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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".
His speech was praised for its fresh, grassroots appeal to increase the happiness of the people.
A month earlier, a China Central Television show called Are You Happy? - random, on-the-street interviews with 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 Kaiping Peng, chair of psychology at Tsinghua University, when a nation's per capita GDP is lower than $3,000, people focus primarily on material needs like food and clothes. Once it exceeds $3,000, the focus shifts to psychological needs, such as happiness. Four yeas ago, China passed this line. After decades of asking have you eaten or are you rich, people are starting to ask are you happy.
But there is a dark side to the happiness craze in China. The field is completely unregulated, the Wild West of self-improvement, relying 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 emotions, like cheerfulness or a pleasant mood, while scientifically minded psychologists find that happiness has other core aspects including engagement and meaning of life.
Many people consider all schemes to increase happiness as huyou a Chinese word that means "advanced lies". They think self-claimed happiness experts use fancy words and uplifting clichs to confuse people and enrich themselves. A cynical term, "be happied" means that happiness is defined arbitrarily and statistical data modified 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 Professor 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 such as 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.
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 the most wealthy, but those who have rich interpersonal relationships.
In his new book Flourish, Seligman proposes the term "well-being" instead of "happiness". He defines well-being with five factors - positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments - and argues they are expressed by what people choose to pursue when not oppressed.
As the goal of positive psychology, well-being is measurable. Students who were happier at college entry were found to have higher incomes and higher job satisfaction 19 years later. And what was higher for students that were less happy? The unemployment rate!
Well-being 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 likely to help others, exhibit less racial discrimination, 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 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. He is the author of How China's Leaders Think.
(China Daily 02/27/2013 page8)