#287      39 min 22 sec
Positively China: Toward a psychology of happiness in Chinese society

Social psychologist Professor Kaiping Peng (彭凯平教授) examines the role of psychology in a China confronted with tremendous economic and social change. Prof Peng also discusses how the positive psychology movement fits into Chinese cultural and social structures to contribute to mental health and well being. Presented by Elisabeth Lopez.

"We humans are not just a product of the past, we are the agents of the future.  So talk about the innovation, creativity, importance to human beings, to human society, I think that will impact China in fundamental ways." -- Prof Kaiping Peng




Prof Kaiping Peng 彭凯平教授
Prof Kaiping Peng 彭凯平教授

Professor Kaiping Peng (彭凯平教授) is a tenured faculty member at the Department of Psychology of the University of California at Berkeley. He received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1997. Before coming to the US in 1989, he had been a faculty member at the Psychology Department of Peking University of China for five years. He had been the assistant chair of the psychology department of Beijing University, head of the social/personality psychology area in Berkeley, member of the American Psychological Association Leadership Council, executive committee of the Institute of East-Asian Studies, steering committee for the Diversity Research at UC Berkeley, the co-president of the Fifth International Conference of Chinese Psychologists Worldwide, and numerous other national and international professional academic services. As part of the Berkeley-Tsinghua collaborative project, he was appointed as the founding chair of the Psychology Department of Tsinghua University in 2008. He also directs the Culture and Cognition Lab and the Berkeley Program of Psychological Studies in China at UC-Berkeley. He has published eight books and more than 100 articles and essays on cultural and social psychology, as well as methodological issues of psychology.

Credits

Host: Elisabeth Lopez
Producers: Eric van Bemmel, Kelvin Param
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Kelvin Param & Eric van Bemmel

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VOICEOVER 
This is Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

ELISABETH LOPEZ 
I'm Elisabeth Lopez.  Thanks for joining us.  For better or worse, China has been utterly transformed by its journey from essentially planned economy to a free market.  Rapid economic development has seen 500 million people lifted out of poverty, but research suggests China's rapid economic growth has not been matched by feelings of well-being and happiness.  Does this matter, and should this be a concern of government?  Chinese President, Xi Jinping, certainly seems to think so.  When he came to power in 2012, he rearticulated the Chinese dream; national wealth, cultural revitalisation and individual happiness.  What does this mean for a society that has traditionally focussed on the family and the group, not the individual, as the key to a well-lived life?  What does it mean for government policy and education in China?  Our guest this episode on Up Close is Kaiping Peng.  He's the founding Chair and Professor of Psychology at China's Tsinghua University, and he's also Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California Berkeley.  Kaiping Peng is arguably China's leading proponent of positive psychology, the movement spearheaded from the 1990s by US psychologist, Martin Seligman.  He's in Melbourne to speak at the 4th Australian Positive Psychology and Well-being Conference organised by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.  Welcome to Up Close Kaiping.

KAIPING PENG
Thank you.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Kaiping, happiness has a long tradition among western philosophers as something that is worth pursuing in its own right, and very much an individual pursuit.  Thomas Jefferson famously described happiness as an inalienable right.  How is it seen in Chinese philosophy and folk traditions?

KAIPING PENG
Traditionally speaking, Chinese do like to talk about happiness and well-being.  Confucious actually made happiness the top three duties of Chinese people.  When you open his book, the first statement is that the three ways to get happiness; be with your friends, be studying hard, and be nice to individuals.  So you can see that Chinese culture does emphasize happiness and the issue is how much the contemporary Chinese understand happiness?  How do they pursue happiness?

ELISABETH LOPEZ
It's a very busy society; there's a lot of competition for education and jobs, has happiness for them by the wayside.

KAPING PENG
Yeah, I think economical development and rapid social, cultural, political change in China have affected Chinese people and its well-being and happiness, and China actually reached astounding number of people killing themselves because of the mental health problems.  Last year the number - I checked it - reached 250,000 people.  So happiness and well-being is a big issue, big challenge to Chinese people right now.  It's the number one health risk factor to Chinese people's survival.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
China has one of the world's highest suicide rates, and it's the biggest killer among people aged 15-37 and disproportionately high in rural areas.  What can positive psychology contribute to this?  What is not happening at the moment?

KAIPING PENG
Well, positive psychology not just changes people's view about psychology, it changes peoples view about themselves.  So positive psychology emphasized human strength, human spirit, and what people can do by themselves.  Traditionally psychologists talk about how to make people not depressed, and not feel suffering.  Positive psychology emphasized doing something better.  I think that can help Chinese, because Chinese culture traditionally speaking doesn't emphasize mental experience.  So China traditionally is a culture emphasizing doing things.  Linguistically speaking, we have found that there is a verbal bias in Chinese language.  So Chinese people, they don't spend a lot of time reminiscing about the mental experience, mental feelings.  Instead, they talk about behaviours.  They talk about events.  They talk about thethings that are indicating, reflecting the psychological experience.  This verbal bias obviously can be helped, corrected, by this positive psychology.  We do emphasize things you can do.  We also emphasize the feelings you could experience, you could discuss, you could communicate with other people.  So, positive psychology can help cultural change in China.  Positive psychology can also bring China to the world, because this is international effort, international initiative, so many people around the world talk about their happiness and their well-being.  This movement can bring Chinese psychology, Chinese people to the world community to be participators of this dialogue and communication.  I think that's very helpful to China.  Third, positive psychology has this intrinsic appeal.  People like to talk about their happiness.  People like to talk about their well-being.  It's almost a universal language and the Chinese can understand that.  Other forms of psychology, it's very hard to translate into Chinese, communicate to Chinese people.  For instance, Freud is very popular in the western cultures, but is almost impossible to talk to students about the psychoanalytical approach but positive psychology is a different story, and it is Chinese to reach out to us.  I was not trained as a Positive Psychologist.  I was a Cultural Psychologist.  I was a Social Psychologist by training, but the people talked to me and they want to learn, they want to know, they want to support positive psychology.  So I almost feel this unified concept can bring people together, can bring China into world communities, so can do great magic in China.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Kaiping, it's often been noted by observers of the evolution of psychology in China that western psychology for a long time, especially in the post-war period, focussed predominantly on pathology and when Martin Seligman started being active and vocal in the 1990s it was about, well what are we actually aiming for, if we take away all the bad stuff, the mental illness, the pathologies.  What does this mean for China which has a pretty tumultuous century?

KAIPING PENG
Last century was very tragic for Chinese, because of the rapid change outside of China and because this invasion of western power from Chinese perspective, fundamentally impacted and change the Chinese political cultural systems.  So the Chinese feel very much humiliated by this western influence.  So there was a notion by Chinese called "century of humiliation", but I think that this is a misconception because with the influence from western cultures comes with science technology, medicine and many, many modern civilisation benefits.  China benefitted from that international exchange in trades and people's dialogues.  What we need to do in China, I think what the Chinese also find out by themselves is that [although] psychology is from western worlds, but it doesn't mean that humans don't understand the psychology.  The Chinese, even they didn't have a scientific study, the history of studying psychology scientifically, but they do talk about the human psychological experience.  They do talk about the human behaviours.  They do talk about aspirations, accomplishments and the wonderful elements of the human life.  So Chinese do study that although they don't have a science behind that.  So when you bring a scientific approach to psychology to China, obviously Chinese can benefit from that and they feel this is a supplement to whatever they have been doing.  So scientific psychology came to China in the early 19th century and first studied at the Tsinghua University.  Interestingly enough, Tsinghua set up the first psychology department in China and they hired six faculty members from the United States, and most of them were Americans.  And scientific psychology in China spread out very quickly.  So this is a sign that Chinese people do understand psychology, and do need psychology.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Then, in the 20th century it went through a dark period where psychology departments were banned and it was seen, I suppose, as a bourgeois enterprise.  What's been happening since then?

KAIPING PENG
Actually that was a Russian influence.  In 1937 Stalin actually banned genetic study in psychology, in the former Soviet Union.  The Chinese Communist Party was obviously a copycat of the Soviet Union, so they followed whatever the Russians did in the early 20th century.  So in 1952, Chinese communist government decided that psychology was freak science and they banned psychology totally.  So Tsinghua Psych Department was closed and faculty members were relocated to Peking University to study Marxist philosophy.  For 30 years, China had no psychology, had no psychology program, had no psychological research.  So that was the darkest period in Chinese history for psychology at the least.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
What turned that around?

KAIPING PENG
Well, 1978, Deng Xiaoping came to power and he opened China up to the rest of the world and the first science delegation that visited China was actually led by a psychologist, Richard Atkinson, a friend of mine.  And later he became the President of the University of California.  But at that time he was a science advisor to former present, Jimmy Carter.  So Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping had this very interesting dialogue about the future of China.  Richard was there, so Deng Xiaoping curiously asked him, what's he doing for a living.  He said, I'm a psychologist.  So Deng Xiaoping said, well why shouldn't we invite a Chinese psychologist to come to the meeting.  The person who's in charge of the Chinese science community was [a] marshall, his name was Fang Yi.  The reason I know all of the story is because Richard always boasted that he's the one who started Chinese psychology.  So, Fang Yi said, unfortunately we banned psychology in China, 30-something years ago.  Deng Xiaoping was very furious.  He said, American science community led by psychologists, that's a sign that psychology is important.  Psychology is a science.  We should build up Chinese psychology.  So, powerful people did powerful things and therefore our psychology started.  Interestingly our first group of Chinese students went to college after the Cultural Revolution.  So in Cultural Revolution, university was actually closed and Mao actually banned university education.  So in 1978 the Chinese government started to reopen the university campus[es], starting to recruit new students.  Our first group of students went to Peking University, the top university in China, and I was in [the] Physics department.  One day I got this note from the university administration which said, you've been chosen by your country to study psychology.  I had no idea what psychology was.  I didn't know anything about that.  There was no professor who could teach, so they hired American professors.  Incidentally, those are the top elite professors in United States.  Psychologists who won Nobel Prize in economics, Herbert Simon, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Nisbett, the president of the American Psychological Association.  They were actually my professors at Peking University.  Of course, they were just guest lecturers for a short period of time.  Anyway, that's how Chinese psychology started after the Cultural Revolution, after many years of banning from China.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
I'm Elisabeth Lopez and you're listening to Up Close.  Today we're speaking with psychologist, Kaiping Peng, about positive psychology in China.  Kaiping, there are millions of people who have missed out on China's incredible growth.  The World Bank says China has the world's greatest number of poor people outside India, and there are massive inequalities between urban and regional areas.  For those people who were left behind, can positive psychology help at all or do they really have to satisfy the most basic needs in Maslow's hierarchy of needs?  Is their happiness dependent on a higher level of household wealth?

KAIPING PENG
Positive psychology is not just about happiness and as everybody knows, positive psychology talks about the flourishing experiences, talks about the well-being of individuals, so we also emphasize individual autonomies, individual freedoms, individual pursuit of happiness, the dreams, the relationships, the engagements and meaning of life.  So for the people who were left out by the socio-economical change in the progress in China, obviously positive psychology can help them, to encourage them to take the initiative, take individual autonomy and to reach out to society.  We have been doing this as a positive psychology community.  We set up a grant and a fellowship to support the teachers who work in the rural area, to the remote area of China, to identify students who want to pursue psychology in a major university in China.  We offer them fellowships, we offer support.  So we help them theoretically.  We also help them in concrete ways to pursue well-being and happiness.  We offer people hope, because sometimes you need to have hope.  You need to have a dream.  You have to have faith in yourself, in people close to you.  To work together we can change China, we can change your individual life.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Especially as people's social networks start to fray because of massive migration to cities or intense jobs pressure, that sort of thing.

KAIPING PENG
Yes.  The urbanisation rate reached 50 per cent last year in China, meaning that China is no longer an agricultural society, it is an industrial society.  The United States reached this urbanisation level in the 1930s.  Interestingly enough, that's the time when American scholars and communities' governments started to talk about the American Dream.  Present of China, Xi Jinping, talked about the Chinese Dream is actually the same kind of historical juncture that China's facing just like the Americans faced in 1930s.  Dreams can unite people.  Dreams can inspire people.  Dreams are very helpful to people, and that's psychology working.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
I suppose you're addressing a motivation that's far more powerful than simply fear.

KAIPING PENG
Motivation, doing something great, going from ordinary to extraordinary, can inspire people, can push people, can make people do great things.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
These are sounding like pretty universal problems and drives.  But can you tell me what is distinctive about Chinese psychology?  Is there a Chinese psychology that's different from western psychology?  When you've spoken about your entry into the profession, it seems like at that time it was very much grafted from the American discipline, but what is starting to emerge as distinctively Chinese?

KAIPING PENG
Professor Michael Bond from Hong Kong, he actually had this very interesting comment.  He said unfortunately psychology started from the west.  So early psychologists were all fascinated by problems people have.  Abnormal psychology, personality psychology were dominant topics by psychologists in the beginning in the west.  But he said, if psychology was studied by Chinese, then psychology is something about relationships, is something about positive spirits of human experience.  So positive psychology should be studied by Chinese, but history is another story.  Chinese psychologies do emphasize the positive elements of the human experience.  So if you look at the research conducted by Chinese psychologists, very few people talk about personality.  Very few people talk about individual suffering and depression.  They all talk about creativity, morality, inspirations, motivations.  There's some interesting interests.  The second cultural characteristic of Chinese psychology, I think, is this element of collectivism.  Here we do emphasize individual efforts, individual experience.  We want people to discover their own strengths by themselves.  Chinese psychology, because it is a collective influence, they emphasize more of the relationships, families, communications, engagement with other people.  The third unique characteristic of Chinese psychology, from my personal experience, they emphasize actions, behaviours, more so than individual feelings.  So it is [an] outward look in psychology, not [an] inward look in psychology.  The popular statement made by American psychologists, like finding your true self, doesn't make any sense to Chinese.  Chinese want to say, do the true things.  So there are cultural differences in many ways.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Kaiping, with the massive changes in Chinese society, demographic shifts, the one child policy, is it becoming less collectivist in nature and moving more towards an individualistic society where some of those American concepts are starting to apply?

KAIPING PENG
This is a very interesting question, but I have to admit that this is an empirical question.  We need a lot of evidence and data.  On the one hand you can see this spread of individualism in the world, not just in China, but the western world is very much affected by American individualism.  This is a comment made by historians, sociologists, many, many times.  So the United States is a country, is a prototype of western individualism nowadays.  But its influences are everywhere and China is affected by that.  I'll just give you one example, where now it is a Chinese traditional New Year's break, usually the Chinese people have to stay with the family according to traditions.  But interestingly this time happens to be the off season for tourists in the rest of the world.  So the Chinese people, particularly young people, take advantage of cheap air fares, cheaper hotels, and abandoned the family and their parents in their home country and then visit Australia, United States and Europe.  They're doing this during this very sacred traditional holiday, supposed to be a family-united holiday.  So you can see, there are impacts of western individualism going on.  But on the other hand, you can see this strong collectivism among [the] Chinese.  They still emphasize the families, they do emphasize family choice.  The Chinese girls, when they go out to find their mate, they listen to the parents more so than their individual hearts, and when they decide their majors they listen to other people, not themselves.  You can see these group expectations, group motivations are also a major part of Chinese psychology.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Is this a protective factor against depression?

KAIPING PENG
Particularly the Chinese depression has to be cured by the social support.  We have found that teaching the typical western American psychological methodologies to help depression, many times won't work.  The Chinese traditional ways help you for mental health,  sometimes it works very well.  Talk to your friends, talk to your family, do charity work, reach out to other people, exercising, listen to music.  Many things the Chinese like to do actually help them.  Even eating.  They are not concerned about diet, and we find that the depressed people in China benefit from eating with other people because you're not supposed to eat by yourself.  So you go out with other people, with family, with friends.  That helps you quite a lot.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
At the moment there seems to be probably about two psychologists per million people in China which is pretty low.  But is the discipline making any inroads into things like how early childhood development is seen, or education?

KAPING PENG
Yes, absolutely.  Chinese psychology is getting very popular.  Ten years ago there were very few people interested in psychology.  Twenty years ago when I started to study psychology, my professor actually told me that unfortunately you started this career too early, meaning that China was not ready for psychology.  People are more concerned about everyday life.  The living standard in China was very low.  When you're fighting for survival, I mean, you won't talk about psychological well-being, you talk about your physical well-being.  But now China has become the second biggest economic entity in the world.  The living standard of Chinese people has risen rapidly.  So psychology is getting very popular and Tsinghua Psych Department now has become the second most popular major among Tsinghua freshmen.  The Economic Department is always the most popular one.  The second to the Econ Department is the Psychology students.  So we had the best students coming out of high school, want to study psychology.  The Chinese universities rebuild or build the Psychology Department rapidly.  Now there are almost 200 Psychology Departments in China, but still a long way to go for Chinese psychology.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
What sort of impact is the discipline having on the education system as young children experience it?  Obviously it's very competitive and based on testing and academic achievement.  Is there any change, I guess, in terms of pioneering educational methods that focus more on creativity and innovation?

KAIPING PENG
There are grassroots movements in China who are now trying to reform [the] Chinese education systems.  But they're very much like other countries.  Too much reforms, too little change.  I think the establishments, the status quos, are very stubborn in terms of maintaining the status, their power, the [influence] to the societies.  So we're hoping positive psychology can change that.  We have seen the ground shaking right now.  I'll give you two indicators.  Number one, the Minister of Education just approved positive education in China.  So now the state sponsored schools in China can teach positive psychology.  Before it was only private middle schools talking about positive psychology.  So you can see this change going on right now.  Also, the second important change in terms of policy is the Chinese government just decided that the Chinese middle school students are not going to follow this so-called natural science role versus social science role.  You have to study the basic knowledge that all human beings should know about.  So I think this is a good sign.  So there's some movement going on right now.  But just not fast enough.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
You're listening to Up Close.  I'm Elisabeth Lopez.  Today we're speaking with psychologist, Kaiping Peng, about positive psychology in China.  Kaiping, you've studied Chinese Americans extensively at Berkeley and your research suggests people from east Asian cultures are much more comfortable with experiencing opposing sets of emotions at the same time, yin and yang.  Why is this an important insight and what ramifications does it have for the western psychology?

KAIPING PENG
Well because contemplating contradictions, ironies, surprise is a major part of a human life.  I mean, we always encounter ironies.  And we wish for something but we don't get it.  That information that is full of contradictions.  Even in science, you've got the statements in one way, another statement has just come out totally the opposite of the others.  So it's a major part of a human psychological experience.  Obviously as a psychologist, I'm fascinated by this human experience.  I want to understand how people deal with inconsistency, contradictions.  And what I find out is that traditional Chinese philosophies encourage the contradictions, encourage inconsistencies.  Yin and yang to Chinese is a matter of life, is part of nature.  You have to find yin and yang, you just cannot have these absolute opinions about anything.  I think this is a very interesting discovery, because it's totally different from western traditional Aristotelian logic.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Ambivalence gets a bit of a bad rap in western psychology, doesn't it?

KAIPING PENG
Yes.  Even the term ambivalence, initially it means two sides, “ambi-valent”.  But now we put them together, has this very negative connotation.  So when you're ambivalent, meaning you don't have a mind, you don't have a decision, you don't know what you want, you're not sure about yourself.  All this negative association cancels ambivalence.  But this term, I think it's French initially, just meaning yin and yang, and two sides.  So Chinese, when they talk about ambivalence, they think it's great.  You should be ambivalent about everything because they're always two sides in everything.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Speaking of extremes, I know that you would have been following Amy Chua, the author of the controversial book "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother", what observations do you have from a positive psychology perspective on her prescription for uber-parenting?

KAIPING PENG
Well firstly we have to say that she's not a psychologist.  She's an amateur psychologist, and she found something interesting and she wrote about it, exaggerated a little bit those stereotypes that people have about the Chinese parenting styles.  And she didn't go deep enough.  In terms of behaviours, probably what she said has some elements for truth.  Chinese parents do engage in very direct communication with their children.  They don't like this indirect, middle-class western way of communication.  And that's probably true.  Chinese parents do think about the kids, do care about the children, and that's probably true.  Chinese parents are concerned about the chastity and discipline in sexual experience, that's probably also true.  But what is the reason behind that?  I don't think Chinese parents are doing that because they want to make kids a tiger.  They don't want to make the kids a great extraordinary individual.  They are doing that because they love the kids.  This is a traditional way of teaching.  A psychologist from China actually did a study looking at what is a favourable parenting style of Chinese societies.  They found that this control and autonomy combination is actually preferred by the Chinese parents.  Control is not like western control.  It's not necessarily the direct control and making people do things you want them to do.  Control in China is more of a compromise.  It's almost a giving and taking process.  It's a negotiation by the self. So the kids find out that the parents want them to do something and then they will do something else, and both sides engage in these negotiations, then compromise in the middle.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
I suppose in China the difference is, there's a whole culture reinforcing that, whereas in western societies it tends to be a bit of a grab-bag, make it up as you go along.

KAIPING PENG
Yeah.  I mean, I have to say that all the cultural practice has its own adaptive values in its own societies.  Obviously for Chinese engaging in parenting in the western culture context, my suggestion is better to do western ways, not the traditional Chinese ways because all the practice are local and all the cultural benefits are local, so you have to do local things.  Do as people in your place do.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
It might be a little difficult to give up.

KAPING PENG
Yes, they're very stubborn.  Cultural influence is always very traditional, very stubborn.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
We've had some Chinese students make contact with Up Close wanting your advice on how they as international students can adapt to the host culture.  What sort of advice might you have for them?

KAIPING PENG
Yeah, myself, I'm an immigrant and I was trained in China, I grew up in China until I was 26 years old and then I went to University of Michigan for my graduate studies.  So I was already a Chinese man by my experiences and upbringing.  So for many years I struggled with these questions and issues as well.  Now, I think my secret of surviving in the western cultural context being a professor who is popular in both United States and in China a master of these cross cultural differences and communications, I offer people three C's.  I found it's very important.  The first C is “contact”.  You have to contact people in your host cultures.  You have to engage in activities, experiences with other people.  You should have personal relations with people from other cultures.  Contact is very important.  Distance always makes people separate from each other.  You have to get close to other people, physically, psychologically, mentally.  Mentally meaning we have to engage in the thought process with other people.  We have to engage in psychological understanding, dialogue with other people.  The second C is “communication”.  You have to talk.  Even if your English is not perfect, you have to open your mouth.  You have to open your heart.  You have to open your mind.  Communication is critical.  Number three, the third C is “culture”.  So contact, communication and culture.  Culture means that you have to understand the local culture.  You have to understand the history.  You have to understand why people in that place are doing things like they do.  There are always reasons for doing that.  You have to understand the underlying reasons.  Historical reasons, economical reasons, cultural reasons and the psychological reasons.  Those three C's help me tremendously in the cultural adaptation, cultural experience.  But I think it's also important for other Chinese students, they can benefit from these three C's principles for cross-cultural understanding.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
It sounds like, in some ways, they have to be more knowledgeable about the host culture than the natives of the host culture, who don't think about it, they just do it.

KAPING PENG
Yeah, many people don't realise that culture is not a superficial practice.  Culture is not necessarily just what people do.  There are always strong psychological components underlying all the cultural practice.  There are heavy historical meanings for the cultural practice.  You have to study that.  You have to spend time to understand that.  You have to talk to people about that.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Where does racism fit into this?

KAIPING PENG
Racism is to a certain degree, I think is a product of psychological insecurities.  Some people are not so sure about themselves.  Some people are not open minded about other cultures.  Some people are simply just lazy psychologically, so they don't want to know other people.  They don't want to know other cultures.  They automatically assume their own culture, their own experiences, their own group are better than other people, other cultures, other groups.  So I believe the stronger racist people are psychopaths in itself.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Kaiping, as you've said, there are moves in China to teach positive psychology to school children.  What sort of form does this take?  Is it about shaping their own attitudes or is it about specific content that they learn?

KAIPING PENG
So far they are very much focussed on the contents and just adding new topics to the everyday existing curriculums.  So they start to teach resilience, they start to teach emotional intelligence, they start to teach meaning and the purpose in life, instead of just the traditional subjects, maths, language, art and science.  So they add more content to the children's education.  But there are other educators in China that are more creative, are more brave.  So they don't just teach the contents.  They actually change the whole system so the purpose of education, those educators believe, is not just teaching knowledge but also teaching how to live as a human being.  So the philosophy of education is different for those people.  China, I have to say, is a big country.  It's a very diverse country, culturally, economically, philosophically.  So different people in different places are doing very different things, even for positive education.  So it's not just about the content they are teaching, but also the philosophies, the beliefs, the ideas of positive psychology are practiced by Chinese educators.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Are there limits as to how effective they can be, given that the education system is very much about, yes we need to pass exams and get into university and it's incredibly competitive?

KAIPING PENG
I think you're right.  I mean, we have to be honest about the facts.  We have to realise the limits of any social engineering.  I'm a scientist by training so I know that a scientific principle has got a 30% threshold.  Professor Richard Nisbett, my graduate school advisor, he did a series of studies for many years, finding that for any good intention that generates a social initiative, the fact is no more than 30%.  They are constrained by the reality, constrained by the systems, constrained by people's capacities.  Humans are not the sole determinant of human life, nature affects us, other people affect us, other countries affect us.  So there are so many realistic constraints, but for human spirits, even [with the] 30% threshold, there's still wonderful things that we can do.  Just think about the medicines, the cancer patients, the successful ways of any medicine treatment for AIDS, for cancer, is very discouragingly small.  But, even for this small improvement, we spend millions, tens of millions of dollars to improve it, to do it.  That's the positive spirit.  30% to me, there's big room for change.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
What are some of the areas of research that you think positive psychology will be applied to in Chinese society?

KAIPING PENG
Well, I think the morality is a major part.  I think, you know, positive psychology they studied good nature for human psyche.  So we emphasize the good spirits of human fundamentals.  I think that would affect the Chinese in many ways because for too long Chinese are affected by Marxist ideologies.  Talk about class struggles, economical determination, utilitarianism and the materialisms.  Positive psychology emphasizes lenience, spiritualities, pursuit of happiness, individual freedom.  So I think the morality of a society, more or less, will be affected by the positive psychology movements.  The second is this creativity, innovation ideas.  Professor Seligman talked about prospection as a human instinct.  I think this is a great notion, it's a great concept.  We humans are not just a product of the past, we are the agents of the future.  So talk about the innovation, creativity, importance to human beings, to human society, I think that will impact China in fundamental ways.  So, moralities, creativities, innovations and also the fundamentals of being happy as individuals will affect China in many ways.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Thank you very much for coming in, Kaiping.

KAIPING PENG
You're welcome.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
That was Kaiping Peng, Professor Emeritus at the University of California Berkeley and the founding Chair and Professor of Psychology at China's Tsinghua University.  You can find a full transcript of this episode on the Up Close website.  Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne Australia.  This episode was recorded on 10 January 2014.  Producers were Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I'm Elisabeth Lopez.  Until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close.  We're also on Twitter and Facebook.  For more information, visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2014 the University of Melbourne.


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