*This is an unrevised version of the paper.

(This paper was co-authored with Richard G. Cowden, Claude-Hélène Mayer, & Victoria L. Bowers)

Abstract

Recent developments in positive psychology and wellbeing research highlight the tremendous capacity for individual wellbeing within the context of a cross-cultural, ecological, and complex model. In this chapter, we propose a paradigm shift towards existential positive psychology, which integrates the dark (negative psychology) and the bright (positive psychology) sides of life to provide a more integrative and comprehensive model of wellbeing. We explore the dialectical interaction between these poles of human experience, with a particular emphasis on the importance of embracing and transforming suffering for cultivating sustainable wellbeing. We highlight some of the innovative ways in which existential positive psychology differs from traditional positive psychology and summarize self-transcendence as the thread that runs through the existential positive psychology paradigm. Our chapter concludes with a brief discussion of some potential implications of existential positive psychology for research and interventions.

Keywords: existential positive psychology; positive psychology; self-transcendence; suffering; wellbeing

Introduction

Times and conditions have changed significantly since positive psychology emerged as a mainstream subfield of psychology in the early 2000s. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has catastrophically awoken us to the fragility of modern society and the finitude of the human condition (Counted et al., 2021; Cowden, Rueger, et al., 2021), and its impacts on human life have been widespread and persistent (De Kock et al., 2022; Govender et al., 2020; Jacobi et al., 2022; Shiba et al., 2022a; Wong, Arslan, et al., 2021). The recent Russia-Ukraine war threatens to become a global conflict, with wide-ranging implications around the world from financial stress caused by rises in the price of energy through to the loss of civilian loved ones who have been collateral damage in the war. In response to these troubling circumstances, people may ask “How can we be happy in times like this?” Traditional positive psychology does not provide an adequate response to this question, because it is principally focused on “understanding how people rise from zero to positive eight” (Gable & Haidt, 2005, p. 103). In contrast, existential positive psychology is fundamentally concerned with the question of how to stay positive and live well even in the darkest of hours amid great tragedy (Wong, 2021; Wong, Mayer, et al., 2021). This is an important consideration, as psychologists have a professional and moral obligation to address people’s suffering and help them find hope for a better future. In this chapter, we advance a paradigm shift from traditional positive psychology by presenting an existential positive psychology vision that learning how to transform suffering is the beginning of sustainable wellbeing.

The Universality of Suffering

It is not possible to live a life without experiencing some form of suffering. This is not only a truism that has been the subject of much discourse during human history (Cowden, Davis, et al., 2021; Ho et al., 2022), but one with empirical support (Fowers et al., 2017; Gruber et al., 2011; Wong, 2019; Wong, Mayer, et al., 2021). There is also a vast body of literature on the adverse effects of existential concerns, distress, and suffering (Wong & Yu, 2021; Yalom, 1980). The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the urgency with which we need to address universal existential suffering (Bland, 2020; Mayer, 2021) and recognize the perils of pursuing happiness while neglecting suffering (Wong, 2011; Zerwas & Ford, 2021).

In Buddhist philosophy, the first noble truth is that life is suffering because cravings for worldly happiness and ignorance of the impermanence of life are the major sources of suffering (Cowden, Counted, et al., 2021; Targ & Hurtak, 2006). Yet, there is now a critical mass of empirical evidence about the upside of negative emotions and the downside of positive emotions (Friedman & Robbins, 2012; Gruber et al., 2011; Kashdan & Biswas-Diener, 2014; Mayer & Vanderheiden, 2019, 2021; Wong, 2019). This suggests that wellbeing needs actions oriented toward enhancing happiness (e.g., the Yang, or white half of the Tai-chi symbol with a small black circle near the center) as well as actions that facilitate the transformation of suffering (e.g., the Yin, or black half of the Tai-chi symbol with a small white circle near the center). Sustainable wellbeing can be only achieved by learning how to make the best use of the dynamic and dialectic interplay between positive and negative life experiences. The ancient Yin-Yang dialectic or the contemporary dual-system model (Wong, 2012) provides a blueprint for how to navigate between opposite forces, such as good and evil or self and other, which are prevalent in life (Deng et al., 2020; Lomas & Ivtzan, 2016; Wong, 2020; Wong & Bowers, 2019).

New Developments in Wellbeing Research Within Psychology

There is a movement towards a more comprehensive conceptualization, measurement, and promotion of human wellbeing (Kemp & Fisher, 2022; Lee at al., 2021; Shiba et al., 2022b; VanderWeele, 2017). Although wellbeing is complex and irreducible to a single dimension, existential wellbeing is among the most important dimensions of complete wellbeing because our ability to flourish depends on how well we respond to the reality that life involves suffering. Until recently, this reality has largely been overlooked within the positive psychology subfield.

Positive psychology is undergoing a period of great change, and this change has been captured in the metaphor of waves (Lomas et al., 2021). On this view, “psychology as usual” (negative psychology) is characterized by a focus on dysfunction and pathology; this was the thesis. Its antithesis was the first wave of positive psychology, with a principal focus on the positive. The synthesis was the second wave of positive psychology, characterized by a more nuanced approach towards the positive and negative by emphasizing the importance of harmonizing opposing elements into an integrative whole. The third wave incorporated knowledge and methodologies from diverse fields, focusing on groups, organizations, cultures, and systems in which people and their wellbeing are embedded.

In favor of Occam’s razor, or the law of parsimony, we conceptualize these changes in terms of a paradigm shift because it is more consistent with the enduring notion of scientific revolutions (Kuhn, 1962). Moreover, whereas the wave metaphor reflects gradual change, the paradigm shift concept signals that there are fundamental changes in assumptions, theory, research, and intervention. Using this framing, negative psychology might represent the thesis and positive psychology the antithesis. Existential positive psychology is characterized by the synthesis of the thesis and antithesis through a process of transcending polarity (see Figure 1), while also capturing the contextual and cultural complexities outlined in the third wave put forward by Lomas et al. (2021).

Figure 1

A Paradigm Shift in Psychology

A paradigm shift toward an existential positive psychology is advantageous because it offers an integrative framework for understanding, measuring, and promoting wellbeing. For example, whereas traditional positive psychology tends to overlook the important role that suffering plays in human experience (see Coyne & Tennen, 2010; Held, 2004; Lazarus, 2003; Miller, 2008; Ryff, 2022; Wong, 2019, 2021), existential positive psychology addresses both the bright and dark sides of life in a more holistic way (Mayer, 2020; Mayer & Vanderheiden, 2021; Wong, 2017). The paradigm of existential positive psychology also represents a fundamental shift in both attitude and action; learning how to accept and embrace suffering can be one of the most promising paths to sustainable wellbeing (Kjell, 2011; Wong & Bowers, 2019). From this perspective, suffering may contribute to wellbeing by (a) prompting people to search for meaning as a more favorable option than responses that lead to maladaptive consequences (e.g., substance abuse, aggression, suicide), (b) teaching people how to manage or overcome painful emotions and experiences so that they have a greater likelihood of staying happy and healthy, and (c) triggering diagnostic, curative, redemptive, or growth-promoting responses that serve transformative functions (Wong, Mayer, et al., 2021).

Contrasting Two Different Approaches to Wellbeing

To illustrate some of the differences between positive psychology as usual and the paradigm of existential positive psychology, Figure 2 provides a brief overview of a traditional positive psychology model of wellbeing (i.e., PERMA model) and a model of wellbeing grounded in existential positive psychology (i.e., self-transcendence model of wellbeing through transforming suffering). Unlike the latter model, the former does not explicitly address the need to deal effectively with the dark side of life, which limits or may undermine our best efforts to promote wellbeing. More specifically, the PERMA model does not prepare people to face existential anxieties, inherent limitations, setbacks, and negative emotions as inescapable aspects of life; it also does not address the importance of equipping people with the skills to harness and transform negative emotions and experiences into positive energies that can enhance wellbeing. For example, the pursuit and expectation of positive emotions often leads to disappointment and unhappiness because it is not possible to avoid negative emotions, which are not only natural responses to some situations but are considered necessary for our wellbeing (Hershfield et al., 2013).

Figure 2

Some of the Differences Between Positive Psychology and Existential Positive Psychology

Existential positive psychology is therefore a positive psychology that recognizes, embraces, and integrates the dark side of human existence, providing an existential dimension to personhood. The four tenets of this existential positive psychology paradigm can be summarized as follows: (a) polarity, such that all things in nature exist as two opposite but complementary dimensions; (b) self-transcendence, referring to a process of rising above limitations and conflicts by navigating a balanced and dynamic dialectic between opposites; (c) balance and harmony, capturing the idea that inner peace and wellbeing result from balancing the different and often competing dimensions within the individual (e.g., physical, mental, spiritual); and (d) true positivity, which involves seeing or being the light in times of darkness or suffering. From this perspective, positivity is not defined in terms of a positive to negative ratio but is based on one’s ability to transform negatives into positives. Existential positive psychology considers the transformation of suffering as the new holy grail to wellbeing, teaching us how to accept and transcend negative emotions and experiences so that we can become better and stronger (Bonanno, 2021; Targ & Hurtak, 2006; Wong & Worth, 2017).

The Thread of Self-transcendence

A central theme of existential positive psychology is self-transcendence (Wong, Arslan, et al., 2021). Self-transcendence is a uniquely human phenomenon that involves a fundamental reorientation from an egotistic focus to a selflessness emphasis on something outside or greater than oneself (Kaufman, 2020; Yaden et al., 2017). This was eloquently described by Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946/1985): “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 … In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence” (p. 133).

The concept of self-transcendence is essentially a paradoxical approach to personal growth and self-actualization. From the perspective of existential positive psychology, self-transcendence is necessary because we can only become our best selves through two interrelated processes: (a) sinking our roots into the dark soil of suffering and transcending obstacles and inherent limitations while simultaneously (b) striving towards our highest ideals of serving the greater good (Wong, 2021; Reischer et al., 2020). Engaging both processes is challenging, which is why the path of self-transcendence is narrow and long. The first of the interrelated processes can be particularly intimidating because it requires that we overcome our deep-seated desire to avoid suffering and instead courageously encounter suffering (Wong, 2017). Yet, there are many inspiring examples of how this approach to suffering can be adaptive and contribute to wellbeing. For example, reflecting on the myth of Sisyphus who was condemned to a futile, lifelong struggle of pushing a large boulder up a mountain each day, Camus (1942/1955) concluded that “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (p. 123). Similarly, Frankl (1946/1985) wrote that our capacity to accept our fate and the suffering that comes along with it provides us with an opportunity to deepen our sense of meaning in life. If we can learn to embrace our suffering, even circumstances that might ordinarily lead to an “existential vacuum” (Frankl, 1946/1985), we can meet our suffering in a way that enables us to transform it so that we become better rather than bitter. Ultimately, one’s wellbeing, and indeed one’s destiny, depends on how one responds to the trials and tribulations that we all go through at some point in our lives.

Implications for Research and Practice

In this chapter, we proposed a paradigm shift towards existential positive psychology, which offers an integrative framework that recognizes the dialectical interaction between the dark (negative psychology) and bright (positive psychology) sides of human experience. The existential positive psychology paradigm not only enables us to see life as it is, but it also has heuristic value in advancing research and practice dedicated to the promotion of wellbeing. We highlight some of these potential implications below.

A key premise of the existential positive psychology perspective is that sustainable wellbeing requires both actions focused on enhancing happiness and actions oriented toward the transformation of suffering. In contrast with common conceptions of happiness as a transient positive emotional state, existential positive psychology emphasizes mature happiness as a distinct dimension of happiness that is characterized by durable contentment or inner peace (Wong & Bowers, 2019). Mature happiness tends to be more durable because it is based on the human capacity to achieve balance and self-transcendence (Dambrun et al., 2012), which should make it more resistant to the disruptive impact that negative circumstances can have on wellbeing. Although a growing body of literature supports the benefits of mature happiness for a flourishing life (Bowers, 2020; Chen et al., 2021), research is needed to explore the unique contributions of both mature happiness and transformed suffering to sustainable wellbeing. Some theorists have emphasized that humans are hardwired to survive and transcend hardships (Frankl, 1946/1985; Wong, 2021), and there is evidence suggesting that stress can contribute to personal growth and transformation if we learn how to harness it as a source of energy (McGonigal, 2015). However, little is known about whether suffering that is positively transformed into an asset contributes to wellbeing beyond mature happiness (and other dimensions of happiness), which could shed important light on how people might be able to develop and grow from suffering in ways that ultimately support their wellbeing.

Rigorous, ground-breaking research will be necessary for generating evidence that captures the breadth and depth of how transformed suffering might promote wellbeing. For example, psychobiography could provide opportunities to acquire an in-depth, holistic understanding of the complex and dynamic processes involved in transforming suffering across the lifespan (Mayer & May, 2019). On the other hand, well-designed longitudinal studies will be important for exploring the effects of transformed suffering on outcomes over long periods of time, which may be especially necessary because our capacities to positively transform suffering can take time to develop. Research along these lines will require new measures to assess capacities that might enable people to transform and transcend suffering, as demonstrated by recently developed measures of tragic optimism (Leung et al., 2021) and existential gratitude (Jans-Beken & Wong, 2021). Mixed methods approaches that balance methodological rigor needed for estimating causality with rich insight acquired through personal narratives offer a particularly promising avenue for uncovering the complexities involved in transforming suffering and its implications for wellbeing.

Innovative and engaging interventions are needed to help people enhance mature happiness and positively transform suffering. Many therapeutic models that have roots in existential positive psychology could be used to inform the development of such interventions (e.g., integrative meaning therapy; Wong, 2016), but special consideration should be given to formulating impactful evidence-based interventions (e.g., self-guided psychoeducational approaches) that have the potential to be disseminated widely and can be made available to the public at low cost. Although these kinds of interventions would not represent an alternative to psychotherapy, they could be beneficial to many people who are not flourishing or wish to flourish more fully.

Conclusion

In a world that is constantly changing and at times can be difficult to make sense of, we need a positive psychology that addresses the complexity of the human condition and offers an integrative framework that lays a firm foundation for future theory, research, and practice that can support the needs of humanity. Toward this end, we explored existential positive psychology as a well-rounded approach that addresses the dialectical interplay between the dark and bright sides of life for a more holistic understanding of wellbeing. Rather than neglect or underemphasize suffering, existential positive psychology posits that sustainable wellbeing necessarily depends on our capacity to embrace and transcend suffering. It implicitly recognizes that suffering adds depth to our lives by teaching us who we really are and sets the stage for us to develop inner resources and virtues that enable us to transcend life’s challenges. Acknowledging the centrality of suffering to wellbeing represents a key paradigm shift in positive psychology, and the integrative approach that existential positive psychology provides could be an important next step on our journey to building a richer and more refined understanding of how individuals and society can fully flourish.

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Cite

Wong, P. T. P., Cowden, R. G., Mayer, C.-H., & Bowers, V. L. (in press). Shifting the paradigm of positive psychology: Toward an existential positive psychology of wellbeing. In A. H. Kemp (Ed.), Broadening the scope of wellbeing science: Multidisciplinary and interdiscipinary perspectives on human flourishing and wellbeing.