Western versus Eastern
Approaches/Philosophies of Positive Psychology
“Happiness is the key to success” they say, which is utterly
true because until an individual is happy and satisfied with what he has, he
can never move ahead in life. Positive
Psychology aims to study and improve on that very behavior whereby it enables
individuals and communities to thrive by analyzing their strengths and virtues.
The field of positive psychology at the individual level is about positive
individual traits — the capacity for love and profession, audacity,
interpersonal skill, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future-mindedness,
spirituality, high talent, and wisdom. At the group level it is about the civic
virtues and the institutions that move individuals toward better citizenship:
responsibility, nurturance, selflessness, civility, moderation, tolerance, and
work ethic. Martin Seligman, known as the ‘Father of Positive Psychology’, said
that humans were obsessed with studying only the negative aspects of their
lives and paid very little attention to the positive ones. Positive Psychology,
on the contrary, works to build the positive qualities within us rather than
repair the worst things in our lives. He explained that given the obstacles we
face daily, we may have underestimated the power of positivity and that of the
Broadly there are two basic approaches to Positive
Psychology namely the Western and Eastern Philosophies. The Western
Philosophies mostly revolve around the word “hope”. Hope is the belief that
life can be better, along with the motivations and efforts to make it so. More
than wishes, desires, or daydreams, hope taps thinking that leads to meaningful
actions. This was further supported by three influential western traditions
namely the Athenian, Judeo-Christian and Islamic Views.
The Athenian traditions comprised of the views of both
Aristotle and Plato whereby their teachings focused heavily on virtue and human
strength, in Ancient Greece. Plato provided a list of eleven moral virtues
(courage, moderation, generosity, munificence, magnificence, even temper,
friendliness, truthfulness, wit, justice and friendship), and Aristotle added
to the same with intellectual virtues and believed that “strength of character,
would lead to enduring human excellence”. For this, he proposed that the
government should be charged with the development of virtue in a particular
society through early education and training.
The traditions of Judaism and Christianity can be explained through
the teachings in the Bible whereby in the Old Testament, the virtues of hope,
faith and charity are highlighted along with the “Seven Heavenly Virtues” by
Thomas Aquinas. According to historians, Aquinas lists these virtues as
fortitude, justice, temperance, wisdom, faith, hope and charity. Also, other
mentions of various gifts and strengths are made through the New Testament.
Islam, despite of being a strongly debated topic whether it
belongs to the west or east, incorporates virtues such as gratitude, love,
kindness, justice and courage. Also, it comprises of looking out for one’s
brother and to aid the poor as a duty, not a privilege. However, it states that
such actions should be carried out secretly such that the humility of the giver
is maintained and the recipient is not embarrassed to accept the present so
On the contrary, the Eastern Philosophies revolve around
four traditions namely Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism. The
Confucian teachings emphasize that leadership and education are central to
morality. It deems attainment of virtue as the most important aspect which can
be further identified as jen (humanity), yi (duty to treat others well), li
(etiquette and sensitivity for others’ feelings), zhi (wisdom), and xin
(truthfulness). The Sage believed that in order to gain enlightenment or to
have a good life, it is essential to swear by these virtues.
The Taoist tradition states that followers are required to
live according to the Tao, i.e. the Way which gives direction, movement and is
a power that envelops, surrounds and flows through all things. The creator
believes that this way of living can only be understood by experiencing it
first hand, inclusive of both the good and bad ones. It will bring about
artlessness and will help practice virtues such as justice, humanity,
temperance and propriety.
Buddhism is a concept among the Eastern approaches that
revolves strongly around the importance of “Nirvana”. Nirvana is a state in
which the individual is freed from desire for anything and is hence free from
all and any sufferings. Buddha explains that suffering is a part of being which
is brought by the human emotion for desire. However, like the other
philosophies, Buddhism also commemorates the importance of certain virtues that
are love, compassion, joy and equanimity.
Unlike the other three philosophies, Hinduism doesn’t have
one particular founder but it emphasizes the relevance of terms such as
interconnectedness and harmony. It states that one most attain ultimate
self-knowledge and should strive for ultimate self-betterment that facilitates
doing good for others and living a satisfactory life to avoid reincarnation.
This view specifically implies that one’s ultimate goal should be to avoid
reincarnation and should live a life doing good “karma”.
Hence, there are a number of similarities as well as
differences that can be drawn from the aforementioned two approaches. While the
similarities include the type of human qualities and experiences that are
valued, the differences explain which of the traits are specifically valued.
Broadly, these differences can be separated into three major categories such
that in the value system, orientation of time and thought process. The western
philosophies support individualism, future and forward oriented strengths, and
believe in right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness respectively. Contrarily,
the eastern philosophies assign more weight to collectivism, past experiences
and actions, and that of balance, i.e. more the suffering, more will be the
happiness later respectively.