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Spotlight on Two Dynamos of China

written by Elaine O'Brien 31 October 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.

Crowd on the Great Wall

Crowd on the Great Wall

In the 21st century, China continues to evolve as a superpower. An economic giant that aspires to be an international leader, China’s rise in the global community generates widespread uncertainty at home and abroad. Chinese fiscal expansion has already fundamentally changed the nature of the world’s economy. All of our futures are intimately linked to what happens there.

Zhao and So: Two Dynamos of China

The recent contributions of Yukun Zhao and Timothy So to Positive Psychology, and particularly positive education and well-being, are important to the improvement of living conditions and quality of life in China. They exemplify peacefulness, passion, and a constructive commitment to positive change.

At two recent conferences, the China International Conference on Positive Psychology at Tsinghua University and the International Conference on Positive Psychology and Education at Beijing Normal University, these two dynamos of China played substantial roles, reflecting generosity, kindness, and wisdom in their leadership approaches, inspiring transformational thinking. Zhao and So demonstrate an ongoing spirit of willingness to contribute to the greater good for the people of China and for the rest of the world.

Timothy So: Social Goals for Flourishing

Dr. Huppert & Timothy So with Research Award

Dr. Huppert & Timothy So with Research Award

Born in Hong Kong, Timothy is now a full-time doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge in the UK, working with Dr. Felicia Huppert. At the conferences, he presented the operational definition and measures of flourishing, the prevalence and correlations of flourishing in Europe, and the development of a model and measure of community flourishing.

Timothy’s work with Dr. Huppert inspired Dr. Martin Seligman to propose the “51” Goal for Positive Psychology: By the year 2051 to have 51% of world flourishing. Today’s baseline is 15.2%, as measured with the set of attributes that Seligman calls PERMA:

  • Positive Emotions
  • Engagement
  • Positive Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

This innovative and first-rate research earns Timothy and Felicia a Research Excellence Award from the China’s Ministry of Education (MoE). It has also drawn the interest from No. 10 Downing Street in UK, which engages Timothy and Felicia in discussions on its potential application in UK policy making. The influence of China in making that goal of world flourishing a reality is integral.  For this goal to become a reality, Timothy is working hard to ensure China’s participation in the positive psychology and well-being movement of its people.

Temple & Boats

Temple & Boats

His first step was founding the Global Chinese Positive Psychology Association (GCPPA) together with a group of psychology graduates from UPenn, Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge etc. As a well-trained occupational psychologist, Timothy established remarkable collaborations with key parties from education, business and government sectors in China. For example, GCPPA lined up International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), MoE, and several key research institutes in China in organising the First International Positive Psychology Education of China in August. ‘Working in collaborations is always more powerful than working alone, especially sincere and friendly international collaborations,’ says Timothy.

Timothy’s spirit of liberality and aspiration in the Positive Psychology movement in China has impressed the Chinese government. As the president of GCPPA, he was invited by China’s State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs as 1 of the 18 speakers (selected presidents from over 1000 Chinese overseas expert organizations) to introduce positive psychology at the Conference on International Exchange of Professionals to 4,800 business or policy leaders.

Post-conferences, Timothy was also invited by the Beijing Academy of Educational Science to be 1 of 8 researchers investigating Values in Action (VIA) strengths, flourishing and life satisfaction in a sample of 100,000 high school students. To preach the positive psychology message to general public, Timothy has written over 50 column articles in Chinese newspapers and will start writing for Financial Times Chinese. He is also the chief editor for Seligman’s well-being publication collections in Chinese.

In recognition of his dedication in promoting Positive Psychology in China and of all the GCPPA achievements under his leadership, Timothy received the Practice Excellence Award, jointly presented by the Beijing Normal University and MoE, as well as 2010 Cambridge Rising Stars Award.

‘It is hard for other people to imagine my passion and thrill seeing positive psychology developing scientifically in China step by step. I am blessed to receive the best training in Cambridge, from Huppert, Seligman, Kauffman and many other leading positive psychology scholars whom I have utmost respect. They offered me opportunities and platforms to apply my strengths, and in return I for sure have to do my very best contributing to the field.’ Timothy concluded.

Yukun Zhao

Yukun Zhao

Yukun Zhao: The Emergence of New Values

Yukun Zhao is one of the first graduates of the University of Pennsylvania Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program to come from Mainland China. Yukun’s contributions to the two conferences were numerous. At the Tsinghhua conference, he gave a presentation titled Positive Psychology from the perspective of Evolutionary Psychology. Yukun learned about the Positive Education conference at Beijing Normal from Dr. Seligman and then took the post of Deputy Secretary-General of its organization committee. He also served there as presenter, interpreter, and gracious host. At the conference, Yukun received a Practice Accomplishment Award from the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Yukun affirms that China is transitioning from a traditional agricultural nation to a modern nation. He gives this insight, “The scale of this transition is enormous, from political, economical, and social structures, to culture, lifestyle, and customs. Furthermore, China is doing it at a much faster pace than the West did. Many people actually don’t like the transition. The old values are broken; the new values are not there yet. Mental health has become a bigger and bigger problem in China. Confusion, depression, anxiety, distrust, and a sense of meaninglessness are widespread among Chinese people.”

Flags at the Great Wall

Flags at the Great Wall

He continues, “I am one of them. Mao was still alive when I was born. When I grew up, China was changing dramatically from a socialist country to a free market. I experienced all the confusion, and I know the pain. I want to help make Chinese people happier and China a better place for ordinary people just like me to live.”

Yukun believes positive psychology is good medicine for his culture, and he has strong faith in science. His biggest motivation is “to help people whose pain I suffered, and I am especially eager because I think NOW is the best time to disseminate positive psychology in China. I think it’s time for science to help people not only materially, but also psychologically.”

About the two Chinese Positive Psychology conferences, Yukun stated, “They were great chances to connect with local people. I was overwhelmed by opportunities that emerged after the conferences. For example, a company that tries to promote happiness through the Internet invited me to advise their positive psychology applications, a private school invited me to give a presentation on positive education, and a university invited me to give a seminar on positive psychology to their undergraduates.”

Yukun wrote about the First China International Conference on Positive Education for the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) Newsletter. (Sign up for the newsletter by joining IPPA). Since the conference, he has stayed in close touch with Positive psychologists and practitioners in China aiming to “help them and learn from them as much as I can.”

He has also founded Huaren Applied Positive Psychology Institute (HAPPI). “Huaren” means Chinese in Chinese. HAPPI is devoted to promoting positive psychology applications in all Chinese communities. He is also writing a book with the working title, “Mental Modernization,” based on his MAPP Capstone, an analysis of the reasons the Chinese are unhappy and a set of practical suggestions.

Many People Moving

Many People Moving


In the 21st century, China has a huge impact on the world because of the sheer scale of its space, place and people. The Chinese government and the world, needs people like Yukun Zhao and Timothy So, whose missions are around gradual and essential positive change for building a healthy China and a better world.

To achieve the goal of 51% of the world flourishing, the involvement of China is critically important.



Author’s Note: This is a continuation of the article I posted earlier on the two conferences in China this summer, Happiness and Positive Education in China.

Dr. Huppert and Timothy So are associated with The Well-being Institute at the University of Cambridge.

Timothy has written many articles for PPND including 5 Daily Actions for Your Well-Being.

Many people on the Great Wall of China courtesy of Barry Crabtree
Timothy So and Dr. Felicia Huppert courtesy of Elaine O’Brien
Temple and Boats courtesy of Elaine O’Brien
Yukun Zhao courtesy of Kaori Uno
Flags at the Great Wall courtesy of Elaine O’Brien
Shanghai Metro Station – many people moving courtesy of Marc van der Chijs

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Angus 31 October 2010 - 4:38 pm

You are quite right – so much to learn. And Timothy is so good. (As indeed Fulicia).

I am struck by differences between China and India, both of whom will lead. China, without democracy, has focused so well on its infrastructure and developed it so well. India, committed to democracy, has not. Yet is there a race here between the hare and the tortoise?

And of course there are the Hindi doubts about Buddhism? Buddhism is about, as I understand it, a version of self-discovery (even though its structures are pretty hierarchical and have significant gender issues); Hindu beliefs, and there are many, are also generally hierarchical ( and have many gender issues) but rely on the ‘hierarchy of reincarnation’ to head towards some equality.

Greta learning in both these cultures.

Best aye

Elaine O'Brien 31 October 2010 - 5:02 pm

Hey dear Angus,
Yes,indeed India,like China, will certainly contribute to our hope of reaching the 51% flourishing goal by the year 2051, per Marty. In today’s newspaper there is an article about India and how there are more cell phones, compared to the number of toilets! So yes, infrastructure and the basic needs of millions of deserving people in India are yet to be realized.
I do agree we can learn much from the cultures of India and China, and that is an important part in the continuing development of Positive Psychology as a science and practice – to learn from cultures other than just those just in the West. There is so much we can recognize from the best practices of other societies.
Thank you for sharing, and for the excellent points you raise. My best to you, Elaine
PS Keep dancing!

Dana 31 October 2010 - 5:24 pm

Thanks Elaine for such an interesting profile of two people doing really great and important work!

Elaine O'Brien 31 October 2010 - 5:41 pm

Hey dear Dana,
Thanks for your comment, and for your interest and enthusiasm in promoting Positive Psychology in the Asia network! Best to you, Elaine

lu 16 January 2011 - 4:45 am



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