If you're happy and you know it...
Updated: 2013-03-01 08:48
By Robert Lawrence Kuhn (China Daily)
In his inaugural speech, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China, called for the realization of the "Chinese dream", which he described as "better education, more stable jobs, better income, more reliable social security, medical care of a higher standard, more comfortable living conditions, and a more beautiful environment". While Xi did not use the term "happiness" directly, his speech was praised for its fresh, grassroots appeal to increase the happiness of the people.
A few months earlier, a China Central Television show called Are You Happy? - random people giving surprising and funny comments - became a hot topic on social media. Here was the state broadcaster promoting the happiness of ordinary citizens, rather than its usual fare of leaders and policies. Happiness" has become a watchword in China. According to Peng Kaiping, chair of Psychology at Tsinghua University, when a nation's per capita GDP is lower than $3,000 (2,270 euros), people focus primarily on material needs such as food and clothes. But once it exceeds $3,000, the focus shifts to psychological needs, like spirituality and happiness. Four yeas ago, China passed this line. After decades of asking "Have you eaten?" or "Are you rich?", Chinese people are starting to ask: "Are you happy?"
In schools, parents and teachers invoke "Happy Education" as they worry about children's mental state under China's fiercely competitive exam-oriented system. "Happy Corporate" is promoted to increase employees' work satisfaction (especially after multiple work-related suicides). Courses like "Happy Women" or "Happiness Capability" are offered widely, and books with "Happiness" in their titles are best-sellers.
There is a dark side to the happiness craze in China. The field is completely unregulated, the Wild West of self-improvement. Most authors and teachers are not trained in the science of happiness, but rely rather on pop-psych ideas, self-help techniques and personal anecdotes. Happiness gurus may be inspirational, but the long-term benefits are dubious.
Some gurus claim that happiness is the only true goal of life. Worse, they often equate happiness with merely positive emotion, like cheerfulness or a pleasant mood, while scientific-minded psychologists find that happiness has other core aspects including engagement and meaning of life. Worse still, some happiness gurus are charlatans, seeking fast money at the expense of a gullible public, and their teachings are baseless, useless, and potentially harmful.
Many people consider schemes to increase happiness as huyou, a Chinese word that means "advanced lies". They think self-claimed happiness experts use fancy words and uplifting cliches to confuse people and enrich themselves. A cynical term, "be happied" means that the government defines happiness arbitrarily and modifies statistical data to fake better happiness reports.
These problems can be addressed by "positive psychology", the science of happiness that was founded in 1998 by a group of eminent psychologists led by Martin Seligman, the author of Authentic Happiness. A distinguished research scientist, Seligman transformed the fuzzy notion of happiness into a scientific discipline, with reproducible results and professional standards. As president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman launched the positive psychology movement to study "positive human functioning" and to develop "scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving individuals, families, and communities".
Positive psychology uses scientific methods, like statistical surveys, validated questionnaires, research exercises, and large representative samples. Before a new intervention is introduced to the public, it must go through rigorous, placebo-controlled studies - the same methods used in other disciplines like medicine.
For example, when Seligman and his team wanted to validate positive interventions, they assigned them randomly to a large group of people. It turned out that an intervention called "gratitude visit" - where you read a gratitude letter to someone you want to thank - can immediately increase the level of life satisfaction by about 10 percent, but the effect disappears after six months.
Another intervention called "three good things" - where you write down three good things that happened today and why they happened - doesn't boost life satisfaction immediately, but can increase it by about 9 percent six months later. Therefore, psychologists recommend "gratitude visits" to those who need a quick happiness lift, and "three good things" to those who want to increase happiness more permanently.
In contrast, popular happiness books are often based on personal anecdotes, and they tend to over-promise and under-deliver.
Positive psychology is much broader than "happiology". It studies all positive aspects of human mentality, such as positive emotion, character strengths and virtues, positive institutions and excellence. Interestingly, research shows that those stronger in gratitude, optimism and zest are on average happier. The happiest people are not those who are most wealthy, but those who have rich interpersonal relationships.
Seligman, in his new book Flourish, proposes the term "well-being" instead of "happiness". He defines well-being with five factors: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments, or PERMA; and character strengths are the foundation for all of them. He argues that PERMA (and the entire discipline of positive psychology) is expressed by what free people choose to pursue when not oppressed.
As the goal of positive psychology, well-being is measurable. One study analyzed what nuns wrote when they were young, rating the content's positive emotion. It turned out that 90 percent of nuns in the most cheerful quarter were alive at the age of 85, compared with 34 percent of those in the least cheerful quarter; and 54 percent of the former at 94, compared to 11 percent of the latter. Since these nuns lived the same lifestyle, ate the same food and had the same healthcare, this suggests that people with higher well-being live longer. Similarly, students who were happier at college entry would have higher income and higher job satisfaction 19 years later. And what was higher for the less happy students? The unemployment rate!
With the help of positive psychology, the happiness movement should be converted to the well-being movement. It is science-based and reliable; it engages all positive human functioning; it is much broader than subjective happiness; and it shows how well-being affects our health, achievement and life. Positive psychology facilitates social stability and harmony. Well-being brings not only personal, emotional benefits, but also moral and social benefits. For example, people with higher well-being are more altruistic. A flourishing person is more likely to help others. Happier people have less racial discrimination, make fewer social comparisons, and are more ready to forgive. In short, higher well-being makes better citizens.
A China higher in well-being would be a China higher in creativity. When you are frightened, stressed or depressed, your mind is filled with analytical, critical thinking. When your emotions are more positive, you are better with creative tasks. How to make China's next generation more creative? Improve their well-being! Well-being's rewards are also economic. People with higher well-being have better work performance, less unemployment, and more altruism. They are also healthier and require less medical care.
Positive psychology resonates with traditional Chinese values like interpersonal relationships and morality. Xi Jinping stressed that "well-being has to be created by diligent work and labor". This aligns with Seligman's rationale to expand well-being from the popular yet narrow notion of positive emotion to include engagement and achievement.
Positive psychology works cross-culturally, though adaptations are needed. For example, an intervention designed to increase children's optimism, modified and tested in Beijing, decreased symptoms of depression.
The "Chinese dream" is for the Chinese people to flourish. As the science of flourishing, positive psychology can increase well-being and thus make Chinese people more resilient and fulfilled, and Chinese society more stable and prosperous.
The author is an international corporate strategist advising multinationals on doing business in China. A longtime counselor to China's leaders, he is the author of How China's Leaders Think, featuring China's new leaders. With appreciation to Martin Seligman (full disclosure: Marty is a friend) and Yukun Zhao. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
(China Daily 03/01/2013 page8)