Toronto, ON, Canada
The legacy of Viktor Frankl was assessed in
terms of his prophet voice of hope and his contribution to positive
psychology. Viktor Frankl’s (1985) tragic optimism (TO) posits
that one can remain optimistic in spite of tragic experiences. Extending
Frankl’s construct, Wong’s (2001) existential-humanistic
model of TO postulates that the only kind of hope, which can stand
the harsh blows of reality, needs to contain five key ingredients:
(a) Acceptance of what cannot be changed, (b) Affirmation in the
value and meaning of life, (c) Self-transcendence, (d) Faith in
God and others, and (e) Courage to face adversity. The rationale
and evidence for the model are presented. The chapter also explores
supportive evidence and the adaptive consequences of TO, as measured
by the Life Attitudes Scale (LAS). One of the findings based on
the LAS is that TO contributes to post-traumatic growth. Finally,
the presents TO as a prototype of mature positive psychology for
the suffering humanity, based on Frankl’s logotherapy and
Viktor Frankl, one of the most influential and
enduring writers and psychotherapists of the 20th century, continues
to speak to new generations. His voice is prophetic, because it
heralds the current positive psychology movement, the resurgence
of spirituality, and promises hope to a needy world threatened by
global terrorism (Wong, 2001a, b) and the AIDS epidemic (Wong, 2003).
However, like prophets in Biblical times, he
is often misunderstood or dismissed. For example, within the positive
psychology movement, especially among those who research on hope
and optimism, Viktor Frankl’s contributions are seldom acknowledged.
In this chapter, I want to show how Frankl’s concept of tragic
optimism is essential to a full understanding of enduring hope and
mature positive psychology.
Frankl (1986) has shown that the greatest human
triumph is achieved by the defiant human spirit, even when we are
stripped to our naked existence and confronted with horrific death.
This chapter clarifies the nature of this kind of courageous hope
and explains how we can cultivate it in the midst of adversities
I begin with a brief account of my personal
journey in search of optimism, then critique the current scene of
positive psychology of optimism in American, and make a case for
Frankl’s tragic optimism and meaning-based mature positive
The less traveled road to tragic optimism
– a personal odyssey
I discovered “hope” almost incidentally
while studying frustration reactions and generalized persistence.
Through a long series of experiments in the 70s, involving both
animals and humans, I discovered that organisms are more likely
to persist in the face of repeated failure and less likely to become
helpless if they have been inoculated with a mixture of positive
and negative experiences, even when such inoculation was administered
in a very young age. Most of these studies have been summarized
in Wong (1995).
The above research program on generalized persistence
has inadvertently provided behavioral mechanisms for Seligman’s
(1990) learned optimism and Frankl’s basic formula for
tragic optimism: to maintain hope in spite of tragic experiences,
one must learn the courage and tenacity to strive for a future goal,
no matter how bleak. It is from the prior experience of overcoming
disappointments and adversities that we learn the importance of
embracing the whole of life and believing that something good will
happen only if we persist in our efforts.
I started research on hope in the early 80s,
before optimism research became fashionable, by asking people to
list the things they are hopeful, and then asking them to rate each
item in terms of confidence (that the hope will be realized), time-frame
(to be realized in the near future or the distant future), and agency
(to be realized by themselves or by others.) One important finding
of this exploratory study is that as people got older and older,
more and more hopeful events are shifted to other people or God
(Wong & Reker, 1985). This research provides yet another piece
of evidence for Frankl’s concept of TO – hope depends
not only on our own efforts but also on the gifts and graces from
God and others. At that time, I believed that the degree of optimism
as measured both by the frequency and confidence ratings was a function
of one’s developmental stage, present life circumstances and
personality trait. We did a further study, which received very favourable
feedback from Scheier, but never submitted it for publication, because
of Scheier and Carver’s (1985) seminal publication, which
made our paper superfluous.
I did not pursue further research on optimism
for almost a decade partly because of an explosion of publications
on this topic, partly because of my large research projects on successful
aging and meaning (Wong, 1989, Wong, 1998, Wong & Watt, 1991).
However, these research projects eventually brought me back to my
original interest in optimism, because my research findings convinced
me that only meaning-based optimism can rise above all the difficulties
and challenges of old age.
In September, 2001, while I was preparing for
my presentation at the Positive Psychology Summit in Washington,
the unthinkable happened. From the bright morning sky, terror struck
the twin towers of World Trade Center in New York in quick succession,
resulting in devastating damages and thousands of causalities. For
the first time in history, on September 11, 2001, an act of war
was launched against civilians on American soil, and Americans were
awakened to a new reality of vulnerability.
When I went to Washington on October 6th, 2001
for the Positive Psychology (PP) Summit, less than a month after
the fateful Black Tuesday, there was a palpable under-current of
unease among the positive psychologists who were gathered there
to present their latest findings on positive emotions, positive
expectations, and positive virtues. They seemed to be struggling,
quietly by themselves or informally in groups of three or four,
trying to find a PP answer to the challenge posed by 9/11. One of
the widely accepted answers given at the Summit was “realistic
courage”. We were reminded by more than one speaker that realistically,
the likelihood of another terrorist attack was much less likely
than being struck by a car or a thunderbolt; therefore, there was
no reason to be fearful and anxious.
That answer did not sit very well with me. Why
do we need courage when realistically the risk of another terrorist
attack is less than being hit by lightening from a blue sky? Doesn’t
courage require the presence of a real and present danger? Their
construct of “realistic courage” seems timid and shallow
when compared with Frankl’s profound insight on taking a defiant,
courageous stand against overwhelming odds.
My paper was entitled “tragic optimism,
realistic pessimism, and mature happiness” (Wong, 2001 a),
which was essential an extension of Viktor Frankl’s construct
of TO. I thought that Viktor Frankl’s message of hope in the
face of tragedies and dangers offers the best answer for the people
traumatized by the losses of 9/11 and fearful of the aftermath and
the anthrax scare. But the only response I got from my audience
was whether I had any hard data to support Frankl’s concept
of TO, as if Frankl’s personal testimony and all those who
bear witness to their heroic survival of the Holocaust did not count
as supporting evidence. It is amazing how one’s obsession
for crunching numbers could prevent one from feeling the pains and
probing the depth of human experiences. I came away convinced that
it would be a disservice to psychology and society, if research
psychologists are only interested in dissecting human behavior with
the same precision and dispassionate objectivity as a biologist
dissecting a frog.
On December 16 in the same year, I was able
to give a workshop on “Living with terror: Lessons from logotherapy
and positive psychology” (Wong, 2001 b) to a more responsive
audience at the Spirituality and Healing in Medicine Conference
in Boston. After all, Frankl was the first one to emphasize the
importance of spirituality in psychotherapy and healing, before
it becomes fashionable in recent years. I was able to explain how
Frankl’s logotherapy and tragic optimism can help transform
traumas and threats into positive forces for meaningful living.
Since then, I have done several empirical studies
with my students on tragic optimism, which will be summarized later.
To provide a contemporary context for my research, I need to first
critique the limitations of America’s PP and optimism research
before making a case for TO and mature positive psychology.
Critique of America’s Positive Psychology
Martin Seligman, as President of APA (1998-1999)
proposed that a time of peace and prosperity was an opportune time
for psychology to shift its focus from psychopathology to positive
experiences. The new positive psychology will be a “science
of positive subjective experiences, positive traits, and positive
institutions” (Selgiman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p.5).
They “believe that the nation – wealthy, at peace, and
stable – provides the world with a historical opportunity
. . . a science that takes as its primary task the understanding
of what makes life worth living” (p. 11).
Seligman’s call for positive psychology
was immediately embraced by the psychological community. After the
initial flurry of excitement and frantic activities, the dust has
settled somewhat. Therefore, it is time for critical reflection.
Such an exercise is a necessary part of the self-corrective process
of science, and is much needed for the progress of positive psychology.
Here are two limitations of the first wave of PP:
Failing to address the tragic dimension
of human existence
The positive psychology of success and happiness
was finally put to test by grim realities and found wanting. The
terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 and its aftermath have drastically
changed the American psychological landscape. We have entered a
new era of vulnerability and fear. The nation continues to be troubled
by anxiety over terrorist threats and the seemingly unending war
on Iraq, and mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression
and post-traumatic stress disorders are on the increase. Recently,
Surgeon General Cameron told a meeting of California Psychological
Association. “Today, there’s no greater mental health
issue than the effects of terrorism and war. Your expertise is paramount
to our nation’s health” (The Associated Press, 2003).
Americans have begun to develop a tragic sense
of life, which is all too familiar to people living in developing
countries, where poverty, suffering and untimely deaths are a daily
reality. For example, more than 38 million people are victims of
famine in Africa. This food shortage is caused by natural disasters,
government mismanagement, armed conflicts and economic collapse
The problem of poverty and famine in Africa
is further compounded by the highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection
in the world. According to the AIDS epidemic update (UNAID, 2002),
in sub-Saharan Africa, there were 29.4 million cases of adults and
child living with HIV/AIDS. By the end of 2002, there were 3.5 millions
cases of newly infected with HIV. The % of increase of HIV-positive
women adults is a staggering 58%.
In 2003 the AIDS epidemic claimed an estimated
3 millions lives with 5 million new cases diagnosed (UNAID, 2004).
The global total is the highest since the beginning of the epidemic
despite continued progress in medical research and new antiretroviral
therapies. HIV is increasing in women, with women now comprising
about half of all HIV positive individuals. HIV/AIDS is also spreading
rapidly in Russia, China and India. What is positive psychology’s
response to such enormous human tragedy?
What do we say to those whose lives have been
devastated by war, terrorism, poverty and AIDS? The gospel of expecting
good outcomes and the mantra that we all can achieve our dreams
with out own efforts sound hollow to those who can neither understand
nor control the negative forces that are destroying their lives.
Given that suffering is such a major, inevitable
dimension of human existence, positive psychologists would be guilty
of “ostrichism” by only whistling happy tunes and ignoring
the suffering masses. Millions upon millions of the oppressed or
traumatized are desperately crying out for help: “How can
I find hope and happiness? How can my life be worth living, when
suffering is my daily bread?” Positive psychology would be
guilty of elitism, if it only relevant to those who are privileged
to live a life of peace and prosperity. Psychology that exclusively
focuses on positive experiences of happy people would be just as
irresponsible as medicine that only focuses only on the healthy.
Failing to address the paradoxical,
dialectical nature of human experience
The above predicament of PP stems from the Hellenic
linear thinking and Cartisan dualism, which have dominated American
academic psychology. Witness the controversies in psychology, such
as nature vs. nurture, response vs. place learning, reinforcement
vs. contiguity, and the current positive vs. negative psychology
debate. All these controversies all based on linear, dichotomous
The distinction between negative and positive
psychology is in fact a false dichotomy. It is more semantic than
substantial, more artificial and natural, because there is no positive
psychology of courage without the negative psychology of fear and
frustration. Similarly, resilience does not exist apart from the
context of adversity.
Is the study of frustration and fear a case
of negative psychology? Not at all, because in studying how animals
and people persist in the face of frustration and fear, Wong (1995)
discover how they learn perseverance and courage. Is the study of
learned helplessness a case of negative psychology? Not really,
because through research on reformulated learned helplessness, Seligman
(1991) discovered the optimistic explanatory style and learned optimism.
In fact, most of the human strengths and virtues are meaningful
only in the context of negative experiences.
The above limitations clearly highlight the
need to integrate both negative and positive experiences into a
mature positive psychology of saying “yes” to life in
spite of all the negative and dark aspects of human existence. Such
a paradoxical/dialectic positive psychology can be modeled after
Frankl’s (1985) concept of the defiant human spirit and tragic
optimism, which can transform the worst negative experiences into
A critique of existing models
Optimism research has been one of the major
areas in PP. Therefore, a close examination of optimism research
may point to the direction of a dialectic mature PP, which is predicated
on the transformation that comes from a synthesis of both negative
and positive psychology.
Unrealistic optimism as a defense mechanism
Peterson (2000) provided a very insightful review
of the literature on optimism research. Basically, there have been
four strands of thoughts on optimism. The first strand primarily
came from Freud (1928) who viewed unrealistic positive thinking
as a defense mechanism against harsh reality or an illusionary religious
belief, which only served to prolong human misery. Cramer (1991)
pointed out that defense mechanisms, such as denial and fantasies
and served as a protective mechanism, when people felt threatened
and powerless, but unrealistic optimism might prove to be problematic
in the long run. Research on stress and coping continues to recognize
denial, wishful thinking, and praying as part of emotion-focused
coping, when the problem is perceived as beyond one’s control
(Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).
According to this trend of thoughts, the hallmark
of mental health is being rooted in reality. Unrealistic optimism
may temporarily serve a protective function, when the threat is
terrifying or unsolvable, but such defense mechanism becomes problematic
when it prevents one from one from facing the reality and making
the necessary adjustments.
The second strand of thought began in the 1980's
which focuses on the optimistic bias – people’s tendency
to over-estimate positive events and under-estimate negative events
that may come their way. Weinstein’s (1980) study of college
students found that they believed they had a greater than average
chance of good things coming their way and a lower than average
chance of bad things happening to them. Weinstein (1987) later demonstrated
the same bias in a large representative community sample. This kind
of systematic cognitive error represents unrealistic, delusional
optimism, which may make people feel invulnerable and prevent them
from taking the necessary precautions. Weinstein attributes this
“unrealistic optimism” in part to an individual’s
tendency to be egocentric.
Improving on the concept of optimistic bias,
which may involve a set of unhealthy cognitive distortions, Taylor
(1989) defined positive illusion as seeing oneself in the best possible
light -- a strategy for psychological health. Later, Taylor and
Armor (1996) defined positive illusion as a set of mentally healthy
responses to trying situations. They differentiate optimism as an
illusion (responsive to reality) from optimism as a delusion, which
suggests a degree of unreality, indicative of an inability to cope
with reality. Delusional optimism is optimistic bias at its strongest
and worst. Maintaining a slightly illusory sense of optimism tends
to be motivating and self-rewarding, because it lowers anxiety and
contributes to an individual’s sense of mastery and control.
Taylor acknowledges that positive illusion is shaped by culture.
For example, the American ideals of being strong, free and competent
may imbue Americans with the “can-do” attitude. Positive
illusion is further reinforced by the pragmatic utility of health
benefits and further success.
The third strand of thought also began in the
1980’s, which emphasized optimism as a personality trait.
Scheier and Carver (1985) defined dispositional optimism as the
global expectation of positive outcomes and proposed that optimistic
people generally “believe that good rather than bad things
will happen” (p.219). They developed the Life Orientation
Test (LOT), a brief self-report questionnaire to measure dispositional
According to their self-regulatory model of
optimism (Scheier & Carver, 1992), when people encounter an
obstacle in their pursuit of a valued goal, they temporarily disengage
from the valued goal and conduct an assessment. If they feel confident
in their own ability to attain the goal, then more effort will be
expended. However, if the obstacle is insurmountable, then the person
will disengage from that goal and substitute a more realistic goal,
so as to not remain immobilized. Optimists are less likely to give
up their valued goal. However, when problem-focused coping is not
longer appropriate, they would switch temporarily to the emotion-focussed
coping, such as acceptance (Scheier, Weintraub, & Carver, 1986).
Generally, research has suggested that dispositional optimists tend
to cope better, not only because they are more goal-oriented, but
also because they are more flexible and constructive in their thinking.
Related to goal-oriented dispositional optimism
is Snyder’s (2000) agency-based hope theory. Hope was defined
as “a cognitive set that is composed of a reciprocally derived
sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed determination) and
(b) pathways (planning of ways to meet goals)” (Snyder et
al., 1991p. 571). Same as Scheier and Carver, Synder conceptualized
hope as a personality trait; however, in addition to the component
of agency in goal-attainment, Synder also included resourcefulness
in planning different pathways to achieve success as another essential
component of hope. Later, Synder also defined hope as a temporal
state that varied daily according to the circumstances in people’s
lives (Snyder et al., 1996). Individuals with high hope are also
more likely to have a healthy lifestyle, avoid life crises, and
possess better coping strategies as compared to those with less
hope (Snyder et al., 1991; Snyder, 1994, 2000).
Learned optimism and explanatory styles
The fourth strand of thought is primarily based
on Martin Seligman’s. His theory of learned optimism (1991)
is based on the attributional reformulated helplessness theory (Abramson,
Seligman, and Teasdale, 1978). An internal explanation (taking responsibility
for negative events) is associated with a loss of self-esteem. A
stable explanation (assuming that the cause is long lasting or consistent
over time) is associated with a lasting sense of helplessness, whereas
a global rather than specific explanation is associated with pervasive
deficits (helplessness in all areas of life).
The optimists, on the other hand, have formed
the cognitive habit of attributing bad events to external, unstable,
and specific causes, thus, protecting their self-concept and energizing
them to pursue future success. Cognitive habits are learned and
therefore can be relearned. In a later book, Seligman (1995) recognized
the tension between learned optimism and reality and advocates realistic
optimism. He pointed out that “optimism that is not accurate
is empty and falls apart. Life defeats it. Disputing and decatastrophizing
work only when they can be checked against reality” (p. 298).
Selgiman’s main contribution to optimism is his emphasis on
the importance of learning, and the role of explanatory styles.
Limitations of existing models
Each of the above models has contributed a unique
piece to the overall picture of optimism. Together than highlight
three aspects of optimism that are important for success and happiness;
they are summarized as follows:
- Realism is important. Unrealistic optimism
may serves as a temporary protective function but in the long
run become problematic, because delusional positive thinking is
counterproductive and even harmful.
- A certain amount of positive illusion is
helpful, as long as it is within the realm of realism and coupled
with a sense of personal efficacy. A positive bias in expectation
and confidence may provide the competitive edge by motivating
individuals to risk more challenging projects and to persist longer
- Some people are dispositionally optimistic
or pessimistic, but all can learn to be more optimistic through
overcoming obstacles. An optimistic habit of explaining failure
and pursuing valued goals will increase the likelihood of success.
In sum, existing models of optimism are primarily
based on confidence in one’s own competence and expectation
of positive outcomes, as long as such positive thinking checks out
with reality. These models contribute to effective coping, success,
and well-being among healthy functioning individuals in affluent
and individualistic societies, because the main thrust is on developing
one’s own sense of self-efficacy and pursuing personal success.
Such egocentric optimism clearly reflects the American can do attitude,
but may not be appropriate for collectivistic societies. For example,
Chang (2001) has found that Asians often use pessimism rather than
optimism as a motivator to do well in the future
To link expectations of positive outcomes entirely
to one’s own efficacy considerably restricts the wide range
of sources of hope available, such as family, friends, God and good
luck (Wong & Reker, 1985). Lazarus (1999) has pointed out that
Snyder’s marriage of hope to self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997)
dilutes the strength of true hope.
Another limitation of existing models is that
they treat optimism and pessimism as opposite poles of the same
continuum, rather than two related but independent dimensions. Lazarus
(1999) argued that hope always incorporates some element of doubt
and that the two constructs can co-exist in healthy individuals.
Peterson (2000) also contended that “optimism is not simply
the absence of pessimism, and well-being is not simply the absence
of helplessness” (p. 49). These comments are consistent with
Frankl’s construct of tragic optimism, which is predicated
on the co-existence of pessimism and optimism.
Finally, the most serious limitation is that
none of the existing models can be applied to extreme situations
in which individuals can only expect bad events and have little
or no control over the terrifying situation. For example, ethnic
cleansing continues in Sudan, with hundreds of thousands of refugees
living in hunger and fear of being murdered. In such situations,
it is only human to feel helplessness, hopeless and terrified, because
the adversity they experience and the terror they face tends to
be pervasive, chronic, and beyond their control. Does it give them
any hope by telling them that happiness can trump suffering? Does
it bring them any consolation by trying to convince them: “Don’t
worry, be happy?” They don’t need empty words based
on research findings with subjects who have never experienced hunger;
they desperately need food and medicine and real “hope in
hell” (Bortolotti, 2004).
Even in North America, there are individuals
in extreme boundary situations, where the normal problem-focused
coping becomes irrelevant. Just visit any hospice, palliative care
unity, or extended care institution for the frail elder. When getting
through each day is a major achievement, there is little room for
confidence in one’s own self-efficacy and expectation of positive
outcomes. When everything has been stripped away from them, and
they are enveloped in the shadow of death, what they need is the
same kind of optimism that sustained Frankl in the concentration
Thus, the missing piece in the optimism literature
is a model of optimism for the helpless and hopeless. Such a model
would not be based on self-confidence and positive expectations,
but on existential and spiritual principles (Frankl, 1985; Wong,
A case of tragic optimism
It took the horror of Nazi death
camps for Viktor Frankl (1985) to discover and the power of tragic
optimism. He defined TO as “an optimism in the face of tragedy”
(p.162). His chapter on A case for tragic optimism “addresses
present day concerns and how it is possible to ‘say yes to
life’ in spite of all the tragic aspects of human existence.
To hark back to its title, it is hoped that an ‘optimism’
for our future may flow from the lesson learned from our ‘tragic’
He demonstrated this overlooked but important
dimension of hope in Nazi concentration camps: All the horrors of
atrocities, all the dehumanizing deprivation and degradation, and
all the pains inflicted on him by his tormentors could not strip
him of his human dignity and his abiding hope in the meaning and
value of life. His own defiant spirit and courage in the most hopeless,
helpless situation bears witness to the power of TO.
After surviving the Holocaust. Frankl (1985)
eloquently discussed the critical nature of attitude toward suffering.
He was not willing to engage in what he called false illusions or
artificial optimism. An optimistic attitude was literally a posture,
a stance to be embraced in the face of terror. He has taught us
that whatever the sufferings we may endure and however oppressive
and grim the situation may be, we can always choose the stance we
take towards our suffering:
“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual
freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions
of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration
camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting
others, giving away their last price of bread. They may have been
few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything
can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms
- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,
to choose one’s own way” (Frankl, 1985, p. 86).
“He may retain his human dignity even
in a concentration camp. Dostoevsky said once ‘There is
one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’
These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted
with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and
death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot
be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings;
the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement.
It is this spiritual freedom – which can not be taken away
– that makes life meaningful and purposeful” (Frankl,
To realize that one is trapped in an underground
mine or looked up in a torture chamber naturally makes one feel
pessimistic and depressed. But enter tragic optimism, and the equation
changes: there is always hope in hopeless situations. People can
be both realistic pessimistic and idealistically optimistic at the
same time (Wong, 2001a). They can feel the pain and experience the
terror, but at the same time the can still celebrate the fact of
being alive and cling to the belief that as long as there is life,
there is hope. Unlike other kinds of hopes, TO cannot be crushed
by adversities or catastrophes, because like true gold, it is purified
in the crucible of suffering and rooted in an abiding inner value.
Frankl (1985) aptly added: “The consciousness of one’s
inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things, and cannot
be shaken by camp life” (p.83).
TO can even be extended to one’s worldview
of society and the human condition. For example, in an interview
with Cromartie’s (1998) about race in American, Stanley Crouch,
a brilliant black writer, claimed “I am much more optimistic
than a lot of other people, but my optimism is what I always refer
to as ‘tragic optimism.’ It’s an optimism that
accepts the horror of life, the horror of the past, the horror of
the present.” Fully aware of the history of oppression and
the current struggles of black people in American, Crouch has chosen
to take the stance of tragic optimism.
Components of tragic
Based on Frankl’s writings, I have identified
five essential components that comprise TO: (a) Affirmation of the
meaning and value of life, regardless of circumstances, (b) Acceptance
of what cannot be changed, (c) Self-transcendence in serving a higher
purpose, (d) Faith or trust in God and others, (e) Courage to face
adversity. These components can also be found in the clinical literature
on trauma as well as the larger literature of humanities.
After 9/11, the same five components were also
evident in so many speeches, prayers, interviews, testimonies, and
more importantly in the actions of the rescue workers, survivors
and fellow citizens. What sustained the New Yorkers and all Americans
in their darkest hours is their affirmation of the inherent value
of liberty, justice, and the meaning of life. In spite of acceptance
of the grim reality and the devastating losses, so many still maintain
faith – faith in the miracles that their loved one may still
be alive, faith in reunion in heaven, faith the eventual triumphant
of justice and goodness over evil, faith in the American ideals,
and faith in God. Thousands gave themselves sacrificially, and many
had literally given their own lives, in their effort to rescue others.
No word has been summoned more often than “courage”
– “courage to combat pain”, “from the depth
of tragedy to the height of courage,” and the “courage
and resolve to persevere”. Together, these sentiments weave
a glorious tapestry of the meaning of tragic optimism.
Acceptance of what cannot be changed
Acceptance of reality is the defining characteristic
of TO. By definition, TO depends on confronting and accepting reality
as experienced, no matter how painful and gloomy. Acceptance also
encompasses one’s past traumas and possible future tragic
events. Tragic optimism differentiates itself from other models
of optimism by incorporating acceptance as an essential component
of hope. Unless and until one fully accepts the dark sides of life
and a pessimistic assessment of grim reality, without delusional
or defensive attribution, one cannot discover TO. All other components
of TO become possible because of acceptance.
It is one of the most widely accepted the assumption
that a sense of reality is the hallmark of mental health. “Acceptance
has deep roots in the history of psychology and psychotherapy. Psychoanalysis,
existential psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioural therapy (BT), and
humanistic treatment all require the client to confront, approach,
or endure the pain that is part of life,” (Sanderson &
Linehan, 1999). Recent research findings also show that acceptance
of reality is a major dimensions of well-being and happiness (Ryff
& Keys, 1995; Wong, 1998).
The present model of TO simply states that enduring
hope must be based on a realistic assessment of reality, no matter
how pessimistic the prospect. However, the benefits of acceptance
are dependent on the concomitant presence of positive beliefs and
attitudes, such as Affirmation.
The psychological benefits of acceptance in
terminal cases have received empirical support. For example, in
one study examining the concept of empowerment in cancer patients
in China, Mok (2001) discovered that acceptance is an integral part
of empowering clients to find meaning and connectedness:
In becoming empowered, the participants were
also reconstructing their beliefs of the world, which affected
how they viewed their relationships, themselves and their health
problem. It was completely unrealistic for the patients to presume
that they could reverse the illness situation. By reframing and
reinterpretation of the illness, these patients looked at cancer
from a more positive perspective and tolerated the situation more
easily. They found that, although they cannot change the course
of the illness, they have the freedom to choose how they view
it. (Mok, p. 72)
In Mok’s study, it was also found that
acceptance of illness was tied into the traditional Chinese cultural
beliefs of harmony with the universe and Taoist teaching of 'wu
wei' (which literally means do-nothing). By looking at some aspects
of Chinese culture, one can see that Harmony with heaven, or surrender
to the way of Nature, allows Chinese people to cope with many uncontrollable
troubles, without sinking into despair (Chen, 2005).
It needs to be pointed out that acceptance means to honestly confront
the seriousness our situation. It is not mean giving up one’s
hope, but it does mean that one will not futilely bang one’s
head against the wall. Acceptance is simply an acknowledgement of
our predicament and hopeless state, but at the same time, making
the heroic choice to live and endure with dignity and optimism.
The Serenity Prayer, which has been credited
to the late American theologian Reinfold Niebuhr, says it well:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot
change.” Frankl has shown that accepting the harsh reality
of life and facing the world in all its evils is the pathway to
achieving serenity and rebuilding a shattered life.
“Once the meaning of suffering had been
revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp’s
tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining
artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did
not want to turn our backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities
for achievement” (Frankl, 1985, p.99).
When false hope eventually gives way to realistic
pessimism, one is faced with two choices: One either fades away
in depression, or embraces tragic optimism. Acceptance involves
a double-affirmative: Saying Yes to suffering and death, and saying
Yes to meaning and life. Suffering intensifies hope, when there
is acceptance is coupled with affirmation.
Affirmation of the inherent meaning and value of life
Affirmation of the inherent value of life and
meaning represents the first positive step towards coping with traumas
and rebuilding shattered assumptions. It is the turning point from
the negative affect of realistic pessimism towards a positive affect
in affirming the positive value of being alive. Dunbar, Mueller,
Medina, and Wolf (1998) investigated the accounts of women living
with HIV/AIDS to see how they were coping with their illness. The
authors decry the disproportionate amount of literature that speaks
of the devastation of AIDS on the individual and leaves out the
stories of people who have been motivated to live healthier, fuller
lives because of AIDS:
“The vastly disproportionate focus of
the existing literature on negative aspects of HIV, with only
a few more recent studies on coping, is unjustified. By failing
to recognize the growth some women with HIV have created in themselves,
social work professionals can inadvertently minimize the personal
strengths and power of their clients” (Dunbar, et al., 1998,
The authors found that after interviewing 34
women about their experiences living with HIV/AIDS, 28 responded
that they had experienced unexpected positive outcomes related to
their disease. Of the positives mentioned, affirmation of life was
a common factor:
“Many women who spoke of reckoning with
death described a subsequent discovery of the will to live. Affirming
life in the face of a fatal illness is profound, for in the face
of death, life takes on a different meaning. Ironically, it was
the participants who decided to live consciously and fully who
seemed to experience the greatest grief. One participant described
a period of depression in which she tried to numb herself with
excessive substance use. She came out of her depression slowly
as a result of affirming her will to live” (Dunbar et al.,
1998, p. 152).
The affirmation of life is the cornerstone of
tragic optimism. Without firmly believing in the possibility of
meaning in all aspects of human existence, without believing in
the intrinsic value and dignity of human life, it would be difficult
to experience optimism in the face of tragedy. The following quote
is a shining example of such affirmation.
“I told my comrades (who lay motionless,
although occasionally a sigh could be heard) that human life,
under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that
this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation
and death. I asked the poor creatures who listened to me attentively
in the darkness of the hut to face up to the seriousness of our
position. They must not lose hope but should keep their courage
in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not
detract from its dignity and its meaning” (Frankl, 1985,
Tragic optimism is meaning-oriented and value-based.
Thus, TO is predicated on affirming a deeply cherished set of core
values, which serve as sources of meaning; these may include achievement,
intimacy, self-transcendence, self-acceptance, and religion/spirituality
(Wong, 1998). Tragic optimism is unshakable to the extent that these
inner values and meanings are deep and secure. For example, Frankl’s
love for his wife and his intimate, internal dialogues with her
endowed his existence with meaning and hope. He concluded: “Love
goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds
its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self”
(Frankl, 1985, p.58).
Achievement, or the dream of future achievement, is another major
source of meaning for Frankl in the death camp. He valued the unfinished
manuscript on logotherapy. The thought of giving a public lecture
on logotherapy enabled him to transcend the hopelessly oppressive
“I forced my thoughts to turn to another
subject. Suddenly, I saw myself standing on the platform of a
well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room. In from of me sat an
attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving
a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All the
oppressed me at the moment became objective, seen and described
from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded
somehow in rising above the situation, about the sufferings of
the moment, and I observed that as if they were already of the
past” (Frankl, 1985, p.94-95)
For Frankl, “meaning in life enables us
to make sense of our existence despite guilt, suffering, injustice
and the inevitability of life” (Gould, 1993). Therefore, we
need to discover something that is worth living and worth dying
for, if we are to survive the tragedies of life. We know how to
endure and survive, once we know why we exist.
“As we said before, any attempt to restore
a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed
in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, ‘He
who has a why to live for
can bear with almost any how,’
could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic
efforts regarding prisoners” (Frankl, 1985, p.97).
It represents an active expression of affirmation
and involves the action dimension of TO, because an attitude of
self-transcendence invariably manifests itself in rising about self-interest
and difficult circumstances in serving others. It can be directed
upward in terms of serving God and doing his will; and it can also
flow horizontally in terms of serving our fellow human beings. The
essence of self-transcendence is self-detachment and involvement
in loving God and loving our neighbours. Self-Transcendence is demonstrated,
whenever we embrace suffering for the benefit of others (Frankl,
1985). Most religions espouse spiritual growth through transcending
self-interests and serving a higher purpose (Richards & Bergin;
1997, 2000). Seligman (1991) also posits that people will gain meaning
for themselves if they actively serve others. Peterson (2000) proposed
that researchers need to find out how optimism be channeled from
self-interest to concerns for others.
Transpersonal psychologists conceptualize self-transcendence
as the act of identifying less with the restrictions of one’s
own ego personality in order to identify more with the ‘total
self’, in order to express one’s existential nature
in a congruent manner (Strohl, 1998). One’s personality is
only an outer expression of one’s true ‘total self’.
According to Vaughan (1980), when one lets go of one’s ego-centered
perspective, an expanded sense of identity, including a deeper sense
of wholeness, relatedness, and connectedness is realized.
On a more practical level, stepping outside
oneself to help others has been demonstrated to have an ameliorative
effect. In the psychiatric rehabilitation field, for instance, it
has become quite common for mental health consumers to become service
providers. A recent qualitative study was conducted to examine the
benefits of being a consumer-provider. In a thematic analysis of
interviews with 14 such ‘peer providers’, it was found
that the peer providers benefited substantially from their work
(Salzer & Shear, 2002).
Self-transcendence is related to Adler’s
(1964) concept of social interest. Serve others has the effect of
liberating the individual from a miserable existence. For example,
Frankl found it very rewarding to encourage his fellow prisoners
to find meaning and hope in the midst of their suffering. His ministry
to the prisoner both stems from and reinforces his deeply held belief
that meaning can be found in any situation. By attempting to restore
the inner strength of others, he was strengthened. By imparting
meaning to others, he found his own life enriched.
“The purpose of my words was to find
a full meaning in our life, then and there, in that hut and in
that practically hopeless situation. I saw that my efforts had
been successful. When the electric bulb flared up again, I saw
the miserable figures of my friends limping toward me to thank
with tear in their eyes” (Frank, 1985, p.105)
All existential psychologists have come to the
conclusion that transcending self-interests is one of the pathways
to meaning and fulfillment (Wong, 1998). Similarly, almost all faith
traditions believe that through transcending hedonistic and selfish
interest, humans grow spiritually (Richards & Begins,1997).
In self-transcendence, we lose ourselves in a higher service, and
we find meaning by giving of ourselves to the world.
Self-transcendence may be conceptualized as
the manifestation of tragic optimism in purposeful and goal-oriented
activities. Self-transcendence represents tragic optimism in action
– it is the inevitable consequence of affirmation and acceptance.
If meaning is possible in the worst possible circumstances, such
as Nazi’s death camps, then we must act accordingly and demonstrate
that there is indeed a higher purpose in our existence (Frankl,
Faith in God and in others
Faith is crucial to tragic optimism (Wong, 2001).
Tillich (1958) noted that such hope comes not from oneself but from
an ultimate higher power. Trust in others becomes critical when
one does not have theistic beliefs (Erickson, 1963; Capps, 1995).
Capps (1995) stressed that without trust, one would not dare to
hope at all. Conners, Toscova, and Tonigan (1999) wrote: “A
trust in others and the sense that no matter what happens one will
be fine are based on a belief in the benevolent wisdom of the universe”
There are numerous studies designed to measure
whether certain aspects of faith have an ameliorative effect on
health and well-being (Klaassen, McDonald, & James, 2005). The
effect of faith and prayer on health, including seemingly deadly
diseases such as cancer has been well documented (Benson & Stark,
1996; Dossey, 1993; Matthews & Clark, 1998).
Only recently, however, have researchers conducted
randomized and controlled studies. Harris and his colleagues (1999)
conducted such a study in order to measure the effects of intercessory
prayer on outcomes of patients admitted to a coronary care unit.
In this study, 990 patients were randomly divided into two groups.
One group had no one assigned to pray for them. In the other group,
community volunteers offered four weeks of daily prayers for an
uncomplicated, speedy recovery. The patients had no knowledge of
the experiment, but all had previously indicated their belief in
God and God's responsiveness to prayers for healing. Results indicated
that while length of stay on the unit and certain specific complications
were no different between groups, the level of complications overall
were 10 per cent less (statistically significant) in the prayed-for
group (Harris et al., 1999).
Faith in God and prayer has been a source of
strength and optimism to countless individuals in practically hopeless
situations. It has often been said that man’s adversity is
God’s opportunity. Faith represents a flickering light at
the end of the tunnel. Often, it is the only positive expectation
in an otherwise dark and hopeless world.
Frankl (1986) declared: “It is self-evident
that belief in a super-meaning – whether as a metaphysical
concept or in the religious sense of Providence – is of the
foremost psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic importance. As a genuine
faith springing from inner strength, such a belief adds immeasurably
to human vitality” (p.33).
Schieier and Carver (1985) recognized that for
most people their optimism is derived from their history of success,
and confidence in their own mastery, but they also recognized a
substantial minority of people may derive their optimism from external
sources. However, I would propose that most people in extreme situations
beyond their control would resort to tragic optimism based on faith
in God. The linkage between religion and optimism has also been
pointed out by Peterson (2000), and it deserves more research attention.
In one of earliest studies of optimism, Wong
and Reker (1985) asked subjects ranging from 18 to 75 years of age
to list their positive expectations – the positive events
they were looking forward to. We found that for the older group
(60+), their optimism was a lot more externally oriented than the
young people – they looked forward to the birth of their grandchildren,
the visit from relatives, answered prayers, healing from God and
going to Heaven after death.
Yahne and Miller (1999) referred to faith-based
hope as “the net that catches one when all else fails. Such
hope is that vested not in oneself but in a higher power, in something
more ultimate (Tillich, 1958). One example is the international
12-step tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous (1976), which emphasizes
“a power outside of and greater than oneself, that is, a transcendent
and in this sense spiritual power” (p.220).
Courage to face and overcome adversity
Courage encompasses the capacity to face adversity,
to be true to one’s convictions in spite of threats, to stand
one’s ground in spite of peer pressure or external force,
and to survive in spite of the pain and brutality and hopelessness
of the situation. Courage may be considered the “master gland”,
because without it other glands will not function well. It is the
pivotal point of TO -- all other components hinge on courage --
the heroic, defiant human spirit. Acceptance requires courage. So
does affirmation. Stepping out our comfort zone to help others or
to serve God also require the courage to be vulnerable.
We need courage to face tomorrow, courage to
grow old, courage to face sickness and death. We need courage to
attempt anything, because there is always the risk of failure and
oppositions. One cannot be optimistic without the courage to face
an unknown and uncertain future. One cannot be optimistic about
one’s own competency, without the courage to take on a challenging
task and risk failure.
Courage has been one of the major themes in
humanistic-existential psychology (Camus, 1954, 1955; Frankl, 1985;
May, 1984; Satre 1943/1956; Tillich, 1952). But there has not been
much research on courage. I have done a lot of experiments (Wong,
1995) on persistence. The results demonstrate that with proper training,
organisms can learn endurance and resourcefulness in goal-striving.
Existential courage may be operationally defined as to the capacity
to persist in face of adversity and failure. Based on studies of
managers, Salvatore Maddi (2004) has developed a different operational
definition of existential courage:
“the combined hardy attitudes of commitment,
control, and challenge constitute the best available operationalization
of existential courage. The hardy attitudes structure how you
think about your interaction with the world around you and provide
motivation to do difficult things. When they occur together, the
3 C’s of hardy attitudes facilitate awareness that you formulate
life's meaning for yourself by the decisions you make and that
choosing the future regularly, despite the anxiety of uncertainty,
leads to the most vibrant life” (Maddi, 2004).
But both definitions incorporate the courage
of committing one’s time and energy towards an uncertain and
even threatening future. The hardy attitudes of commitment, control
and challenge are manifested in behavioral persistence and resourcefulness
In sum, acceptance, affirmation, self-transcendence
and courage are the five strands that make up the toughest rope
that can endure almost any kind of stress test. When illusions,
positive expectations and self-efficacy – the bases for the
kind of hopes we normally enjoy – are crushed by harsh reality,
TO kicks in. It is a different kind of hope. It is reality-based,
solid as a rock and it works best when one has hit rock bottom.
It is spirit-oriented, like the wind and the water flowing from
a higher source, always reaching out and gaining strength as it
goes. It is meaning-centered and connected with the center of one’s
truest being – a set of core values and meanings that define
one’s identity. Finally, it is fearless and invincible, because
it has overcome and transformed death.
Frankl (1985) stated his own life in the death
camps “serves as the existential validation of my theories”
(p.16). He also pointed out that survivors of the Holocaust provide
further evidence – prisoners who were most likely to survive
were those who had a future-meaning to fulfill, and thus had a reason
and purpose for living in spite of the unbearable sufferings. But
still our quantitatively oriented psychologists demand operational
definitions and scientific studies to support the validity of the
TO. The next section provides a brief summary of my efforts to qualify
and validate my five-component model of TO.
Development of the Life Attitude Scale
In the last three years, a few graduate students
and I undertook the development and validation of a tragic optimism
scale (Leung, Steinfort, Vroon, & Wong, 2003). Called the Life
Attitudes Scale (LAS), it consists of a 36-item self-report questionnaire.
It measures a person’s tragic optimism on the basis of the
five sub-scales -- the five components of TO.
Factorial analyses in three studies support
the theoretical model postulating a five-factor solution: Acceptance,
Affirmation, Courage, Faith, and Self-Transcendence. The inter-correlations
between the subscales range from weak to moderate, indicating that
the factors are relatively independent of each other. Also consistent
with my (2001) TO model, the Acceptance subscale, which reflects
realistic pessimism, is negatively correlated with other subscales,
which emphasize a positive attitudes towards life in spite of a
pessimistic assessment. Three separate replications of higher-order
factor analyses of the means sub-scales further confirm the duality
of the tragic optimism construct: the coexistence of heroic optimism
and realistic pessimism. Therefore, the overall results on the factorial
validity and factorial invariance of the LAS are satisfactory.
The Validity of the LAS
The concurrent validity studies between TO and
two other optimism measures: Scheier and Carver’s (1992) LOT-R,
Snyder et al’s (1996) Adult State Hope Scale, and Wong’s
(1998) Personal Meaning Profile (PMP) reveal positive correlations
with the exception of the Acceptance subscale, which either correlates
negatively or uncorrelated with other scales. The outcomes of these
studies support the dichotic construct of TO and demonstrate the
convergent and discriminant validity of the LAS. The predictive
validity of the LAS was demonstrated in another study shows that,
consistent with our prediction, LAS is a significant predictor of
post-traumatic growth. This finding suggests that acceptance coupled
with a meaning-and-faith based optimism may be of the underlying
process of posttraumatic growth.
TO and the mature positive psychology
Gabriel Marcel: “The only genuine hope
is hope in what does not depend on ourselves, hope springing from
humility and not from pride.” Frankl has personally demonstrated
that we can restore hope in hopeless situations through surrendering
to the calling of meaning. I have defined and refined the components
of TO and demonstrated empirically the dialectic/paradoxical nature
of TO: In our state of despair and helplessness, we discover the
power of meaning and faith; in our brokenness, we hear the calling
to bring healing to others; in our suffering, we encounter joy and
serenity; and in our fears and vulnerability, we discover the defiant,
The theory and research on tragic optimism answer
many of the issues raised by Peterson (2000) and suggest a new direction
for optimism research as well as for positive psychology. TO is
in the vanguard of developing a mature positive psychology for all
humanity, including the millions who are suffering and dying each
Future directions in TO research should include implementing TO
in developing countries (Wong, 2003), studying the defiant human
spirit and courage (Wong, 1995), and applying TO in working with
trauma victims and dying patients.
Since TO serves as a prototype of mature positive
psychology for the suffering masses, it warrants a closer look at
the contribution of tragic optimism to mature happiness and personal
growth in the midst of adversities and traumas.
Mature happiness and serenity
Dalai Lama (2002) correctly differentiates between
mature happiness and external happiness:
“There are two ways to create happiness.
The first is external. By obtaining better shelter, better clothes,
and better friends we can find a certain measure of happiness
and satisfaction. The second is through mental development, which
yields inner happiness. However, these two approaches are not
equally viable. External happiness cannot last long without its
counterpart. If something is lacking in your perspective –
if something is missing in your heart – then despite the
most luxurious surroundings, you cannot be happy. However, if
you have peace of mind, you can find happiness even under the
most difficult circumstances” (p.1-2)
Inner happiness is called mature, not only because
it requires certain levels of maturity in cognitive-emotional-and
spiritual development, but also because it is relatively independent
of circumstances and is capable of serenity in the midst of a storm.
Bailey (1990) defined serenity as “feelings
of tranquility, gratitude, contentment, affection for others and
a deep inner peace” (p.1). According to Roberts and Cunningham
(1990), serenity was as an inner peace in the face of difficult
circumstances; it has the following defining characteristics: trust
in the wisdom of the universe, acceptance of what cannot be changed.,
and the ability to be in touch with one’s inner sanctuary
of peace and security”. These descriptions sound similar to
the components of TO.
Cleary and Shapiro (1995) observed: “Maslow
emphasized the need to bring calmness into one’s psychological
state – that we need the serene as well as the poignantly
emotional, and he called attention to the plateau experience as
an example of serenity” (pp.10-11). However, Maslow (1970)
also emphasized that personal growth needs peak experiences, characterized
by the “poignantly emotional”.
Thus, mature happiness actually stretches the subjective experiences
in two directions. On the one hand, it is characterized by a sense
of serenity, quite contentment, and almost the total absence of
strong feelings. On the other hand, it is characterized by a sense
of awe, ecstasy, and unspeakable joy (Maslow, 1970; Schneider, 2004).
For example, Frankl (1985) was overwhelmed by a sense of awe and
joy when he caught a glimpse of the beauty of sunset against the
bleak background of death camps.
TO and post-traumatic
According to Frankl (1985), future meaning to fulfill was essential
to survival and resilience: “The prisoner who had lost faith
in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss
of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let
himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay”
Most of the intervention models for post-traumatic
stress disorders (PTSD) emphasized the important role of meaning-based
hope. For example, Herman (1992) stresses the need to integration
of past trauma with future purpose. Horowitz (2001) focuses on the
transformative role of meaning and future plans. Janoff-Bulman (1999)
emphasizes the importance of restoration of shattered assumptions
through restructuring one’s beliefs and worldviews.
There are difference consequences to trauma
(1) Many show immediate PTSD, (2) Some show delayed PTSD, (3) Some
stay about the same, (4) Some become stronger and demonstrate post-traumatic-growth,
with or without therapy. The last type of reaction is most fascinating,
because it testifies to both the human capacity for resilience and
the important role of meaning-based TO.
Tedeschi and Calhoun (1995, 1996) suggest that
there are five areas of perceived benefits or positive outcomes
reported by persons who have experienced trauma (i.e., New Possibilities,
Relating to Others, Personal Strength, Spiritual Change, and Appreciation
of Life). Interestingly, many of the concepts provided by the authors
and the Tragic Optimism elements in this research project mutually
support each other. For example, appreciation of life is similar
to affirmation of life, spiritual change is related to faith, and
courage is key to personal strength.
Tedeschi and Calhoun (1995) propose that in
order for one to perceive growth in the aftermath of trauma, it
is crucial that one can construct or derive meaning from the traumatic
experience, “when one can firmly grasp meaning and see one’s
life as orderly and purposeful, perceptions of control and esteem
are likely to follow, and with these, a sense of well-being”
(p. 40). Moreover, a person’s religious beliefs and spirituality
can become the pathway to meaning,
“Religion can provide higher-order schemas
that can serve to preserve meaning in life even when events themselves
seem senseless and tragic and …because religion deals in
universal truth and enduring values, it can preserve meaning in
the face of the violation of other illusions of permanence or
invulnerability-that we can ward off disease; that our children
will survive us; and that our homes, jobs, and fortunes are secure
against crime or natural disaster (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 1995,
Furthermore, aligned with the concept of Self-Transcendence,
the authors suggest that through one’s service to others,
one’s healing process is facilitated, however, these services
must be meaningful to the person such that, “actions can serve
to make events seem more manageable, but activities may be easier
to engage in when it is meaningful to the actor” (p. 72).
Also, a better social relationship can result from one’s effort
to contribute by helping others, “part of the positive development
of social relationship among survivors comes from their increased
compassion, greater sensitivity to the needs and feelings of other
people, and efforts directed at improving relationships” (p.
As mentioned earlier, TO as measured by the
LAS was positively correlated with Posttraumatic growth. Also, TO
served as a mediator between prior trauma and present well-being.
It appears that when one’s assumptive world has been shattered
and denial is no longer feasible, the only type of optimism that
empowers one to overcome and grow is a meaning-centered and faith-based
optimism. With its unique integration of acceptance and affirmation,
TO is able to provide suffering individuals with a resilient positive
outlook toward life while remaining sensitive to the harsh reality.
To further demonstrate the role of TO in post-traumatic growth,
research has shown the following characteristics are associated
- Acceptance – Accept suffering is inevitable
part of life. Accept suffering as our teacher rather than our
enemy – in so doing, they have acquired wisdoms about living
and dying. Also accept their vulnerability and mortality. Life
could be snatched away from us anytime.
- Affirmation – greater appreciation
of life and its meaning. Appreciate life and all its possibilities.
Affirm and discover the positive meaning in a difficult situation.
- Courage – The are prepared to pick
up the piece and re-establish themselves. They are ready to move
forward with an increased sense of agency. “If I can survive
this ordeal, I can’t survive anything.” They prepared
to confront future sufferings.
- Faith – Taping into our spiritual resources
to do the impossible. Restore faith in ultimate justice and ultimate
meaning. Reaffirm their faith in a Supreme Being who can help
them, when everything else has failed.
- Self-transcendence – New orientation.
New challenge. Their pain and suffering have given rise to compassion
for those who suffer. They are prepared to rise about self-interests
and immediate situations. A greater sense of communion.
A mature positive psychology for trying
I have shown that a mature positive psychology
cannot be exclusively based on positive experiences and positive
affects. It must be dialectic, paradoxical and integrative of both
negative and positive experiences: Courage is not the absence of
fear, but the capacity to carry on in spite of it; faith is not
the absence of doubt, but the capacity to believe in spite of it,
and optimism is not the absence of pessimism, but the capacity to
transcend and transform it.
Mature positive psychology, like Frankl’s
logotherapy, needs to be born of adversity and baptized by fire
in order to speak to the suffering masses. The worst of times often
brings out the best in us. Nothing makes hope grow stronger than
setbacks and adversities, just as nothing makes the stars shine
brighter than darkness. The pinnacle of human achievement, whether
the conquest of Mt. Everest or the music of Beethoven, is often
reached through the sacrifice of sweat and tears. A positive psychology
capable of addressing the challenges and potentials of the human
existence needs to consider the needs of the under-privileged, suffering
and dying, the paradoxical nature of an authentic, fulfilling life
that involves suffering, and the dialectic nature of positive experiences,
positive traits and positive institutions. We own these profound
psychological insights to Viktor Frankl -- he has taught us how
to soar from the abyss of misery to majestic heights on wings of
hope and prayer.
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© 2007 Paul T. P.
Professor and Research Director
Graduate Program in Counselling Psychology
Tyndale University College and Seminary