Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Less Traveled Road to Happiness

I am moved and overwhelmed by all the responses I have received since I shared the harrowing story of my struggles with pain. I’m sorry that I don’t have the time and energy to respond to each one who took time to write me, but I want to express my heart-felt gratitude to all those who shared with me what they have gone through.

Together, their stories make a far more compelling case for “dark happiness” and “tragic optimism” than my personal experience. I wish I could have all the responses edited and compiled to benefit more people.

To all those who are concerned about my health, I am pleased to report that I am on the mend. Each day, I am grateful that I am finally freed from the grave stomach pain, even though I am still struggling with health issues.

The joy of rejoining the land of the living

Last Friday evening, I suggested to my wife that we should enjoy a night out after what we had gone through in recent weeks. She decided on an Italian restaurant.

The aroma from the grill already triggered my salivation even before we entered the canopied restaurant door – reflecting a good omen that my appetite had returned!

After we were seated, I began to look around. Even though the decor was upscale and subdued, there was an upbeat buzz and a happy family atmosphere about the place.

On the left across from our table, a pink-cheeked little boy (about 3 years old) was with his mother; he used his hand to fill his mouth with French fries with voracity and concentration. My eyes were affixed on this boy with curly hair. I said to myself: Here is a picture of pure happiness – immediate, simple, innocent, and carefree, unadulterated by awareness of all the evils in this world.

On the right across from our table, there were two elderly couples, well-dressed and genteel; they were smiling and apparently having a good time together. A well known Chinese verse sprang to mind: “The sunset is beautiful beyond compare, but alas the evening is nigh!”

Right next to our table was a family of five, with three teen-aged children; they often burst out laughing as they passed around the pictures they had taken, probably during their vacation. This happy family immediately brought back many memories of my own family dinners in different restaurants.

Oh the sweet-sorrow of childhood memories! Both of my parents were long dead. My oldest brother passed away just a few months ago. My second older brother is dying of cancer. The remaining members of my family have been scattered to the four corners of the world. The good times of family dinners only live on in memory.

The waitress, a cheerful and energetic young lady, jolted me back to the present, as she placed a platter of chicken salad before me. It was a delightful dinner; everything was so delicious and fresh.

For me, eating is more than a culinary pleasure, more than a life-sustaining activity, and more than a family-bonding event. It has become an act of celebration and worship after so many weeks without a proper meal. What a privilege to be able to eat! Food symbolizes all the sacrifices others have made and the blessings I have received!

At the restaurant, I felt like reaching out to all the people sitting around me, and telling them how much I enjoy their company. I curbed my humanistic urge only because I did not want to embarrass my wife, who is, unlike me, always very proper especially in social settings.

All the time we were in the restaurant, I could not help but thinking: How wonderful it would be for the human family to sit around a large dinner table and celebrate life together. Beneath the different identity labels, deep down we are all human beings, sharing the same hopes and fears.

It is truly depressing that there are still so many barriers separating people on the basis of race, religion or ideology!

After dinner, I felt very tired from all the noise; so we decided to call it a night. On the way home, I asked myself sub-vocally: Is fine dining a symbol of the good life or a metaphor for a transitory respite from the noxious world in which we live? Which perspective represents the reality?

The above musing surprises even myself! Perhaps, my mental state indicates that while I enjoy being back to the land of the living, I am still not out of the twilight zone yet. This vantage point gives me a unique perspective on what constitutes happiness and the good life.

Here is my latest thinking on this topic. Once again, I would appreciate critical feedback, especially from happiness researchers.

Living vitally in a noxious world

Recently, I am troubled by the ubiquitous presence of the noxious world, which has affected so many of my friends.

When it rains, it pours. Problems tend to occur in bundles, as in the case of Job in the Old Testament. Just within last week, I received so many bad news from people I know well; here are just a few examples:

A brilliant research career coming to an end

Yesterday I received an email from a friend who had just gone through chemotherapy for the second time. He referred to it as “a very hard journey.” To make things worse, his wife has just been diagnosed with cancer.

Less then two years ago, he was the paragon of vitality and optimism, crisscrossing the globe and thriving on giving invited lectures and keynote addresses. He has reached the zenith of his career, having collected many honors and awards. He is widely cited and recognized as the authority in his field. But now, he is going through physical and psychic pain and facing an uncertain future. He is frustrated with losing the grip on his life, especially in keeping up with research and publication.

I immediately wrote him back, sharing with him my own struggle with cancer, validating his lasting impact on neuroscience, and offering to pray for him. As a strong empiricist who only believes that the positivist methodology is the best solution for all problems, how would he react to my prayer support?

I have been wrestling with this question for some time: Where do people find comfort and hope in the darkest hour of their lives, if they believe that material is the only thing that matters, and God is nothing more than a convenient social construction? Could they find ultimate meaning and unwavering faith on their death-beds without believing in a supernatural and transcendental reality?

A young mother diagnosed with breast cancer

Just a few minutes ago, another friend sent me an update of the medical status of his wife who was diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks ago: “The condition is worse than we had hoped, but not as bad as we had feared, so we're experiencing a mix of relief, hope, and trepidation as we look at a difficult road ahead. The bottom line is that the cancer is an invasive type, is spreading within the breast, and is present in the lymph nodes under her arm and possibly in those on the other side of her breast. It is estimated to be a late stage 2 or a stage 3 cancer.”
This news made me feel very sad and helpless. All I could offer them is my prayers and moral support.

Many years ago my research assistant Betty died of breast cancer. Two days before she died, I visited her in the hospital. A beautiful woman was reduced to a 70-lb skinny bald-headed child in a fetal position! That image still haunts me whenever I hear about breast-cancer.

I still remember what Betty said to me after radical mastectomy: “There are two kinds of people in this world: the normal people and the cancer patients. Normal people do not understand what we cancer patients are going through.”

Now, I fully understand what she meant – she was talking about the parallel universe! Yes, cancer changes people in a fundamental way. For those living in the light of terminal cancer, their ultimate concerns and life goals are very different from those who are still preoccupied with personal happiness and career success.

Struck by lightning from a sunny sky

Two days ago, my son’s future father-in-law underwent an 8-hour surgery to remove two cancerous tumors from his brain. Half of his body remained paralyzed, and the prognosis was not good.

Less than two weeks prior, the whole family was still caught up in the excitement of preparing for the forthcoming wedding of their only daughter to my son. Suddenly, as if struck by a thunderbolt on a bright and sunny day, he became paralyzed and was rushed to the hospital. He is only 61 years young, a strong and healthy mountain climer! Brain scan revealed two tumors. Surgery confirmed that the tumors were cancerous.

No one is immune from suffering, not even innocent children. How could we reach out to those plunged into the noxious world without any warning? How could we reduce their pain and uplift their spirit?

My son said that the situation was very serious and the only hope that sustained them was their faith in Jesus.

Who can understand the power and mystery of faith? People can rationalize faith in cognitive and scientific terms. They can explain away all miracles. But for those going through hell, as I once did, the only thing that matters is faith.

Too young to die

In the first lecture of my Death and Dying Course way back in January, I asked my students a pointed question: “If you were told by the doctors that you have an inoperable cancer and you only have one year to live, how would you live your life? Would you live differently?”

Little did I know that one young woman in my class was actually facing this very challenge!

Yesterday, when I started reading her class project, I was shocked to discover that throughout the semester, she was dying of brain cancer. Her project is entitled: Requiem: A search for meaning. It was a collection of her journal entries, poems, prayers, pictures and other neat creative expressions. The subtitle of her project: “This is my story about the desperate search to hold on to life while preparing for the next.”

On her first journal entry dated May 12, 2007, she wrote: “I went in to the doctors today and they had my test results. They figured out why I have such bad headaches and it is because I have a tumor pressing on my brain. The doctors say it is inoperable… They’ve told me that I only have a year max to live my life, but that in the final few months, it will get worse and I’ll start feeling worse. How can I feel worse than how I am feeling now?”

Now is April 12, 2008. She is only 22 years old! All through the semester, she has been involved in volley ball, drama, and choir, in addition to her full course load. In her second journal entry dated May 16, 2007, she wrote: “I’m going to live everyday to the fullest. I’m going to seek joy in everything that I do and I’m going to be happy and positive! I’m going to be as normal as possible.”

Of course, it has not been easy trying to be happy and positive in a noxious world of chronic suffering and impending death. Her struggle is nothing short of being heroic. I keep on returning to her journal, and trying to feel her pain as she struggles between yearning for love and the fear of breaking her lover’s heart; between longing for her dreams to be fulfilled and realizing the hopelessness of the situation.

Towards the end, she wrote: “I’m running out of time to live, running out of love to give, and running out of life within. God help me!” What has kept her going throughout her suffering is God’s promise, framed in the form of a letter to her from her Heavenly Father:

“I didn’t promise you days without pain, laugher without sorrow, sun without rain, but I did promise you strength for the day, comfort for the tears and light for the way. Your journey is not over yet, it’s only beginning! So stay strong, stay the course and find joy in what I offer you each and every day.”

At the end of her project, she wrote a letter to all her beloved friends:

“Let me take this time to apologize to you for not telling you about my illness. I only wanted to protect you all from the sadness I knew you would each face had I told you ahead of time of my departure.

I want to thank you for your friendship and that even though I am no longer a part of this world; will never forget all that you were to me.

If I have but one prayer for you, it is that you remember me in all that you do and that my life was a reflection of Jesus. Please do not shed tears over my death, but remain joyous in the knowledge that one journey has ended and another has begun for me.

I have finally returned home and I eagerly await your return as well, but until then, I shall leave you with a few words to ponder:

"All stories, even the ones we love, must eventually come to an end, and when they do, it’s only an opportunity for another to begin.”

My tears well up as I ponder her words. She has discovered the less traveled road to happiness in the light of her suffering and death.

Rick Warren’s noxious world

On Sunday, when my heart was heavy with all the bad news, the pastor preached on suffering. He quoted extensively from Rick Warren ‘s interview with Paul Bradshaw:

“This past year has been the greatest year of my life but also the toughest, with my wife, Kay, getting cancer. I used to think that life was hills and valleys - you go through a dark time, then you got to the mountaintop, back and forth. I don't believe that anymore. Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it's kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life. No matter how good things are in your life, there is always something bad that needs to be worked on.

We discovered quickly that in spite of the prayers of hundreds of thousands of people, God was not going to heal Kay or make it easy for her. It has been very difficult for her, and yet God has strengthened her character, given her a ministry of helping other people, given her a testimony, drawn her closer to Him and to people...You have to learn to deal with both the good and the bad of life.”

Rick Warren is the founder of a mega church and a best-selling author. His Purpose-Driven Life has sold more than 15 million copies. He too has come to the conclusion that one cannot wish away or pray away the bad things in life, and that the noxious world is simply part of life.

Towards a balanced model of positive psychology

The above cases have made it abundantly clear one cannot exclusively focus on positive traits, positive experiences and positive affects. No matter how hard we try to avoid any reference to negativity, we cannot avoid it. No matter how hard we try to think positive, the noxious world can totally disrupt our normal lives in a blink of an eye.

I never thought about getting cancer, but I did. In all the stories I have just reported, none of them expected cancer, but cancer happened to them anyway. There are macro and micro forces that can severely limit personal agency and freedom of choice. Some people are genetically predisposed to cancer. Others are born and raised in a war-torn area, where death lurks at every corner. Even in the best of possible worlds, there are limitations to positive thinking, because at the end it will not spare people from suffering and death.

Accepting the grim reality

A balanced model of positive psychology accepts the dark sides of human existence and embraces the existential givens as an inherent part of life. It makes you feel good to focus on the positive, but it makes you resilient to also pay attention to the negative.

Suffering is real and it is not something in your mind -- it ravages your body and devastates your world as you know it. It leaves deep, gashing wounds on your body and your mind. And death is real – it will terminate your physical life, no matter how hard you try to keep physically and mentally fit.

Instead of focusing on positive traits, positive experiences and positive affects, the balanced model of positive psychology, the balanced model aims to make lives better for all people regardless of their circumstances. The balanced model is for the disenfranchised as much as it is for the privileged; for the noxious world as much as it is for the normal world.

While practicing a balanced model, one is grounded in reality and at the same time headed toward an ideal. One may never arrive at the preferred destination, but must feel happy for not surrendering to fate. It is in the midst of suffering that one discovers the less traveled road to happiness.

A different kind of happiness

The kind of happiness one finds in the noxious world is qualitatively and quantitative different from what people generally experience in the normal world.

It is difficult to understand dark happiness without personally experiencing it. It is like a lone star in a dark sky, a little wild flower beside a pile of wreckage, or a little silent stream in a desert.

But it is always there for those who dare to choose the narrow and rocky road; it is always there for those whose minds have been enlightened. Here are a few descriptors of dark happiness:

  1. It is contemplative and deep rather than energetic and upbeat.
  2. It is spiritual and compassionate rather than materialistic and competitive.
  3. It is easily contented with any reduction of pain or a return to some resemblance of normal life.
  4. It is primarily interested in maintaining a sense of equanimity no matter what happens.
  5. It seeks to wrestle some meaning from life in order to make suffering more bearable.
  6. It is rooted in faith, which is based on both beliefs and lived experiences.
  7. It is courageous and it confronts life’s adversities head-on.
  8. It is persistent and it never gives up on life.
  9. It expands your mind to transcendental and mystical realms.
  10. It approaches life with open hands and generous hearts.
  11. It hopes for the best but prepares for the worst.
  12. It says “yes” to life, even when life stinks.
  13. It is a balancing act between hope and despair, happiness and sorrow.
  14. It is a special gift in your desperation.
  15. It is resting in grace when everything else has failed you.
  16. It is singing praises while tears trickle down your cheeks.
  17. It is the feeling of being blessed while in the depth of mourning.

Is the above a description of my own emotional state, or is it a general portrait of dark happiness? I don’t know and would love to find out from others on the less traveled road.

But one thing I know for sure – no matter how unhappy or dissatisfied I am with the world condition or with my own life situation, there is always a special music in my heart – all is well with my soul, as long as I keep the faith.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

To Hell and Back and What I Have Learned Anout Happiness

About three weeks ago, I experienced an unexpected setback in my recovery from radical prostatectomy -- my body reacted very badly to a medication (Detrol-LA). This drug was prescribed by my urologist to slow down my overactive bladder after the surgery, but it shut down not only my bladder activities but also all my bowel functions, resulting in excruciating stomach pain, which was extended to my back muscles and my chest. I frequently broke out in cold sweat and my vomiting reflex took over, but nothing came out.

For several days, I was writhing in pain and could not find a single spot or position that could grant me temporary relief. My world was turned into a torture chamber, a hell hole. I was reduced to a bundle of exposed raw nerves. I clinched my teeth and tightened my muscles, bracing for the endless waves of brutal assault on my body and mind. Time crawled ever so slowly. Pain was what I breathed in and breathed out. It consumed all my energy and all my inner reserve.

During those days and nights of misery, nothing mattered anymore except for instant relief from the wrenching pain, which was killing me slowly. It was death by a thousand cuts! I would probably would have said anything and done anything just to find relief from the unrelenting torture. How much pain can one endure before losing one’s mind?

All my scientific knowledge about what contributes to happiness and well-being faded into a distant background. All the projects that made my life worth living also evaporated into thin air. What occupied my entire conscious mind was how to find relief from pain. Pain trumps happiness and meaning any time, until we find a way to confront and transcend it! Other than groaning and mourning, all I could utter was: Help, Help! Have mercy, Jesus! Please come, come quickly to rescue me from this ordeal! Have compassion, Buddha! Show me how to be free from pain through mindful meditation!

I used to give positive psychology workshops to various health professionals on how to help restore hope, meaning and happiness to patients suffering from severe disabilities, chronic conditions and terminal illnesses. When I had to practice what I preached, it became a different story. It was a real challenging task to maintain equanimity and a sense of coherence while in the grip of excruciating pain.

This article is a brief account of my journey through hell and my own reflection on what happiness means when one is in the crucible of suffering. The writing did not come easy – it was written by fits and starts on 3M Post-It notes, whenever I could muster some strength. On Easter Sunday (three days ago), I finally felt strong enough to string together a big pile of Post-It notes into an article.

Looking back, every sentence was a product of tears and blood. I hope that people would not dismiss this article offhand, simply because it sounds foreign and disquieting and it challenges some of our common assumptions about happiness.

It would mean so much to me if you would care to give me some feedback. I do hope that my story would resonate with other people who have gone through a very trying time.

Life in the emergency room

After three days of intense suffering, my wife took me to see our family physician. He examined my bloated stomach and decided to send me to the emergency room of a nearby hospital right away.

Life in ER was a world by itself. While I was lying on a bed in the hallway waiting for a room, I saw one severely burnt patient being wheeled in by the ambulance staff. A nurse helped a disoriented and frail Chinese elderly who had got out of his room. An anxious young couple came in with a sick baby – within half an hour, I heard the baby scream bloody murder as if some one was operating on the little thing without anesthesia. In one room close to me, an elderly big fellow repeatedly cried out for help: “Is there any nurse or doctor? Can someone help me? I can’t take it anymore. I want to die!” His pleading for help went on for many hours. In another room opposite to my bed, another patient whispered on and off: “Water, water, can someone give me water!”

When they finally found a room for me, I was re-cathetered (a very unpleasant experience) and re-connected with IV. The doctor did all kinds of medical test on me; some of the procedures were very intrusive and painful. His conclusion: my medication had put my intestine to sleep and only morphine could reduce my pain, but that would make my intestine sleep even longer.

I spent two days and one night in the ER. At night, the activities slowed down considerably except for the occasional victims of accidents. I was still struggling with my pain; my wife (who stayed with me all the time) went to the nursing station and asked for a sleeping pill; the male nurse assigned to my room said, “I’ll see what I can bargain for you.” At long last, a reluctant doctor prescribed a small pill of sedative, which did not help very much. I was awake most of the night and witnessed a remarkable scene.

The nursing staff on the night shift was having a great time out there.

In fact, they were having a party, with a lot of laughter and bantering. Yes, they were having good conversations about their positive life experiences, such as love life, college education, career aspirations, and all the things that make people happy.

Since there was no “call button” in emergency rooms, the only way one could get help was to actually go to the nursing station and ask for it. The nurses or nursing aids did not visit your room, nor could they hear you cry for help. If my wife did not stay with me and take care of all my needs, I would be in deeper trouble.

In the midst of the cacophony of groaning and moaning, I found the laughter and frolicking in the nursing station jarring to my ears. How could they turn a deaf ear to patients’ persistent cry for help? What had happened to their humanistic instinct?

At the same time, I questioned the reason for my own resentment to other people’s merriment. Was it because I was just a sick old man on the outside, looking into the “happiness club”? Was it because I felt excluded and marginalized (a common sentiment among minority people)? Or, was it because of my realization that “gone are the days when my heart was young and gay?” (Stephen Foster’s Old Black Joe).

I also tried to understand the nurses’ perspective. I could see why they needed to create a little world of their own and keep the disturbing aspects of human existence out of their consciousness. Who does not prefer laughter to sounds of human misery? Who does not prefer a sunny day to the ominous darkening sky? It seems natural for the nurses to resort to defense mechanisms to protect them from the terror of suffering and death, which would remind them of their own mortality.

Death is indeed a kill-joy. It questions the very value of our single-minded pursuit of happiness and success. Death inevitably casts a pall over all festivities and celebrations, and all the human aspirations for success and greatness.

Two different worlds

As I pondered the stark contrast between the nurses and the patients, the idea of a parallel universe suddenly hit me. It was a moment of epiphany. I was awakened to the fact that on this planet earth, in the same space-time continuum, there are actually two very different worlds with very different life experiences and perspectives: the normal world and the noxious world.

The normal world

This is the world where:

  1. People expect positive things to happen and dismiss the occasional negative outcomes as a temporary and unfortunate setback
  2. People are confident about their freedom and efficacy to exercise control over their own lives
  3. People enjoy relatively good health and take basic biological functions for granted
  4. People work hard for a better future, because they believe that the American dream of success and happiness is still within reach
  5. People believe that the world is benign with plenty of life opportunities
  6. People pursue more happiness, lasting happiness and optimal happiness
  7. Happiness is based on positive experiences, positive traits, and positive affects
  8. The pursuit of happiness is closely linked to ever rising expectations of achieving greater personal success, bigger return on investment, better consumer goods, and more recognition
  9. Happiness is considered the norm and suffering as an unwelcome intrusion
  10. The happy people jealously guard their happiness through both unconscious and intentional defense mechanisms to keep suffering and death away from their consciousness
  11. The science of happiness is primarily based on studying samples from the normal world.

People who enjoy peace and prosperity in liberal democracies are familiar with the normal world – it is the preferred way of life and it is a good life. Unfortunately, all good things will come to an end, just as surely as life moves inevitably towards death. There are seasons of life as surely as there are reversals of fortune. When there is a sharp down turn in finances, relationships or health, one may suddenly find oneself in an unpleasant territory – the “noxious world”. My own life was drastically changed after radical prostatectomy because of a very aggressive type of prostate cancer.

The “noxious world”

It is a very different world, a world we would rather ignore. It is a world of extremely trying situations and costly sacrifices. It is the boundary country between the dead and the living. It is a shadowy land with constant overcast. It is a world where most days are bad days. There is prevailing belief in traditional Chinese culture that 9 out 10 events in life are contrary to our wishes (Wong, in press a).

The Chinese mindset also believes that this is a hostile world, over which individuals have little control. The long Chinese history is replete with ruthless tyrants who committed brutalities against innocent citizens. European and American histories are no less bloody.

Evil has always been part of human existence and it continues to have a way of ruining people’s life in all sectors of the human society. Evil in all its varieties pose a challenge to positive psychologists, who need to grapple with the dark side of human nature (Baumeister, 1996; Peck, 1983).

Who can plumb the cesspool of evil? Who can fathom the depth of human miseries? Who can penetrate the heart of darkness? Who can rationalize the atrocities committed against fellow human beings? Why can’t we stop the ongoing holocaust and genocide in various parts of the world? From the bowel of the earth arises a constant stream, a scream of agony and anger. Cries of victims circle the globe and reach the highest space, but does any one listen?

We cannot wish the noxious world away. Nor can we create a utopia through science. The noxious world will not go away as long as we are locked in our creaturely bodies, driven by insatiable desires, and threatened by the capricious nature which often unleashes its deadly destructive power. The tragic triad – human physicality, desire and nature – has the power to make life miserable, unless we find a way to transcend and transform inescapable suffering and death.

But this is also a world of heroism and extreme self-sacrifice. Who can comprehend the paradox of Good Friday? What compelled Christ to die on the cruel cross so that multitudes might find hope and redemption? Who can understand the logic that one person should endure hell so that others may find heaven? Who can scale the pinnacles of human spirit, when individuals, compelled by their conscience and vision, willingly sacrifice all they have, including their own lives, to fight against evil so that ordinary people can live with freedom and dignity?

Suffering and death

In spite of our pre-occupation with happiness, life in this world remains a sad story. How can it be otherwise? All our efforts invested in learning, growing and achieving are doomed to inevitable decline and death. All our attempts to cling to the success and happiness we have already achieved are doomed to failure, because in old age, life is a series of losses.

Life is a journey with a beginning and an end. All good things must come to an end. Even the happiest and most successful lives will come to the same end as the most miserable lives. The irony is that the more intensely we pursue happiness, the more fearful we will be about losing what we hold dear.

Earnest Becker (1973) has pointed out that our hunger for happiness actually awakens our death anxiety and our unconscious defenses against death anxiety may prevent us from living fully and vitally. Is that the reason why so many positive psychologists shy away from the topic of suffering and death?

The reality is that the “noxious world” may be more common than we care to admit. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is Dukkha, which may be roughly translated as life is full of suffering and dissatisfaction. This profound truth reveals that throughout life, people suffer from various kinds of troubles, ranging from physical pain to psychological distress, from losing what they value most to the disillusion that happiness does not last. We are all acquainted with both external and internal sources of troubles. It is sad but true that often bad is stronger than good (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer & Vohs, 2001).

For all human beings, the inescapable existential givens – sickness, aging, death, aloneness, meaninglessness – cast a long, dark shadow over all our activities, even when the sky is shining bright. The challenge is how to live fully with constant awareness of the noxious world of suffering and death

In final analysis, those who are able to make it to the end with their integrity intact can find some comfort that they have fought a good fight and they have run the race with honor. Just to complete a long and difficult obstacle-course is indeed a heroic achievement by itself.

Profiles of the suffering people

Interestingly, the noxious world is populated by a wide spectrum of individuals sharing a common fate – suffering.

  1. They are the hidden dark belly of a prosperous nation
  2. They are the common citizens living in dictatorial police states
  3. They are victims of abuse, violence and military conflicts
  4. They are innocent people languishing in cruel prisons,
  5. They are victims of Katrina, Tsunami and other natural disasters
  6. They are the chronically disabled, the frail elderly and the terminally ill
  7. They are the families grieving the loss of a loved one
  8. They are the children suffering from cancer and AIDS
  9. They are the soldiers maimed and killed in a foreign land
  10. They are the broken hearted pierced by a thousand arrows
  11. They are the losers, destined by fate and circumstances, to live with broken dreams
  12. They are the oppressed, persecuted, exiled, ostracized, and targeted for personal destruction for no other reasons than not belonging to the right group
  13. They live in destitute poverty and constant privation
  14. They are the shut-ins and the lonely souls living alone.
  15. They are in countries with a tyrannical system, in which they have to find a way to stay alive
  16. They live in refugee camps or labor camps
  17. They work in sweatshops or slavery
  18. They live in slums and skid row
  19. They live in golden cages without meaning and love
  20. They hit the rock-bottom, knowing that the next step is death unless their lives are turned around
  21. They live from rehab to rehab
  22. They are the heroes who sacrifice everything to make this a better and safer world for others
  23. They are the misfits who cannot make a living because of their unwillingness to compromise their principles and ideals
  24. They suffer costly consequences for doing what is right in a morally ambiguous world

We simply cannot ignore or dismiss the long litany of painful life experiences. History bears witnesses to the scope and depth of human tragedies. Every day the mass media bombards us with bad news about suffering. Tons of statistics are available on most of the sufferers listed above. They number in hundreds of millions and they are a growing majority, but they remain largely invisible and voiceless.

This is no country for sufferers. They are the faceless and invisible pariahs. They are relegated to the realm of negative psychology. They are not even represented by the lowest scores on the thousands of happiness studies. They are three standard deviations away from the mean scores. The scientific findings based on samples from the normal world may not be generalizable to people in the noxious world.

The co-existence of two different worlds

Different as they are, the two worlds actually co-exist as day and night. They even intermingle as wheat and tare -- one may enjoy a blessed married life, but work in a toxic organization. Birth and death can happen in the same family on the same day. Painful memories and happy ones are locked inside the same brain.

The truth is that the sufferers are all of us. We move back and forth between the two worlds, and we move through the two worlds in different stages of life.

As the baby boomers age, many of them will eventually join the “noxious world” of suffering, life-threatening illness and death. The noxious world is an equalizer, where all the past achievements and happy memories retreat into the background and all people can think of is how to find relief from pain and how to regain some sense of hope in the face of suffering and death.

A different kind of happiness

On really bad days – which will come to all of us sooner or later – we need something higher and something deeper to get us through; we need a different kind of happiness in extremely trying circumstances.

Happiness in the noxious world is predicated on the human capacity to transcend and transform negative experiences through meaning and faith (Wong, 2008a). The greatest achievement of humanity is its ability to experience the invisible spiritual reality and discover shining stars in the darkest night of the soul (Wong, 2008b)

We become nobler, purer, kinder and more generous, when we dig deep into our innermost being and reach out to the highest heaven, while struggling to survive unimaginable terror and torment. For suffering beings (Homo Patients), happiness has a deeper meaning than positive affect, life satisfaction or subjective well being.

For the sufferers, happiness primarily means:

  1. Relief from suffering
  2. Tragic optimism
  3. Faith in God or Higher Power
  4. Compassion and kindness
  5. Enlightenment and wisdom
  6. Meaning and purpose

Relief from suffering

Relief is the dominant theme. It is similar to negative reinforcement or the contrast effect according to Richard Solomon’s opponent-process theory of emotion. It is also related to liberation theology and the purification effect of suffering.

  1. Relief from suffering, terror, anxiety, lingering illness and the endless struggle
  2. Release through crying and screaming from pent up emotions of pain and grief
  3. Liberation from injustice, discrimination and oppression
  4. Cleansing from all the toxins in my body and mind (purification through suffering)

Tragic optimism in the throes of suffering

It is hope against all odds; it is affirming the positive in extremely negative circumstances (Frankl, 1984; Wong, 2008b)

  1. Courage to accept and endure the seriousness of my condition
  2. Assurance that help is on the way
  3. Expectation that life can be made better
  4. The hope of restoration of some semblance of normalcy
  5. The resolve to hang on to the hope that I’ll survive this ordeal and become a better person
  6. Celebration of every baby steps of progress

Faith in God or Higher Power

Faith is more than cognitive reframing. It opens the door to the invisible transcendental reality and allows us to access spiritual resources. The benefits of religious faith for different cultures have been well documented (Wong and Wong, 2007).

  1. Faith that God is my Refuge and Rescuer, no matter how bad the situation
  2. Belief in redemption and deliverance
  3. A sense of oneness with God who comforts me
  4. Drawing strength from God or Higher Power
  5. Belief that God’s grace will be sufficient
  6. Transformation through spiritual encounters
  7. Sacred moments of experiencing a deeper spiritual reality

What kept me going was the belief that Jesus would see me through. I kept on saying to myself: “Yes he can, yes he can; he will come to my rescue.” Faith is my hope; faith is my comfort.

Compassion and kindness

This is the feeling of being part of a fellowship of suffering bonded by compassion. It is deeper than social support. Compassionate care is an integral part of holistic medicine and hospice care (Wong, 2005, Wong, in press b).

  1. Appreciation of the kindness and compassion shown by others
  2. Gratitude to the loved ones who do everything possible to make suffering bearable
  3. Satisfaction of bringing help and comfort to fellow-sufferers
  4. Feelings of solidarity and compassion towards all who suffer

Enlightenment and wisdom

It is informed by both Eastern religions (Buddhism, Taoism) and Christianity. It is related to the wisdom traditions from East and West.

  1. Contentment that the situation could have been worse
  2. The wisdom of letting go of what cannot be kept
  3. The wisdom of accepting what cannot be changed
  4. Feelings of equanimity that worst would be death, which is inevitable anyway
  5. Knowing that life is transient and that all suffering will pass away
  6. Knowing that as long as I still have life, I need to be mindful of every passing moment

Meaning and purpose of suffering

It is based on Frankl’s (1984) logotherapy and Wong’s meaning-centered counselling (Wong, 2008c).

  1. An abiding sense of meaning and purpose that makes my suffering bearable
  2. The confidence that I will not suffer in vain and that my message of hope and happiness to suffering people will find acceptance somewhere in the world
  3. The satisfaction that I may be broken, but I am not defeated
  4. I will take a defiant stance towards whatever suffering I may have to endure
  5. I am glad that I am worthy of suffering for others – that my experience of hell can open a door to heaven for people I don’t even know

The above threads of thoughts and feelings once sustained Viktor Frankl in Nazi death camps; they also sustained me in my journey to hell.

For want of a better term, the kind of happiness I have just described may be called dark-happiness, because it can only be found in the dark night of the soul. It is rejoicing in the midst of suffering. It is the process of becoming our best when we are in the worst possible situations. Such dark-happiness may be best described in metaphors. It is a tapestry of dark colors with a few bright threads. It is the rainbow after a storm, or silver lining of a dark cloud. It is the rejoicing after surviving a terrible trauma. It is the sweet aftertaste of eating something bitter. One has to feel bad before one can feel good, and one has to let go before one can receive the blessings.

Happiness through suffering can also be described as chaironic happiness, because it is an unexpected gift from suffering – a gift of new insight and an inner peace beyond understanding. It is something spiritual and transcendental, independent of the negative experiences.

There is plenty of empirical evidence supporting the above six ingredients of dark-happiness. At this point, I don’t have the strength to marshal all the empirical findings about the beneficial effects of these six factors on well-being in noxious situations.

The ultimate test of positive psychology

When I was writing in pain, I was definitely not in a mood for anything jovial. I did not want to hear a cheerful song or a merry tune. I would rather listen to the good old hymns about suffering and redemption, the haunting melancholy songs of Leonard Cohen, or the Negro Spirituals in cotton fields.

Therefore, I can understand why people who are flying high on wings of success and happiness are likely to be turned off by my soulful blues of sorrow and pain.

But the ultimate test of positive psychology is whether it is relevant and efficacious for the multitudes in extreme and noxious situations. This reminds me of Skinner and his students.

In order to demonstrate that positive reinforcement is a universally valid scientific principle, Skinner and his students were able to demonstrate that reinforcement worked with severely retarded people as well as psychotic patients locked up in the back wards of psychiatric hospitals.

The same test is needed for positive psychology. I hope that happiness researchers would join me in studying the nature of dark-happiness.

Meanwhile, research on character strengths (Peterson and Seligman, 2008; Petersen, Park, & Seligman, 2006) represent a promising avenue to expand positive psychology to noxious situations, because courage and transcendence are related to the six factors I mentioned earlier, which tend to grow best in the crucible of suffering.

Now, my back and my neck are aching from keyboarding. Therefore, I must stop right now. However, I am glad that I have finally told the story about what I have gone through in the past three weeks.

In a sense, I am grateful for the painful journey into hell. At least, I can say that I have directly experienced dark-happiness and discovered that it is indeed a gift from suffering.


Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York, NY: Free Press.

Frankl, V. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York, NY: Pocket Books.

Petersen, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Petersen, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Great strengths of character and recovery from illness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 17-26.

Baumeister, R.F. (1997). Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman.

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.

Peck, M. S. (1983). People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Wong, P. T. P. (2005). Compassionate and spiritual care: A vision of positive holistic medicine. In S. Kwan (Ed.), The consultation on holistic health care for the medical, religious, and academic
professionals in Hong Kong
. Hong Kong: Commercial Press.

Wong, P. T. P. (2008a). Meaning management theory and death acceptance. In A. Tomer, E.Grafton, & P. T. P. Wong (Eds.), Death attitudes: Existential & spiritual issues. (pp. 65-87) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wong, P. T. P. (2008b). Viktor Frankl: Prophet of hope for the 21st century. In A. Batthyany & J. Levinson (Eds.), Anthology of Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen Inc.

Wong, P. T. P. (2008c). A brief manual of meaning-centered counselling and narrative therapy. Toronto: Meaning-Centered Counselling Institute, Inc.

Wong, P. T. P. (in press, a). Chinese positive psychology. In S. Lopez
Encyclopedia of positive psychology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Wong, P. T. P. (in press, b). Compassion: The hospice movement. In G. T. Kurian (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Wong, P. T. P., & Wong, L. C. J. (Eds.). (2006). Handbook of
Multicultural perspectives on stress and coping
. New York: Springer.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Reasons for living and the "rock bottom" strengths for survival

December 31, 2007

I have difficulty saying “Happy New Year”

It is difficult to celebrate the New Year and get into a festival mood, when you are going through a fiery trial. Right at this very moment, millions are struggling desperately in desperate situations. Here are some scenarios that immediately come to mind:

· The intrusive surgery and toxic chemo-therapy seem more difficult to endure than the deadly cancer. The pain and the horrible nauseating feeling would not go away.

· Working on 18-shifts in sweat shops, they constantly fight off the pull to fall asleep so that they would not get fired or punished. The live like slaves without rights and freedom seven days a week, but they stay on because they need the job to support their starving families back home.

· Nature disaster has claimed all their family members. With nothing left, no one left, and no energy left, they are down but not out – they are still trying incredibly hard to get back on their feet.

· They have been languishing in prison for years simply for their political views or religious beliefs. They are acquainted with hunger, torture, abuse and all kinds of atrocities, but their conscience would not allow them to sign a false confession and betray their friends in order to get out of jail.

· They have been without food and water for days, but they are still on the run and hiding from the soldiers, who have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of their trible. For these homeless refugees, every passing minute is filled with fear and tears, as they have witnessed their children and loved ones dying from starvation, diseases and machetes.

As I watch on TV the revelers ringing the New Years with their exuberant song and dance, hugs and kisses, and cheerful shouts of “Happy New Year”, I only feel sadness as my thoughts turn to all the suffering people around the world.

I ask myself: How would you cope if you are in the kind of noxious situations I have just described? Would you feel optimistic and expect great things for 2008, when every day is a bad day and the future looks as bleak as the past? Would you think about how to pursue happiness when you only have enough energy to cling to life and cope with pain?

It is difficult for the well-fed to understand those living with starvation.

It is difficult for the healthy to understand those dying of terminal cancer.

People who drive around in luxury cars and walk in fancy leather boots could not understand those have to walk on the snow without shoes.

The world of the haves is very different from the world of have-nots.

The human existence with temporal comforts is very different from that full of afflictions.

At this very moment, I have difficult saying “Happy New Year” to those who are going through hell, because that would be insensitive and inappropriate. What they need most is that someone who would be standing by them to share their suffering and give them reasons for living.

(I wrote the above on Dec.31 and Jan.1. Now I want to complete what has been on my mind)

January 2, 2007

Reasons for living

Viktor Frankl discovered the secret of unimaginable resilience in the midst of unimaginable suffering.

Throughout his years in Nazi death camps, Frankl has learned that “the will to meaning” and the defiant human spirit are essential for surviving extreme sufferings and hardships. To put it simply, all those who refuse to succumb to ill fate and struggle gallantly to survive are individuals who have reasons for living.

Which ones of the following reasons for living enabled Frankl to survive the Holocaust?

Find happiness
Make good money
Become famous
Love people
Serve a cause greater than oneself
Believe that there is something good and meaningful in life

“Rock bottom” human strengths for survival

Those who have read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning will realize that the last three reasons were primarily responsible for sustaining Frankl:

Everyone has signature strengths, but these three are the universal “rock bottom” human strengths essential for resilience: love, self-transcendent service and faith.

To have someone to love and cherish is a potent source of strength for the afflicted and tormented. While in the concentration camps where few ever came out alive, Frankl’s undying love for his wife and his hope of seeing her again gave him the reason to go on living. .

Pursuing a cause greater than oneself is another powerful source of resilience. One of Frankl’s missions in the camps was to share his insight on “the will to meaning” with other inmates so that they could recover their human dignity and meaning in life. A related larger mission was to complete his book on logotherapy which would help millions of the suffering masses.

Faith is often the only flicker of light in a long, dark tunnel. Frankl maintained his faith that one can always discover something positive, something meaningful regardless how horrible and hopeless the situations. He believed that this “will to meaning” is essential for human survival and flourishing.

Therefore, my New Year wish for everyone is that we discover these three “rock bottom” strengths, which will not only define our humanity but also ensure its survival in the most hostile situations. These three virtues are also the bedrock of enduring civilizations in both East and West.

Paul Wong

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The long road to total recovery

It has been almost a month since my radical prostatectomy. The road to total recovery has been slow and difficult. In the first two weeks, just coping with the pain already consumed much of my energy. Now, I have to deal with the problems of incontinence, insomnia, lack of energy and sometimes feelings of depression.

For me, it has not been an easy and smooth path as some people have suggested to me. This kind of positive thinking is not helpful to me. Althought I usually hope for the best, I have always prepared for the worst. I believe that eventually I will attain full discovery, but the post-surgery difficulties and problems turn out to be even more serious than what I have anticipated. My body is full of toxins which have greatly weakened my body and mind. However, in the process, I have learned many valuable spiritual lessons and gained many psychological insights, which I will share with my readers when I gain more strength.

Meanwhile, I just want to wish everyone a blessed New Year.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Are you spiritually fit?

This morning at the Stone Church in Toronto, Pastor Don Noble in his characteristic no-nonsense way preached on the subject of temptations. One of the interesting ideas from his sermon is that we give power to our temptations, if we ignore or deny our own weaknesses. Then he drove home the point that "It is very hard to be objective about ourselves."

I would want to emphasize that it is even harder to be objective about our own spiritual condition for two reasons: (1) Our self-rigtheousness prevents us from seeing our own brokenness and sinfulness, (2) Our judgmental attitude towards others makes us feel that we are somehow superior to others spiritually.

That is why Jesus asks: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" (Matt.7:3, NIV).

That is why Jesus warns us: "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." (Matt.16:6, NIV).

What makes Pharisees and Sadducees dangerous is that their knowledge and devotion to religion have turned them into legalistic and mean-spirited monsters. Too much theology or too much religion can take away one's humanity!

The temptation, as conceptualized by Pastor Noble, is real -- it is lurking there to trap individuals who spend a lifetime studying the Bible and theology and serving God as pastors and seminary professors without awareness of their own vulnerability to self-righteousness and spiritual hubris. The only way to prevent the tragedy of yielding to this kind of "holier-than-thou temptation" is to undergo regular spiritual fitness checkups.

Spiritual fitness test

Yesterday, I had Dr. Paul Magnus, R.J. Bernardo Family Chair of the Tyndale Center of Christian Leadership, his lovely wife Jane, and Dr. Barbara Haycraft, Dean of Student Life at Tyndale Univeristy over to my house (which is just a stone's throw away from the campus) for a cup of tea. Our conversation naturally drifted to the issue of how to measure spirituality in our students and Chrstian leaders.

I proposed a "lie detector test" and "the love test". Some Christian leaders are so used to lying that they no longer realize it when that they are lying. Out of expedience, they would say one thing to A and another thing to B, and when confronted about the contradiction, they would easily deny that they have never said such thing to A or B, depending on which one is more powerful. Such pathological liars desperately need help and healing!

The love test has to do with whether a person is habitually rude and unkind to people and or shows genuine compassion and love to others in all situations. Even little children can spot a kind person when they see one.

It would not be difficult to collect data on both the "lie detector" and the "love test". If a Christian leader scores poorly on both of these tests, than his or her spiritual problem needs to be fixed.

Paul Magnus said that he has routinely asked his students to rate themselves on the the fruit of the Spirit as recorded in Galatians (5:22-23); they also need to ask those who know them well to rate them. Any big discrepancy between self-rating and 360-degree rating would be an indicator of spiritual blindness.

Ultimately, our spiritualtiy can not be measured by Bible knowledge or sophistication in theology, but by how we live our daily lives and how we treat others.

The urgency of spiritual fitness test

I was planning to put off this blog entry until after my surgery, but last night I had a dream warning me not to delay. That is why I am rushing this entry out today.

My dream impressed on me the need to sound an alarm about spiritual sickness. Sin, like cancer, is a slient killer. If I do not do regular annual checkup, I would not have known about my aggressive type of prostate cancer. It could have killed me, if I do not receive proper diagnosis and treatment.

The danger of sin is even more serious. If a Christian leader is not aware of his weaknesses and sins, he will not only ruin his own life and his own ministsry, but also inflicts pains on all those to whom he ministers. Christian leaders with serious spiritual problems can and do cause a great deal of damage to God's church.

Yes, it is hard to be objective about our own spiriutal condition. That's why we need others to give us feedback and point out our blindspots. We need mentors, spiritual directors and peer review. We also need to humble ourselves before God each day and examine our own behaviors and thoughts to make sure that they are pleasing to God.

Once we realize our weaknesses and vulnerability to sin, then we will follow the spiritual path of saying "No" to temptation and "Yes" to God's spiritual power.

My readers will find soon find out that the fivefold path to practical spirituality serves both protective and enhancing functions. It wil protect us against our own self-righteousness and spiritual blindness, and at the same time, it will enhance our capacity to love and serve.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The fivefold path to practical spirituality and total fitness

How do we develop practical spirituality and total fitness? This is the question I have been wrestling with in the past few years. Today’s blog entry represents a brief introduction to my discoveries in this search.

I propose that total fitness will result, when we totally immerse ourselves in the following five spiritual laws:

1. Worshipping God - our ABBA Father
2. Serving & surrendering to the Lord Jesus
3. Loving our neighbors
4. Walking by faith in the Spirit
5. Meditating on God's Word

Together, these spiritual laws represent five intricately connected channels of divine power. Together, these spiritual laws help create a warm-blooded and full-bodied spirituality that can stand the test of the worst storms of life.

The secrets of true success

The secret of the fivefold path is that it flows from the Trinity (Father, Son and the Holy Spirit), builds upon the foundation of God’s Word, and engages the basic spiritual capacities of all human beings.

The secret of the fivefold path is that it emphasizes practicality more than theology, and biblical efficacy more than biblical literacy. To put into daily practice a few biblical truths will yield far greater benefits than having a huge bank of knowledge of the Bible stored away in one's head.

Research has shown that some health benefit accrues from the practice of each of the above spiritual laws by itself. Just image what kind of total fitness will ensue from integrating all five spiritual laws with physical exercises and daily activities!

The power of synergy and consistency of applying the fivefold path is yet to be measured scientifically, but such power can be experienced individually.

The secret of synergy is that the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. When synergy includes God’s participation, the resulting energy can be miraculous.

Synergy is not a precise, mathematically concept – it is mystical.

The secret of consistency is that it can result in something much more precious than perfect performance through practice. Consistency in spiritual discipline means that one continually plugs into God's spiritual power, not only in times of crisis. When spiritual practice becomes as natural and regular as breathing, we will experience a magical transformation from inside out.

Consistency is not a precise, mathematical concept – it is mystical.

So, we are on a mystical journey together to discover and experience the secrets of spiritual transformation and optimal well-being.

I invite you to contribute to the development of the fivefold path. Please do share with us your insights and experiences through the “comment” section.

Friday, November 23, 2007

How is spirituality related to health?

There are now literally tons of scientific publications linking spirituality to both mental and physical health. But how is spirituality related to health? In what ways are the spiritual and physical realms connected?
This morning, Dr. Brian Stiller, President of Tyndale University College, invited a small group of faculty and staff to his office to pray for me before my surgery. They prayed that God would guide the hands of the surgeon so that he will succeed in removing all the cancer cells from my body. They also prayed that God will facilitate healing and recovery.
We pray, because we believe that God answers prayers and God can directly intervene in human affairs. He is also the Great Physician who can cure us with or without the help of a skilled medical doctor.

The spirituality-health connection
But there are also scientific explanations about the connection between spirituality and health. Here are just a few of the scientific findings:
Prayer increases our hope, which strengthens of immune system and leads to health-enhancing actions.
A religious life style reduces risks factors and increases protective factors.
Faith contributes to our sense of meaning and purpose, which is important for optimal functioning, physiologically and psychologically.
Meditation is capable of reducing stress and alternating our neural structures.
Given the strong scientific support of a faith-health connection, it makes sense that we practice spirituality on a daily basis.

The exercise of Christian faith and health benefits
“Faith without works is dead,” (James 2:20, KJV) says James, and faith is work. To live by faith is to practice our faith-life daily. The Christian faith is a practical faith, because Christ is alive today and forever and he lives out his life in and through us. Not only is there no Christian without Christ, there is no Christianity without Christ living in us daily.
Authentic faith permeates everything we do and propels us beyond our comfort zone. By its very nature, faith reaches up and reaches out. But like any living thing, this kind of dynamic faith must be nurtured, cultivated and exercised. Daily.
It is a mistake to over-emphasize the importance of attending Sunday service as a means of achieving spiritual growth. Even the traditional prescription of daily devotions and weekly prayer meeting may not be enough to reap the full health benefits of Christian faith.
I believe that there are at least five time-tested biblical principles for total fitness: (1) worshipping the Father through His Son, (2) serving and surrendering to the Lord Jesus, (3) walking by faith in the Holy Spirit, (4) sharing God’s love in words and deeds, and (5) meditating on God’s Word.
This fivefold path to total health can be translated into a simple set of spiritual and physical exercises. I will introduce these exercises in this blog over the next few months. Something magical will happen, when we engage in spiritual-physical exercises over and over again. It is the daily cultivation of faith practice that enables us to attain high levels of spiritual, psychological and physical health.
There is hope for total fitness even for cancer patients like myself.