Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing (3rd ed.)

By William C. Compton and Edward Hoffman

Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2019. 528 pp.

ISBN 978-1544322926 $95.00

Reviewed by Paul T. P. Wong

Abstract

Compton and Hoffman’s third edition of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing is commended for advocating an inclusive positive psychology that not only honours the rich humanistic heritage and the major contributions from mainstream psychology, but also recognizes the two emerging trends in PP 2.0. The first is the reality that suffering and vulnerability are the foundation for building a solid existential positive psychology of optimism and flourishing that can endure the inevitable vicissitudes of life. The second trend is the importance of indigenous positive psychology, especially Eastern psychological systems that offer viable insights and a variety of hypotheses about the nature of the self and ultimate happiness.

Introduction

The two authors have a combined history of 80 years in doing research and teaching in positive mental health and wellbeing. This rich history is clearly reflected in the breadth and depth of their coverage, especially the older humanistic literature and the latest developments in indigenous psychology as well as second wave positive psychology (PP 2.0).

With approximately 400 new references and many new topics, this textbook represents the most balanced and comprehensive treatment of the different trends under the umbrella of positive psychology. “Today, the difference between positive psychology and humanistic psychology are diminishing” (Compton & Hoffman, 2019, p. 23). Even the remaining differences in philosophical assumptions will disappear once most positive psychologists accept the necessity of taking a more holistic and integrative approach towards complex human issues (Wong & Roy, 2017).

More than a decade ago, Snyder and Lopez (2007) wrote in their textbook on positive psychology:

Although we explore the positive, we emphasize that this half is no more the entire story than is the negative side. Future psychologists must develop an inclusive approach that examine both the weakness and the strengths of people, as well as the stressors and the resources in the environment. That approach would be the most comprehensive and valid. (p. 9)

Contribution to the Positive Psychology of Suffering

To a large degree, Snyder and Lopez’s (2007) wish has been realized in the present textbook by Compton and Hoffman. Throughout their book, they emphasize the need to integrate the positive and the negative. For example, on page 172, they cited Dunn’s (1961) research that high-level wellness depended on a combination of living a meaningful live and coping with challenging environments. Similarly, after devoting many pages to posttraumatic growth, they cited Kramer’s (2000) research on the wisdom of being open to both positive and negative experiences and grappling with difficult existential life issues, a process that helps transform negative experiences into life-affirming ones (p. 267).

Their coverage of the topic of suffering encompasses Rollo May’s emphasis on existential anxiety and the power of the daimonic, Frankl’s meaning of suffering, Killam’s (2015) review of post-traumatic growth, Cowen and Kilmer’s (2002) article challenging the possibility of obtaining stable wellbeing by neglecting fear and death anxiety, and Kaiser’s (2009) book questioning the desirability of focusing only on strengths.

They also introduce Shmotkin’s (2005) comprehensive model which assumes that “we all encounter a potentially threatening world, our sense of subjective wellbeing is designed partially to help protect us from the impact of anxiety, worry, and fear” (p. 382.) It is worth noting that Shmotkin’s theory was influenced by terror management theory’s postulate that we are affected by our unconscious fear of death.

In spite of the above, positive psychology is by and large ambivalent towards suffering. On the one hand, most official positive psychology websites emphasize that they also care about repairing what is wrong or broken with people, but their research agenda and publications rarely test the possibility that human suffering can be a portal for happiness and strength.

“Does suffering trump happiness?” (Seligman, 2003). By raising this rhetorical question, Seligman is fully aware that people are concerned about suffering. Without directly answering this question, he wrote:

I am often asked two disturbing and profound questions about the place of happiness in a troubled world. In a world of war and hate and famine, how can I advocate that psychology investigate happiness? Suffering has first call on our sympathy, on our dollars, and on our brainpower. Only when these nightmares are stilled should we turn our attention to happiness.

However, he does not agree with this conclusion. He believes that just as clinical psychology can make people less unhappy, positive psychology can make people happier, and these are separate endeavours (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). Following this dichotomous view of psychology, their positive clinical psychology (Peterson & Seligman, 2003) or positive psychotherapy (Rashid & Seligman, 2018) focus on applying their standard strength-enhancing interventions on clinical populations.

In contrast, PP 2.0 may be considered as the positive psychology of suffering; it takes suffering as the starting point or the foundation, and then explores how we can transform suffering into wellbeing and character strengths. According to this integrative view, a focus on curing pathology without tapping into people’s inner resources and best angels—and a focus on positive emotions and traits without addressing people’s inner demons and the dark side of life—are less helpful than the dialectic approach of integrating negatives and positives in achieving optimal wellbeing.

This dialectical framework has guided all my research on wellbeing. Examples include the positive psychology of transforming stress to competence and resilience (Wong, Wong, & Scott, 2006); the positive psychology of transforming the terror of death into death acceptance and meaning in life (Wong & Tomer, 2011); the deep-and-wide hypothesis in giftedness and creativity (Wong & Worth, 2017); the positive psychology of transforming despair into tragic optimism (Wong, 2009); and positive aging (Wong, 1989). All these examples illustrate the power of positive interventions based on the dialectic mindset.

It is gratifying that Compton and Hoffman touch on many of the above themes, which were largely ignored by the positive psychology community when the above topics were first introduced as the new frontiers of positive psychology. It is also gratifying that they recognize that the success of Buddhist psychology has to do with its primary concern of reducing suffering through mindful meditation as the pathway to ultimate happiness (Hanh, 2017). It is worth noting that Christian psychology holds a similar approach of achieving happiness and flourishing through resolving the problem of evils and suffering; for example, Hall, Langer, and McMartin (2010) propose that suffering can best be understood as a marker of disordered living and can be seen as a means of cultivating characteristics that are essential to flourishing.

Similarly, Frankl (1985) discovered that a meaningful life is based on understanding the meaning of suffering. Peterson’s (2018) concept of a meaningful life is also built on the foundation of suffering. Personally, has been through my struggles to survive the horrors of Japanese occupation, cancer, betrayal, discrimination, and Christian faith that I have discovered the power of PP 2.0.

Unfortunately, the concept of finding meaning, strength, and happiness through suffering is still dismissed by leading American positive psychologists. Here are some examples of negative feedback from positive psychology leaders to my research on suffering: (a) “positive psychology has nothing to do with suffering”; (b) “there is no evidence that there can be happiness in suffering”; and (c) “the statement that life is suffering is contrary to scientific progress and many people’s life experiences”. Such critics are not only oblivious to the universal reality of suffering, but are also devoid of understanding and compassion for all those whose lives are a constant struggle, those who have to dig deeper into the hard soil with tears and blood in order to survive each day. More importantly, such resistance to suffering hinders positive psychology from exploring the new frontiers of the paradoxical and dialectical mindset as illustrated by Frankl’s concept of tragic optimism (Wong, 2009).

Therefore, it behooves all positive psychologists to ponder the wisdom of Gandhi—“To rejoice in happiness is to invite misery. Real happiness springs from sorrow and suffering”—that is the paradoxical truth of PP 2.0. I am grateful to the authors of the present textbook for including suffering as a legitimate topic for positive psychology and repeatedly warning against a dogmatic positivist view of doing research only on what is positive and desirable, which has been criticized by researchers from both within and outside the positive psychology community (Wong & Roy, 2017).

Contribution to Indigenous Positive Psychology

In the words of Compton and Hoffman (2019):

Among the frequent criticisms of positive psychology (and Western psychology in general) has been that it over-relies on North American and European research participants. It is indeed clear that some research findings are attributed universal significances when they actually apply only within a specific culture at a specific historical moment. (p. 391)

They go on to document not only ethnic differences within the West, but also cultural differences between the East and West.

Compton and Hoffman (2019) also point out:

When Eastern psychological systems are understood properly, they offer viable insights on well-being, the nature of emotion, the elements of personality and how to change behavior in positive ways… A variety of hypotheses about the nature of the self and ultimate happiness are available from Eastern psychology, and relatively few psychologists in the West attempt to tap into this valuable resource. (p. 392)

It is unscientific to dismiss Eastern ideas and Eastern indigenous psychology without giving it serious consideration.

As a case in point, at the 2018 Meaning Conference, I presented my model of mature happiness for difficult times based on my Asian heritage (Wong & Bowers, 2018). See Figure 1 as my dialectical model of mature happiness that focuses on internal cultivation to develop a state of attunement and inner peace. 

Figure 1. A dialectical model of mature happiness.

It was regrettable that a prominent positive psychologist in the same symposium on mature happiness dismissed mature happiness for adversity as necessary, because it could be assumed under Aristotle’s eudaimonic happiness, denying that Asian philosophers had anything unique to contribute to the concept of happiness. This presenter even refused to consider the possibility that the cultivation of mental discipline and inner peace in order to overcome suffering may result from a happiness that is qualitatively different from the Western concept of eudaimonia. His assertions showed a lack of understanding of indigenous Chinese psychology (Wong, 2016).

Similarly, the same presenter asserted that Self-Determination Theory (SDT) had already incorporated the dialectic principle, therefore, there was no need for PP 2.0. SDT’s approach to dialectic interaction between human nature and social contexts (Reeve, Deci, & Ryan, 2004) is a welcome approach to person-environment interactions, but it does not negate the need for a more comprehensive dialectic analysis of wellbeing.

From the Asian perspective, everything exists in polarity. The dialectical principle of interaction between yin-yang, as shown in Figure 1 and explained in Wong (2011), is a universal principle underlying all phenomena, including mental health. For example, Lomas and Ivtzan’s (2016) dialectical analysis of wellbeing, Peterson’s (2018) dialectical analysis of meaningful striving through having one foot in security and another foot in order, and Wang, Wong, Yeh, and Wang’s (2018) meaningful life and dialectical coping are all examples of the dialectical approach. The dialogue between PP 2.0 and Buddhism is an example of how to integrate the East with the West (Bliss and Wisdom, 2017).

Wong’s (2012) dual-systems model crystalizes such diverse phenomena of dialectics as the practical wisdom of navigating an adaptive balance between the dynamic interactions of opposing forces to optimize wellbeing in different contexts. Thus, depending on the situation, one needs to manage the tension of various dialectics, such as getting ahead vs. getting along, trust vs. distrust, engagement vs. disengagement, and happiness vs. sorrow. Such dialectic thinking will contribute to one’s flexibility in adapting to life’s many challenges.

The Future of Positive Psychology

Compton and Hoffman (2019) offer a broad and optimistic vision of a truly balanced, integrative positive psychology:

Researchers in positive psychology will be kept busy for some time to come exploring personality, lived environments, the interpretation of life events, the various criteria for well-being, and interventions to enhance well-being in an era of new challenges and opportunities for humanity. (p. 394)

The future of positive psychology seems to lie in two emerging areas of PP 2.0: (a) the integration of negatives and positives and (b) the integration of mainstream and indigenous psychology. In some measure, the future is already here, as I have illustrated through this review and summarized in the following table: 

Table 1. Characteristics of the future of positive psychology (PP 2.0) from Wong & Roy (2018). 

PP 1.0

PP 2.0

Dichotomous and binary.

Dialectical and interactive.

Focuses on the positive only.

Focuses on both the positive and the negative.

Emphasizes positive emotions.

Emphasizes responsible action.

Avoids the topics of suffering and death.

Embraces the topics of suffering and death as precondition for authentic happiness.

Flourishing achieved through focusing on the positive and avoiding the negative.

Flourishing achieved only through confronting the dark side of human existence.

Happiness oriented, self-fulfillment focused.

Meaning oriented, self-transcendence focused.

Direct pursuit of happiness may backfire.

Direct pursuit of meaning leads to authentic happiness.

Truncated understanding of wellbeing.

Complete understanding of wellbeing in the midst of suffering.

Focuses on elements of wellbeing, such as behavior, cognition, affect, and so on.

Focuses on the whole person, taking a holistic and person-centered approach.

Distinct from humanistic-existential psychology.

Informed by humanistic-existential psychology.

Based on the positivist paradigm.

Based on the humble science perspective.

Based on empirical findings from psychological laboratories.

Based on empirical findings from both psychological and real-life “laboratories.”

Based on individualist culture.

Based on both individualist and collectivist cultures.

 

In order to achieve their bold new vision, the authors suggest that we ought to “integrate both positive and negative emotions, as well several diverse topics, such as the use of defence mechanisms and how we cope with existential anxiety, into a comprehensive perspective on well-being” (p. 381).

To reinforce their appeal for an integrative positive psychology, they cite Hefferon, Ashfield, Waters, and Synard (2017):

We aspire towards more balanced, diverse and inclusive positive psychological research design where one approach is not privileged over the other. We further advocate for researchers to start exploring and engaging in reach across the epistemological spectrum as both quantitative and qualitative approaches can add a piece to the Wellbeing/Flourishing puzzle and have value in their own right. (p. 217)

Citing Kristjánsson (2010), the authors emphasize that it is difficult to remove values completely from the scientific study of wellbeing. Therefore, researchers who advocate positivist and naturalist values should not automatically dismiss research findings based on transcendental values. Furthermore, they also suggest that positive psychology needs to “specify more precisely what kinds of ideals for well-being or what types of happiness are being pursued through research. None of these issues should negate the scientific enterprise in any way” (Compton and Hoffman, 2019, p. 391).

Ideally, science is the final arbitrator among alternative hypotheses. However, this has to be based on science as broadly defined. Life is complicated, and people are complex. If we believe in the unity of human mature but also that there are different expressions in different cultures, we really need to broaden our approach to research as suggested by the authors:

Although [science] brings a necessary and welcome addition to the study of well-being, science is a useful tool that may work best when used with other tools that examine the human condition. … The study of individual and group well-being is particularly suited to collaboration among a diversity of scientists, scholars, educators, and other practitioners around the world. (Compton & Hoffman, 2019, pp. 393-394)

Citing Rathunde (2001), they suggest that we go back to William James, John Dewey, and Abraham Maslow. Thus, what was old becomes new again through new theoretical lenses and research methodologies.

For example, PP 2.0 focuses on contributing factors, the dialectical processes of adaptation, and outcome measures of people’s wellbeing and optimism in their darkest hours. It fills a void in existential positive psychology by drawing attention to the suffering masses. PP 2.0 also advocates research needs to measure the interactions between opposing forces and objective indexes of wellbeing in various concrete contexts, from both normal circumstances and aversive situations.

Only empirical research will decide whether in circumstances of adversity, PP 2.0’s interventions to enhance the mature happiness of inner peace through confronting weaknesses will show a higher level of wellbeing than traditional happiness-enhancing interventions. Research may also decide whether it is more effective to address vulnerabilities and one’s dark side in order to increase one’s character strengths and wellbeing, as advocated by PP 2.0, as compared to the single-minded focus on positive emotions and positive traits as advocated by what we can call the “first wave” of positive psychology (PP 1.0). However, two books lend support to PP 2.0: Kaplan and Kaiser’s (2013) Fear your strengths: What You are Best at Could Be Your Biggest Problem and Feldman and Kravetz’s (2014) Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success.

A recent study by Kaufman, Yaden, Hyde, and Tsukayama (2019) also supports the value of looking at both positive and negative personality traits in wellbeing. They found that the Light Triad Scale (LTS) predicted satisfaction and a wide range of growth-oriented outcomes, while the Dark Triad was negatively associated with life satisfaction and growth-oriented outcomes. Future research will determine whether the dialectical mindset of accepting the dark side of life is more adaptive than the dichromatic mindset of avoiding it in promoting the mission of “positive, adaptive, healthy and admirable qualities of humanity” in different contexts (Compton & Hoffman, 2019, p. 394).

Conclusion

Compton and Hoffman (2019) end the book with the former’s mother’s life motto, which in part says:

Throughout the coming years, may you have:
Enough happiness to keep you sweet,
Enough trials to keep you strong,
Enough sorrow to keep you human,
Enough hope to keep you happy,
Enough failure to keep you humble,
Enough success to keep you eager,
Enough friends to give you comfort,
Enough wealth to meet your needs,
Enough faith to banish depression,
Enough determinations to make each day better than yesterday. (pp. 394-395)

This list sounds like a perfect example of the good life from the perspective of PP 2.0—a life of moderation and balance through integrating negative and positive experiences. Such a good life demands the responsibility to do the right thing each day and the discipline to overcome adversities with the spiritual triad of faith, love, and meaning. In short, Compton’s mother’s life is a demonstration that a good life is achievable only through successfully integrating opposing dialectical forces (Wong, 2011).

In contrast, Seligman et al. (2005) holds a dichromatic view of positive psychology:

Research findings from positive psychology are intended to supplement, not remotely to replace, what is known about human suffering, weakness, and disorder. The intent is to have a more complete and balanced scientific understanding of the human experience—the peaks, the valleys, and everything in between. We believe that a complete science and a complete practice of psychology would include an understanding of suffering and happiness, as well as their interaction, and validated interventions that both relieve suffering and increase happiness—two separable endeavors. (p. 410)

After 20 years of positive psychology research, the present book shows us that following the Hegelian dialectical logic, clinical psychology (thesis) and positive psychology (antithesis) are moving into the stage of synthesis as evident in PP 2.0. Thus, suffering and weakness are the very foundation for building a solid existential positive psychology of optimism and flourishing that can endure the inevitable vicissitudes of life. Compton and Hoffman’s (2019) book shows us that the most powerful tool in any psychologist’s toolbox is neither the skill to repair brokenness, nor the skill to increase strength, but the skill to transform brokenness into strength, thus, integrating healing with flourishing.

It has been a validating experience for me to read this positive psychology textbook, because the authors happen to share the same orientation towards positive psychology as my own. They not only honour the rich humanistic heritage and the major contributions from mainstream psychology, but also recognize the two emerging trends of PP 2.0, namely, the positive psychology of suffering and indigenous positive psychology. The future of positive psychology is that it will be an essential aspect of training for all mental health professionals, because healing depends on the innate human capacity for meaning, relationships, and faith in transcendental values.

I especially admire the Compton and Hoffman’s sweeping, bold vision of inclusiveness, diversity, and integration for the future of positive psychology, which will show us how we can build a better life for the self and society by confronting and transforming the dark side of life as the foundation for human flourishing. That is why I highly recommend Compton and Hoffman’s (2019) book as a textbook for positive psychology.

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Cite

Wong, P. T. P. (in press). The maturing of positive psychology and the emerging PP 2.0 [Book review of Positive Psychology (3rd ed.) by William Compton and Edward Hoffman]. International Journal on Well-Being.