attention to both universal principles (etic) and culture-specific (emic) aspects. The assumption of universality in the constructs and assessments in mainstream psychology has long been questioned. Triandis (1972) called this approach “pseudo-etic” rather than etic because it imposes the categories and constructs of western culture on other cultures. True international psychology calls for equal partnership from conceptualization to implementation.

This is one of the profound insights of Lao Tze symbolized by Yin-Yang. This belief recognizes the co-existence of good and evil, happiness and suffering, and strength and weakness. The two opposites complement each other and make the existence of each other possible. When the negative and positive are seen as an integrated whole, stress and suffering are reduced. Belief in duality and the golden mean is the key to understanding how the Chinese people adapt to the harsh conditions of life. Such a view will lead to tolerance and accommodation of the contradictions and vicissitudes of the human condition. It enables people to embrace all of life, both negative and positive. It favors the middle path, integration, and holistic thinking rather than the either-or kind of linear dichotomous thinking.

Chirkov and colleagues (2011) is correct in proposing that cross-cultural PP needs to pay attention to the dialectic relationship between universal human capacities and needs and cultural influence on the expression and fulfillment of these needs. They have made a compelling case that the universal capacity and need for autonomy and happiness does not deny the role of culture, as a symbolic and linguistic environment, in shaping the expression and fulfillment of the need for self-determination.

Current research on multicultural research is pseudo-etic, because the constructs and instruments are based on Eurocentrism or WEIRD psychology. True multicultural studies are based on research on both universal (existential) principles (etic) and indigenous experiences and expressions of these universals from its own participants (emic) (Wong & Ujimoto, 1998).

 

Conclusion

The general theory of global flourishing has the heuristic values of integrating three large domains of wellbeing related research in addition to generating innovative research and interventions (Wong, 2016e). This theoretical framework is capable of integrating meaning, suffering, and happiness, along with the ancient wisdom from East and West through the dialectical process of navigating a balance between opposites (Wong, Arslan et al., 2021). This general theory aims at cultivating sustainable wellbeing characterized by inner peace, balance, and harmony – the cornerstones of wellbeing and flourishing in every season of life (Wong & Bowers, 2018; Worth, 2021).

This existential positive psychology framework provides new grounds of hope for people to learn how in live in harmony within themselves, with each other, and with heaven and earth. In a world threatened by nuclear war, EPP is needed to the extent that it promotes peaceful co-existence and harmonious collaboration based on shared community and long-term survival for humanity. This general theory of global wellbeing and flourishing is depicted in the following graph (Figure 2).

Figure 2

An Existential Positive Psychology Framework for Global Flourishing

If we minimize or deny human limitations and the dark side of the human condition, we will see evil and injustice abound. The reality of death poses a constant threat and terror, but at the same time challenges us to live fully and authentically. Is it even possible to conceptualize life satisfaction without factoring in death anxiety and death acceptance?

It seems both unrealistic and superficial to conceptualize the good life as an existence with maximum of happiness and minimum of pain. I am wondering such prescribed exercises can change people at the existential and experiential level. A more fundamental question I have is whether the scientific vision of the good life may actually have adverse effects, such as (a) ignoring the deep-rooted personal issues that need to be resolved, (b) ignoring the oppressive and abusive condition which is the main source of unhappiness, (c) ignoring the pain and suffering one is going through because of accident, illness or tragic loss of a loved one, (d) ignoring the negative existential givens just lurking around, and (e) ignoring the negative thoughts and feelings that crop up from time to time to give us warming.

An alternative existential vision of the good life recognizes that negative feelings, experiences, and weaknesses are a necessary and healthy part of the good life. Learning how to embrace negative emotions and existential givens is part of the process of reaching emotional maturity. From this perspective, the tapestry of fulfilling life is made of many threads of different colors—from black to red. A holistic view of good life needs to be measured in diverse ways—from authenticity and acceptance to meaning and life satisfaction.

In an American Psychological Association symposium (Wong et al., 2011), I envisioned a PP based on HP perspectives. We have argued that the most promising way for HP to rejuvenate itself and regain its rightful place in academia and society is to rekindle its vision of the human potential for growth and embrace empirical research (Robbins, 2008; Wong, 2010, 2011a). We have also argued that PP can fulfill its full potential only by embracing the humanistic values and the rich heritage and of HEP (Schneider, 2011; Wong, 2009a, 2009b, 2011c).

In that symposium, we explored how to develop a HEP-oriented PP that will be compassionate, pragmatic, and strength-oriented. Such a PP focuses on both self-actualization and the development of a socio-ecology that meets the deepest human needs. It transcends theoretical and cultural differences and advocates cross-fertilization and cooperation. It does not turn a blind eye to the dark sides of the human condition, such as poverty, violence, and injustice while focusing on the potential of positive transformation for individuals and societies (Frankl, 1946/1985; Wong, 2009b). It accepts the inherent paradoxes and dilemmas of life but affirms the human capacity to integrate contradictions and complexities (Rogers, 1961/1995; Schneider, 1999; Wong in press). Finally, it is holistic and inclusive, capable of embracing wisdoms from the East and West and integrating the best from the arts and science for the betterment of the human condition (Hoffman et al., 2009; Wong, 2012b). The positive only focus of PP means we pretend that the evils of drug-trafficking and human-trafficking will all automatically disappear – this is both unrealistic and irresponsible.

More than any time in history, our postmodern world struggles with values and meaning. Wong (2007b) has called for a century of meaning – for a paradigm shift from behavior to meaning as the mission of mainstream psychology because it challenges us to move beyond the pursuit of personal success and happiness to the big questions about the human condition (Wong, 2009a). It calls for a bold vision of creating a culture that meets people’s needs for meaning and spirituality (Schumaker, 2006; Wong, 2007b, 2009a).

Wong’s (2011c, 2012b) dual-system model of meaningful living exemplifies a dialectical, interactive approach of managing paradoxes. I agree with Taylor’s (1999) emphasis on William James’s (1912) radical empiricism, which emphasizes that all empirical data are incomplete apart from the subjective meanings of conscious experiences. A culture of radical empiricism can capture the imagination of researchers. Just witness the impact of scientific research on the growth mind-set (Dweck, 2007), flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), and the human quest for meaning (Wong, 1998, 2012a). These are just some examples of how a few concepts originating from humanistic psychology can lead to systematic research and increasing impact. The strength of radical empiricism is that it bridges the split between subjective and objective, qualitative and quantitative, and achieves the best of both worlds to gain a greater understanding of the person and the human condition.

HP is broad enough to embrace ancient Chinese culture. Taoism advocates the ideal of returning to the simple and natural way of life as a way of coping with the hardships and uncertainties in life. One of the profound insights of Lao Tze, its founder, is the duality of nature. All things in nature exist in duality or polarity. The two opposites complement each other and make the existence of each other possible. One of the common Taoist beliefs is that: “Fortune owes its existence to misfortune, and misfortune is hidden in fortune”.

According to Ajaya (1997), “Personal problems occur because of our ignorance of the way of nature. Understanding how the positives and negatives support one another leads to a peaceful and integrated life” (p. 45). According to this dualistic view, one’s strength may contain the seed of self-destruction, while strength may be hidden in one’s weakness. It is never wise to exclusively focus on developing one’s signature strengths or maximizing positive experiences. Duality is one of the principles of PP2.0 (Wong, 2011c).

Psychological science has typically conceptualized a good life in terms of either hedonic or eudaimonic well-being (Oishi & Westgate, 2022). We propose that psychological richness is another, neglected aspect of what people consider a good life. Unlike happy or meaningful lives, psychologically rich lives are best characterized by a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences. I propose that the most adaptive good life is a peaceful and harmonious life and mature happiness (Wong & Bowers, 2018).

In sum, a process oriented EPP is more helpful than an outcome-oriented PP, because it shows the moment-to-moment process of living a meaningful and productive life regardless of the outcome. If you trust the process and believe in your life goal, a bump on the road will simply be accepted as part of the journey. Further, the tripartite model of global flourishing allows us to transcend the humanistic-positive psychology divide, because it deals with the three existential universals – Meaningful living, Meaningful suffering and the Multicultural perspective. Together, these three processes enable people to survive and thrive in whatever circumstances. This why this integrative 3 M general theory offers a realistic blueprint for global flourishing.

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Cite

Wong, P. T. P. (in press). Relationship with Positive Psychology: Towards a General Theory of Global Flourishing. In L. Hoffman (Ed.), APA Handbook of Humanistic and Existential Psychology. http://www.drpaulwong.com/relationship-with-positive-psychology/