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UPDATED: December 5, 2014 NO. 49 DECEMBER 4, 2014
The Science of Happiness
A maverick Chinese psychologist and his U.S. colleague discuss how to make China happier
By Eric Daly

High hopes

Peng stated that he now feels as if he is "the right person in the right place at the right time." His hopes for his department, his field and his country are widescreen in nature. He was recently part of a delegation of six psychologists traveling to the United Kingdom to advise Prime Minister David Cameron. He stated that he was both the sole Asian psychologist and the youngest among the team, which he thought apt given that his orientation is positive psychology, an area in its relative infancy that Peng hopes to develop further in his time in China.

As opposed to traditional psychology, which examines pathology and mental illness, positive psychology focuses on well-being. Peng is attracted to the applicability of research findings in the field and takes a targeted scientific approach. "In some ways China has technologically pulled ahead of the United States. We can now, with great efficiency, get a very accurate snapshot of factors affecting psychological health in China, intervene and have a big impact. Big data can be used to measure the efficacy of these interventions. Intentions are good, but it's the results that matter."

Peng stated that he envisages Tsinghua becoming an international innovation center in positive psychology, using China's population-based advantages to engage in research on psychological health of a magnitude and sophistication unprecedented in history. In doing this, he foresees utilizing big data, virtual reality methodologies and digitized portable devices. He also describes smartphone applications that will provide motivation for workers, thus increasing their happiness and productivity.

Though he is impressed by China's "astounding" economic progress, Peng thinks that past a certain point, the happiness material wealth provides is limited. As he wryly remarked, "You have all of this money, I mean, and what are you going to do? Buy all of the Guccis?"

He thinks one essential prerequisite of happiness is a sense of higher meaning and purpose and personally takes inspiration from Taoism. He posits one philosophic view of life that may benefit China is the quest to make oneself and others happy, "to be good by doing good." He also believes that China should place more attention on the arts, literature and "beautiful things" in education and daily life. To this end, he is devising a system to evaluate creative potential in elementary schoolchildren, to aid them in achieving their full potential. "It may be grandiose, but one day, I hope China could be the center of a 'second Renaissance,'" Peng said with a smile.

As part of the Happy Cities initiative, Peng dispatched Beneke to talk to local governments across China about mental health. "I much admire the efforts of China to focus on increasing human happiness," Beneke stated. "I've consulted with officials from Jiangyin and Quzhou about ways they can apply scientific psychology to improve well-being. I've found them to be very intelligent and thoughtful, and eager to do what's best for the people."

A world of difference

Beneke is fascinated by the differences between how Asians and Western people view the world. At a talk for Chinese Tsinghua graduate students, he asked attendants to draw a house, a tree and a person. Afterwards, he enquired how many people drew the objects side by side forming a scene.

There was a chorus of titters and the whole room raised their hands. Beneke explained this illustrates how Chinese people tend to look at all elements holistically and therefore tend to attribute behavior to its surrounding circumstances. Americans, he claimed, typically draw the same items apart. This indicates how they view objects, including people, in isolation and independently of their environment, so Westerners accord behavior more to innate characteristics.

Rather than seeing such deeply rooted cultural differences as a cause of conflict, Peng emphasizes the complementarity they afford. He opined that the current strength of the United States is its ability to innovate and reconceptualize while China boasts an unparalleled ability to get things done and to successfully implement strategies. Peng said cooperation between the two represents a "natural alliance."

He then cited a little-known fact that during World War II, Chinese and American psychologists collaborated to devise personnel tests to screen paratrooper candidates in Kunming, southwest China's Yunnan Province, where many prestigious Chinese universities had been relocated at the time. Peng said Tsinghua University intends to host a 70th anniversary celebration recognizing U.S. psychology's wartime efforts to help China in September next year and is contacting the descendants of those involved.

Describing his goals, Peng invoked the surfers of his adopted California, an image matching his Taoist leanings. "I don't want to push or chase the wave. I want to ride the wave of China's opening up and progress," he said. He also jokingly referenced the well-known Chinese fable about a "foolish old man" who moved mountains. Going on his past record, however, it's not inconceivable that he may do just that.

Email us at: yanwei@bjreview.com

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