Home All Happiness and Positive Education in China

Happiness and Positive Education in China

written by Elaine O'Brien 2 September 2010

Elaine O'Brien, PhD, MAPP '08, is a positive psychology, fitness leadership, positive health promotion, movement science, aging, and well-being speaker, author, trainer, thought leader, people/project manager, educator, and consultant. Elaine creates programs promoting proactive positive health/fitness, and optimal performance. Elaine presents internationally and online. She advances health, fitness, and flourishing by inspiring people to move more and to find both enjoyment and meaning in motion via PEP: Positive Exercise Practices. Elaine's website.  Full bio. Elaine's articles are here.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

Historically and culturally, Positive Psychology took a giant leap forward this summer with two complementary international conferences held in China on Positive Behavioral Science and Positive Education. These events aimed at promoting mental health, happiness, positive education, well-being, and scholarship. They also provided a global platform for exchange among researchers and practitioners.


International Conference on Positive Psychology

The China International Conference on Positive Psychology took place August 7-10, 2010 at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.

A quest for wealth is “fast outpacing mental health and well-being in China.” According to psychologist Kaiping Peng, founder of the Berkeley-Tsinghua Program for Advanced Study in Psychology, “We want to switch the focus in China from the gross domestic product to happiness, from the culture of competition to the common good. We are seeking to correct that imbalance by spreading the science of happiness in China.” The timing was relevant in the wake of China’s Foxconn plant worker suicides, rising crime rates, and headlines about knife attacks on preschoolers.

Tsinghua mottos:
Self-Discipline and Social Commitment
Actions Speak Louder than Words

The Chinese Communist Party supported this conference, which attracted more than 200 academic papers from scholars, teachers, and business leaders from 38 countries. Keynote speakers included Dacher Keltner on the evolution of compassion, Chris Peterson and Nansook Park (now at University of Michigan) on what makes life worth living, Jennifer Goetz on compassion in the United States and China, and Robert Willer on whether generosity is contagious.



Census Poster

Census Poster

“Dedicated to the well-being of Chinese society and to world development,” the conference sought to investigate how positive psychology can improve life in China’s households, workplaces, and educational institutions. It also explored ties between mental health and spirituality. “Many people in China feel uncertain about the future,” Peng said. “We want to do more than just talk about depression and mental illness. We want to figure out how to improve people’s emotional outlooks and bring the wisdom of Buddhism and other religions to the scientific study of happiness.”


Timothy So made major contributions to the conference as president of the Global Chinese Positive Psychology Association. Yukun Zhao played many roles, including Positive Education program committee member, organizer, interpreter, and liaison to international presenters. There will be an article spotlighting the dynamic duo later in the month.

Conference on Positive Psychology and Education

The International Conference on Positive Psychology and Education took place Aug 13-15, 2010 at Beijing Normal University in Beijing, China.

A goal of this conference was to encourage positive education nationwide and worldwide by assembling mental health professionals, specialists, academicians, scholars, positive psychologists and positive education practitioners to share knowledge. This valuable forum featured world-class presenters, as well as lively, informative exchanges among regional and international positive education practitioners.

This conference was sponsored by the Beijing Normal University School of Psychology, International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), Research Center for Moral Education, Beijing Academy of Educational Science, Journal of Mental Health Education in Middle and Junior Schools (China) and Global Chinese Positive Psychology Association and was sanctioned by the Chinese Ministry of Education.


With a focus on flourishing in education, four main conference topic themes were explored:

  • Character Strengths and Nurturing Moral Excellence and Positive Traits of Youth
  • Well-Being Education Theories and Methodology
  • Positive Practices: Practical Results and the Experience of Positive Education
  • Resilience and Optimism

The conference theme was one of “paying more attention to student’s good character and beautiful souls, and on positive cognitive processing, positive emotional experiences, and positive social behaviors, so that students can become positive, healthy people.” Another theme was character education for teachers and teacher effectiveness. Researcher Ren Jun stated teachers can be seen as “engineers of the human soul,” so there is a great need for understanding and applying Positive Education practices.

Positive Education Keynotes

Poster on Learning

Poster on Learning

Professor Lui Xianping from Beijing Normal University offered stages of explanatory style of dispositional optimism, as “Paying attention to positive parts of the situation:”

Stage 1. Honor the value of optimism
Stage 2. Identify your main strength
Stage 3. Discover meaning in your life
Stage 4. Pursue (SMART) goals
Stage 5. Reinforce Positive Activities

Dr. Felicia Huppert from Cambridge University presented important research that she is conducting with Timothy So at the Well-Being Institute. They are surveying 23 countries in the European Union on Flourishing and Well-Being. Professor Huppert eloquently discussed the 5 key outcome messages, summarized in Timothy So’s earlier article, 5 Daily Actions for Your Well-Being.

According to Martin Seligman, “Flourishing individuals are physically healthier, they are more productive at work, and they are more peaceful citizens of the world.” Seligman discussed his 2051 goal for having 51% of the world population flourishing and how important China is for reaching that goal.

Yukun Zhao & Dr. Nansook Park

Yukun Zhao & Dr. Nansook Park

Nansook Park gave a stirring talk on developing talent and building excellence, emphasizing the importance of moral excellence “for children of all ages.” She gave the following equation:

Talent (ability) + Interest (Passion) + Character Strengths + Ethics + Opportunity

In addition to citing exemplars like Gandhi and Mandela, Park spoke of Alexandra Scott who contracted cancer at age 1. Wanting “to help doctors find a cure for childhood cancer,” Alex, with the help of her parents, sold lemonade, raising money and awareness. She died in 2004 at age 8, contributing more than 1 million dollars and a legacy that continues to inspire. Another young hero emerged during the massive earthquake in China. Lin Hao saved 2 of his classmates. Risking injury during the rescues, when asked his thoughts, he replied, “I was the hall monitor and my job was to look after my classmates. I was only doing my job!” Park described “ordinary people who did extraordinary things with a caring heart,” and believes “We should take moral excellence very seriously.”

Yukun Zhao translating for Chris Peterson

Yukun Zhao translating for Chris Peterson

Yukun Zhao discussed the value of “multi-directional communication,” one of his principal reasons for helping to organize the conference: “Chinese educators learned theories and research from international scholars, and international scholars learned the status and hopes of Chinese education. Many of the Chinese educators were introduced to the concept of Positive Education, or even Positive Psychology for the first time. Most of them were attracted by this idea immediately. Most have told me that they WILL apply positive psychology in their educational work and start positive education in their schools.”


Zhao describe the Positive Education “Action Plan” that he is now helping to develop in China based on the success of the conference. This plan will be launched in the next 3 to 5 years and includes the following actions for primary and middle schools:

  • Surveying the character strengths of youth
  • Training teachers in positive education and positive psychology
  • Testing positive education in some selected schools, improve it constantly, expand it as it becomes better
  • Teaching positive psychology to mental health workers in schools

A Vision For the Future
Dr. Park reminded the audience of the words by Stephen Meek, school principal, as he spoke about the positive education effort in Geelong Grammar School, “Kids don’t want to leave school at the end of the day!” Park urged, “Why can’t we all create a school like that!”



Author’s Note: Graduates from the University of Pennsylvania MAPP program were well represented at the conference, including Sulynn Choong from Malaysia; Vanessa King from the UK, Kaori Uno from Japan, Elaine O’Brien, Pakrita Tandon, and Emily van Sonnenburg from USA.

Quenna Hwang (volunteer), Vanessa King, Elaine O'Brien, Felicia Huppert, and Sulynn Choong

Queena Hwang (volunteer), Vanessa King, Elaine O'Brien,
Felicia Huppert, and Sulynn Choong

The image of Yukun Zhao and Chris Peterson is used courtesy of Vanessa King.
All other images are used courtesy of Elaine O’Brien.

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Warren Davies 5 September 2010 - 10:45 am

Although the conference seems mostly focused around the benefits of positive psychology to China, I think China is really important to positive psychology too.

Most studies have been conducted in modern, capitalistic, English-speaking, Western countries. And even within that, most studies are conducted on undergraduate psychology students. So I think it’s really important to take these studies to different countries and cultures, and check the results there too. Especially if we want to make any statements about human nature.

China is a good choice, as there are differences politically, it’s collectivist, etc. But I think the more different, the better. What effect would a gratitude diary have in areas of high poverty, for instance? Or in those parts of the world where 10 year olds carry machine guns? Stuff like that. Are there minimum levels of physical security, or fulfilment of your physical needs you have to meet before it’s useful? I think these are interesting questions.

Elaine O'Brien 5 September 2010 - 5:31 pm

Thank you very much for writing, Warren. I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s important that Positive Psychologists study and learn about people from all over the world, and not just English speaking Western countries!

At a course I recently attended at Oslo Summer School, “Positive Psychology and Well-Being Across Society and Cultures, Professor, Dr. Antonella Delle Fave, M.D., and President of IPPA: International Positive Psychology Association, repeatedly emphasized the urgency of this important point. Along with studying people from the East and West, North and South, it’s important to study and learn from people of ALL ages and stages across the life span.

Finally, I love travel and learning about cultures and people of the world. I believe that my life perspective has been richly enhanced by my experiences in China.

Thanks again and my best to you,

Katie Manning 24 September 2010 - 4:22 pm


As mentioned above, most research of Positive Psychology has been conducted in western cultures. Do you feel that the same results would be found if studied in different cultures like China or other collectivist countries? Are the conclusions specific to the cultures where they were studied or can they be more generalized?

Thank you,


Chris Xie 2 November 2010 - 4:29 am

Dear,all workers of Positive Psychology,

Thanks all of you for contributing to China on Positive psychology through

the two historically conference which were hold this Aug. in Beijin, China.

I am very happy that I, as a postgraduate student in Shenzhen Univ., have

the oppotunity to attend one of it due to finacial problem. Anyway, I am

pleased to gave a presentation in Qinhua Univ. and to meet some of you as well

as learning from you.

Right now, I am the teaching assistant of teacher Prof. Mark

Williams,teaching the course of Positive Psychology to undergraduate students

at Shenzhen Univ., who comes from Australia. And also I am the assitant of

teacher Prof. Chuk,teaching the the course of Psychology of succuss to

undergraduate students at Shenzhen Univ.,who comes from America.And I have recieved some transtlation aticles on Happiness from Timoth So.

Finally,I hope that Positive Psycholog will flourishing at a more and more

faster speed all the world and I would like to devote my efforts to work on it.

Kind regards.

Chris Xie in S.Z.U.

Elaine O'Brien 2 November 2010 - 9:04 pm

??? Chris Xie
???????I am happy that the Chinese Global Positive Psychology Association will be translating the recent Positive Psychology News Daily article into Mandarin and Cantonese: https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/elaine-obrien/2010103114063. Congratulations on your presentation this summer and on your work at the universities.


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