False Dichotomies In Positive Psychology and How Chinese Philosophy May Help

False Dichotomies In Positive Psychology and How Chinese Philosophy May Help

16 November 2021
Feature

In our everyday lives, we are presented with a multitude of choice. And from a young age, we learn to appreciate that very real trade-offs can exist when we choose an option over another. As a child, I have limited pocket money so if I choose to purchase Toy A rather than Toy B, I will have to forgo Toy B and the joy that comes with it, in exchange for the excitement that Toy A brings.

However, instead of asking ourselves “what are the trade-offs for each choice?”, it may be more useful for us to ask “what are the other options I haven’t considered”. Indeed, while trade-offs exist in many situations, there are also times when we are presented with a false dichotomy and have not yet rigorously considered other options that are available to us.

Such false dichotomies are evident in conversations around happiness and the good life. “Do I want to be an optimist OR a pessimist?”, “Should I focus on my strengths OR weaknesses?”, “Must I pursue happiness for others OR can I pursue happiness for myself?”. To address such questions, one can consider anchoring on key tenets in the Chinese tradition and applying the science of well-being to take pragmatic steps towards flourishing.

Do I want to be an optimist or a pessimist?

Ask someone if a glass is half-full or half-empty and you know that they are an optimist or a pessimist respectively. Optimists may see pessimists as emotional blackholes who do not appreciate what makes life worth living. Pessimists, on the other hand, may see optimists as not being in touch with reality (because somehow the negative seems to be more “real”) and not seeing the dangers associated with it. It is interesting to note that someone who says a glass is half-empty or half-full is  factually correct in both situations. The difference between optimists and pessimists is not factual accuracy, but what they choose to focus (on the existing water, or on the air on top of the water). In this case, do I want to be an optimist or pessimist?

Perhaps there is another option that lies beyond this false dichotomy. There is a Chinese saying “读万卷书,不如行万里路” - the literal translation is that there is more to gain from walking ten thousand miles than reading ten thousand books. Instead of being trapped in an endless academic debate about whether we should choose to be an optimist or pessimist, maybe we can take practical actions to enrich our lives and those around us. In a similar vein, we can choose to be a “meliorist” (Pawelski, 2018) instead of being forced to identify ourselves categorically as an optimist or pessimist.

“Melior” means “better” in Latin. Instead of seeing ourselves as mere observers of the world, trying to figure out whether the world is good or bad, why not see ourselves as agents of change, capable of making the world a better place through concrete actions. Beyond reading ten thousand books on optimism and pessimism, and the research around Positive Psychology interventions, why not start our ten-thousand-mile journey of applying these interventions to help ourselves and those around us flourish.

Should I focus on my Strengths or Weaknesses?

The question presupposes that if we choose one, then we necessarily neglect the other - we have to make a call whether to build what we’re good at and turn a blind eye to our weaknesses, or to focus on solving problems and forgo the development of our strengths. Such a dilemma arises when we believe we have limited time and attention and can only invest in one at the expense of the other.

However, there may be situations when this question presents a false dichotomy. These are the times when we can consider the Confucian concept “截长补短”, espoused by the philosopher Meng Zi. This refers to leveraging our strengths to overcome our weaknesses. In such cases, the application of a strengths-based approach can lead to the twin outcomes of enhancing our strengths and shoring up our weaknesses.

In her book, “The Strength Switch”, Lea Waters (2017) shared the story of Katie, who “is quirky and creative. She loves humanities, art and design but struggles with science and math. She was getting stressed about an upcoming chemistry test on the periodic table. (Her parents) suggested she try an approach to her exam study that used her strength of creativity. (They) got her art and craft boxes and she built models of the elements out of foam balls, pipe cleaners and fabric. Her exam prep looked like a piece of art that could go into a contemporary art gallery. During the exam, she could remember the elements because she could visualize the models she had made. For the first time in her life, she scored an A in science - thanks to her creative, unscientific mind”.

It would seem that people’s weaknesses are laid bare when they are faced with obstacles and disappointments in life. The stress induced by such adversity can be debilitating and result in significant loss of self-confidence and self-efficacy. Based on positive psychological research, we uncover that focusing on our strengths can help us to become more resilient, cover for our weaknesses, and help us tide through a challenging episode. Indeed, a strengths-based approach has also been attributed for better recovery post-illness (Peterson, Park & Seligman, 2005), increased resilience in the face of adversity (Shoshani & Sloane, 2016) and reduced depressive symptoms (Seligman et al., 2005).

Instead of seeing strengths and weaknesses as diametrically opposing concepts with resultant trade-offs, why don’t we consider when it might be appropriate to adopt a strengths-based approach to plug our gaps and strengthen ourselves in the process.

Must I Pursue Happiness for Others OR can I Pursue Happiness for Myself

This question is similar to the previous one, in that it assumes that with the limited time and attention available, we will have to choose one option over the other and accept the trade-offs. However, a key distinction is that the previous question relates to an intrapersonal choice, while the present one has an actual impact on those around us. Are the options presented mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive? Perhaps these choices are intricately linked and we are once again facing a false dichotomy.

The Analects of Confucius advocates the concept of 己立立人己达达人. This means that to thrive, succeed or advance ourselves, we should help others achieve the same. It encourages people to act in a way that will collectively benefit and uplift those around them. Applying this concept to the earlier question, the pursuit of one’s happiness will not be seen as competing with the pursuit of happiness for others. Rather, these two activities are perceived as mutually reinforcing. In this case, it is not a matter of choice between the two options presented - they simply should be undertaken in tandem.

Interestingly, empirical research has shown that by trying to make others happy (for instance,  performing acts of kindness), we can boost our well-being much more than trying to make ourselves happy. In one study, the placebo effect of simply being around others was also accounted for by assigning a control group tasked with socialisation (Titova & Sheldon, 2021). In another study, researchers found that narrowly pursuing happiness for oneself may sometimes backfire (Mauss, Tamir, Anderson & Savino, 2011). There appears to be a convergence between Confucian philosophy and Positive Psychology findings, refuting the false dichotomy laid out in the earlier question. Instead of seeing both choices as binary, we should choose to pursue both happiness for others and ourselves at the same time.

The Doctrine of the Mean (中庸之道 )

“The Golden Mean” is a concept in ethical philosophy attributed to Aristotle. It means that virtue lies in moderation, in achieving the desirable middle ground between two extremes. This idea is very similar to the Confucian tradition of practising the Doctrine of the Mean (中庸之道 ). It rejects the pursuit of anything in excess and emphasizes  actualising the mean or achieving moderation. Based on the doctrine, we should be highly self-aware of the context we are operating in, and demonstrate the appropriate behaviour depending on specific circumstances.

Here is a useful guide when confronted with potential false dichotomies. Picture the Asian grandmother seeing a Caucasian child running around (and crawling all over) by himself in a public space with the parents positioned some distance away. You can imagine her turning up her nose and saying, “these parents really don’t take care of their child, their irresponsible actions are jeopardising the safety of their child. What if he falls over and hurts himself? Or if he catches germs from the floor?” Some people will fully agree with this Asian grandmother, while others may feel that she is too sensitive or fearful for the child. So should we strap our children in their prams all the time or let them run around unsupervised and adopt a fully hands-off approach? Both options seem extreme and do not seem related to sound parenting.

The Doctrine of the Mean is useful in helping us understand what might be the right level of sensitivity for any given context. If we were next to a major highway with cars zipping by, letting the child roam freely without the right guardrails would be reckless and irresponsible. However, if we were in a designated play area for children which is well-maintained and self-contained, preventing the child from engaging in a bit of solo exploration and rough tumble may be seen as overly cautious and inhibitive. The key point is that we do not always have to choose between two extreme choices. The “right choice” is often a moderate one, and moderation is evaluated on the basis of a given context.

Conclusion

As positive psychology practitioners, the next time we are presented with a false dichotomy, we can consider how the wisdom of Chinese philosophers can be applied to guide us towards a more constructive, pragmatic and moderate approach.

References

Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 11(4), 807–815. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022010

Pawelski, J. O. (2018). William James and Well-Being: The Philosophy, Psychology and Culture of Human Flourishing. William James Studies, 14(1), 1–25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26493689

Peterson C., Park N. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Greater strengths of character and recovery from illness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1:1, 17-26. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1080/17439760500372739

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410

Shoshani, A., & Slone, M. (2016). The Resilience Function of Character Strengths in the Face of War and Protracted Conflict. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 2006. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.02006

Titova, L. & Sheldon, K. M. (2021). Happiness comes from trying to make others feel good, rather than oneself. The Journal of Positive Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2021.1897867

Waters, L. (2017). The Strength Switch, 63-64. Avery.

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