Positive Psychology and China

Experience another part of the world, especially the people there.

Posted Oct 10, 2010

This past August, I spent two weeks in mainland China, giving keynote addresses with my colleague Nansook Park at two conferences in Beijing, the first hosted by Tsinghua University and the second by Beijing Normal University. These were the first conferences in China devoted to positive psychology.

I have not written any blog entries yet on my experiences in China, perhaps because these were so personally meaningful. I've always said that there are two sorts of experience that matter, those one enjoys in the moment and those one enjoys after-the-fact because one can think and talk about them. My China experiences were so much in the former category that I have resisted placing them in the second category. A life-long dream of mine - starting as a kid growing up in the Midwest of the United States - was to visit China, and it finally happened. Between the conferences, we tried to visit as many places as possible, including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, and the city of Xi'an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. And the food was unbelievable, especially the dumplings in Xi'an.

Christopher Peterson - Terra Cotta Positive Psychologist

Although I enjoyed very much my sightseeing and my meals, the highlights of my trip all involved my experiences with people. I loved the Chinese people I met! We did not talk politics with anyone - they were after all our hosts - and I am sure we might have disagreed on things. But our hosts were decent, diligent, and gracious ... and funny! That's an important part of what matters, regardless of national policies.

In particular, we met a number of undergraduate and graduate psychology students - mostly female, like in the US - who were bright beyond belief but also kind and gentle and supportive. They did everything possible to make their guests - us - feel comfortable and to insure that we enjoyed our visit. Their helpfulness was genuine and above-and-beyond anything that I have ever experienced. The point is that positive psychology should not simply be an export endeavor. It should also entail import, and those of us in the Western world have much to learn from those elsewhere, including in particular China.

Contributing to my enjoyment of my China experience was the fact that I am a tall (6'3") and big (i.e., fat) American who provided a frequent photo op for the citizens there. Apparently the Chinese love taking pictures, and I lost count of how many times I had my picture taken at the conferences as well as on the street by random folks. I guess I looked different - exotic? - to the typical Chinese resident. Cool. I have never been exotic in my entire life.

During my visit to the Great Wall, I took a break and rested while the rest of my party forged ahead. But my time was not idle, because numerous Chinese visitors approached me and asked if they could take a picture of me, invariably with their child. My self-esteem is just fine, thank you, but I never thought I was among the seven wonders of the world! But I happily complied.

Children often followed me around. We laughed and smiled, even if we could not otherwise communicate. All children are cute, and the Chinese children who followed me around melted my heart.

One of my favorite encounters was with a boy - maybe eight years old - in Xi'an who boldly walked up to me and craned his neck. He said "hello" tonally, pronouncing it like the Mandarin nee-how (hello). I said hello back.

He then told my host something that she did not want to translate, but I insisted. Apparently he said, "I'm glad I'm not an American."

I asked why, which was dutifully translated by my uncomfortable host.

He replied, "If I were an American, then I would have to speak English, and I do not speak English very well."

It was a Piagetian moment beyond precious. My host tried to explain to him that if he were American, he would indeed speak English. I interrupted her, saying (to her) that counter-factual reasoning was not where he was at. I simply bumped fists with the little boy, and we both smiled. I had made a friend for life.

Anyway, I have decided that it might be of interest to you readers to share some of my impressions of China vis-à-vis positive psychology.

First, there was great interest in the perspective of positive psychology. With the increasing affluence of China, there is worry about the negative impact of wealth on the mental health and well-being of its people due to materialism and conflicts with traditional values. There is a special concern about the younger generation. They are not only are part of a global culture but also subject to huge pressures for success. These pressures are exacerbated by the "one child policy" because family expectations necessarily focus on that one child. We were told by numerous young people that they grew up lonely and stressed.

We originally thought that we should use euphemisms for happiness in speaking to our hosts, lest we be dismissed as shallow hedonists. But no worries. The Chinese want their people, and especially their children, to be happy. Then their problems might be minimized. I agree, but the Chinese openness to happiness theory and research was nonetheless surprising. There are of course cultural differences in what constitutes legitimate happiness, but it is also obvious that happiness is a universal desire.

Second, China is big - really big, not just geographically but population-wise - and highly centralized. Something I learned that I still have trouble wrapping my head around is that since 1949, China has had only one time zone, as opposed to the five time zones it would warrant anywhere else in the world. The point is that if and when China decides to implement ideas and interventions from positive psychology, the scale of so doing would be mind-boggling. The conference at Beijing Normal University, on positive psychology and education, was attended by educators collectively responsible for almost 300 million students in primary and secondary schools.

Third, China is different from Western nations and especially the United States in terms of important cultural values with implications for the reception of positive psychology. China is not only a highly collectivist culture but also one that takes a very long time perspective on things. We often heard mention of the "seven generation" view, which means that the Chinese take into account the consequences of policies for at least seven future generations. Positive psychologists in the United States often focus on the individual and short-term benefits of attention to happiness and well-being. A rationale framed in these terms would miss the boat in China. Instead, emphasis should be on the benefits of positive psychology for the group and for future generations.

It has been said that there are very few differences among people. It has also been said that those differences that do exist are very important. My China visit underscored both of these truisms.

Seeing is believing. If you can, visit and experience a different part of the world, especially the people who live there. They will change you, and you in turn will change them.

We can only hope for the better in both cases.

Imagine ...