Home All Frames of Meaning for Life: A Korean Perspective on Positive Psychology (IPPA)

Frames of Meaning for Life: A Korean Perspective on Positive Psychology (IPPA)

written by Jocelyn Davis 6 July 2009

Jocelyn Davis is the founding principal of Nelson Hart LLC, a consulting firm devoted to helping organizations build positive workplaces. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Clark School of Engineering where she teaches graduate project management students how to use positive psychology.

Dr. Yong-Lin Moon

Dr. Yong-Lin Moon

At the recent First World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association, Professor Yong-Lin Moon of Seoul National University reviewed a concept that he calls frames of meaning for life. The existence of different frames of meaning help us explain cultural differences.  Different frames of meaning can particularly explain differences in our relationships with others, differences in our positive institutions, and differences in the ways people deploy character strengths and virtues.

Dr. Moon hypothesizes that even if two people have similar positive emotions and traits at the same time, it is possible for their levels of perceived happiness to differ depending upon the contextual meaning of their experiences within the positive institutions of their cultures.   He suggests that their frames of meaning for life may have both a neuro-biological and cognitive origin.

Frames of Meaning in Relationships

Korean flag

   Korean flag

In his first example, he contrasted the response of two families,  one Korean and one American, to the bankruptcy of a young boy’s uncle. Within the Korean culture, the young boy’s family would assume central responsibility for his uncle’s family, including responsibility for the payment of the debts left by the bankruptcy. The resulting disruption of the young boy’s life, both individually and as a member of the family, would be substantial. In addition to the physical, emotional, and social disruption, his uncle’s bankruptcy would reflect poorly on the young boy’s family, particularly if they did not properly handle the family’s responsibilities.

American flag

   American flag

In contrast,  there is not a cultural norm embedded in positive institutions in the US which would require the young boy’s family to take direct and complete care of his uncle’s family nor to assume full responsibility for the unpaid debts of his uncle.  Social stigma arising from the uncle’s bankruptcy would be substantially less in the US than in Korea.

Frames of Meaning in Positive Institutions

In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman defines positive institutions in terms of ideology, democracy, family systems, free press, free inquiry, and so on.  Dr. Moon pointed out that positive institutions exist beyond individuals, while positive emotions and traits reside within the individuals themselves. Positive emotions, therefore, have greater uniformity across cultures. Differences in positive institutions across cultures may be more discriminating in explaining differences in happiness.

Dr. Moon suggested that the notion of happiness is both culture-free and culture-bound.  As we study positive institutions, we need to seek out both the universal elements of positive institutions and the idiosyncratic elements of positive institutions within different cultures.

Confucius Statue

Confucius Statue

Dr. Moon reviewed briefly the frames of meaning for life within the Korean context. Koreans live in a mixed culture of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Even though the reported number of people practicing Confucianism is quite small at 0.2%, the historical influence of Confucianism dramatically impacts how positive emotions are experienced in Korea.  The Confucian tradition of Threes describes the relationships between subjects and kings, between sons and fathers, and between wives and husbands. The tradition of Fives refers to five distinct virtues:  loyalty between kings and subjects, filial piety between sons and fathers, affinity between friends, rank order according to age difference, and status distinctions between men and women. 

Confucian traditions focus on relationships, in contrast to the 10 Commandments of Judeo-Christian culture which focus on individual behaviors.

Frames of Meaning in Virtues

As a result of its Confucian heritage, loyalty and filial piety are the most valued virtues within the Korean culture.  Judgments about virtue may be quite different from those made in a Western culture.  For example,  in 19th century Korea,  a general commanding a defensive force against an invading army left the field of combat upon notification of his mother’s death.  As a result, the battle was lost.  He has been honored as a paragon of virtue because his filial piety is  more valued than winning the military engagement.  In Korean culture, human relationships are more important than the content of the virtues themselves.

In another example,  a former president of Korea was accused of using his power inappropriately and of amassing great personal wealth.  In public hearings,  many of his former subordinates told the truth. One person however refused to make any damaging comments about the behavior of his former boss, even though his comments thus diverged from the truth.   The one person who refused to make damaging comments, who placed relationship over the virtue of honesty, would be considered happy within the Korean frame of meaning for life.

Dr. Moon explained why nations with Confucian backgrounds have difficulty making apologies for the past.   To the Japanese, apologizing  for atrocities committed during World War II would mean public recognition of failings by their ancestors. Under Confucian frames of meaning for life, acknowledging the mistakes of ancestors is a greater failing than ignoring demands for honesty and justice.   It is not that they deny the atrocities committed during World War II.  It’s that apologizing is of lesser moral value than maintaining loyalty to the honor of deceased ancestors.

Differences in Frames of Meaning

Awareness of differences in the relative importance of different virtues can help one culture better understand the positive institutions of another.  It is important for any culture not to conclude that their own value systems are shared by all.

courtesy of  kanegan

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Senia 7 July 2009 - 12:07 am

Thank you so much for this article.
What a sophisticated discussion about frames of meaning.
I like that term. It’s not just culture – it’s how meaning is seen in that culture for that particular concept. I came across this when I lived in Japan with a homestay family (one of my best experiences ever) in the summer during high school. There had been so many misperceptions about the Japanese culture that I had been told before and that I had read about before I went there. For example, I was told in America that it was too bad that Japanese wives often do not work – I have read that it must be sad for them. Nothing could be further from the truth – at the time that I went, Japanese women for the most part made ALL the decisions in the house, including what car to buy, a decision rarely left solely to an American wife. It wasn’t just the culture – it was what concepts meant. I was struck by the differences, and struck by how easy it was to see both sides of the same story, depending who told it.

Jocelyn, why do you think Dr. Moon divided the talk into these three categories – relationships, institutions, and virtues? These are very similar to Marty’s original individual, institutions, and strengths dimensions, only Dr. Moon changes individuals for relationships, which follows from his argument. Thank you,


Nicholas Hall 7 July 2009 - 2:51 am


Thank you very much for writing about Dr. Moon’s presentation. I had missed it, and I am sorry that I did. His research area is extremely important.

It sounds important to me not because of a surface notion that “other cultures value different relationships in life.” This perspective illuminates the very heart of an often overlooked aspect of psychology – that frame and context literally create one’s reality. In the substance of your article, it creates the happiness of the individual.

It is as if these frames and contexts that are taught at very early ages can shape or “give permission to” the emotive response. This, to me, is a shadow of Skinnerian behaviorism.

However, a lot of Dr. Moon’s concepts that you mention have more to do with prioritization of behavior within social contexts. Whether or not those people are physiologically and psychologically actually experiencing greater happiness because of their culturally context-driven behavior than if a westerner acted the same way would be fascinating to find out. To me, the fact that meaning and happiness can be shaped early speaks to the possible malleability of not only ourselves but this notion itself that we call “happiness.”


Jocelyn 7 July 2009 - 8:24 am


Dr. Moon based his discussion with the noted modification of individuals for relationships explicitly on Marty’s original three pillars.

I, too, found his discussion really valuable. As a teacher at the University of Maryland, I work with graduate classes which are predominantly international students. Dr. Moon’s discussion has really helped me to consider further how to approach ethics in business discussions in a way that includes the positive institution dynamics. Really expands the complexity of understanding right and wrong and making good decisions in a business, particularly an international business, context.


Jocelyn 7 July 2009 - 8:28 am


Very interesting observation. Much to think about. I’m wondering after reading your post if Dr. Moon’s suggesting that how we are happy depends on how we think about being happy…and that is driven in part by how we are taught to think…culture or positive institutions providing the conceptual framework for our thinking…


Jocelyn 7 July 2009 - 8:29 am


I’m interested in whether we can provide other examples of Dr. Moon’s positive institutions impacting how happiness is perceived.

Any other examples?


WJ 7 July 2009 - 3:45 pm

Jocelyn and Nicholas, There is a heap of research that talks about the different factors that impact on the satisfaction of individulaistic and collectivist societies.

Even within these groups there are major differences. In my coaching practice I coach people from all over the English speaking world. I am always amazed at how different Americans are to Australians and the British. For example research has shown that pleasure, engagagement and meaning contribute equally to life satisfation for Americans whereas engagment was only important for Australians.

There is also an interesting critic on positive psychology from a cultural perspective in the Journal of Theory and Psychology. Abtract as follows:

“This article aims to examine critically the attempts by positive psychologists to develop a science of happiness and positive human functioning that transcends temporal and cultural boundaries. Current efforts in positive psychology are deconstructed to reveal an adherence to the dominant Western conception of self and its accompanying vision of the good life as personal fulfillment. It is argued that in failing to recognize the tacit cultural and moral assumptions underlying their investigations, positive psychologists not only distort the outlooks of cultures that do not subscribe to an individualistic framework, they also insulate themselves from reflecting critically on their work. Alternative forms of inquiry are offered to assist positive psychology in overcoming these limitations.”

Todd Kashdan 8 July 2009 - 9:40 am

Thank you for adding an often missing layer of complexity to topics such as strengths, emotions, and motivation. I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Moon’s perspective.

This is why I think it is so important for positive psychology researchers and practitioners to read beyond the canon and get down and dirty with the rest of what psychology has to offer.

In obscure journals, there are studies showing that people in Asian countries often are confused by the notion of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. This is because they possess more dialectical thinking. That is, they are comfortable holding onto intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for the same task. They are curious about learning new knowledge at school (intrinsic) and simultaneously do so in honor of their parents (extrinsic). To study these more complex concepts requires us to avoid rigid adherence to dominant tools and theories. Dialectics add another layer to self-determination theory and theories of positive emotions can be broadened to include the often greater value of mixed/blended experiences.

But Dr. Moon addresses another level of analysis that is only given lip service and that’s values and meaning systems. Again, this is hard to study but to ignore these architectural frameworks that allow us to understand an important influence on goals and behaviors and emotions is to hold overly simplistic, reductionistic notions of people. We focus so much on variables that we forget that we are studying people. Positive emotions don’t just appear in a person. Strengths don’t just appear in a person. We have to adopt systems based approaches that address these powerful concepts in context. Under what conditions is interest no longer a positive emotion? When a person values obedience and tradition, how do they feel and create meaning after spending time with an authority figure in their life compared with someone who values self-determination and self-direction above all?

My hope is that at the next positive psychology conference people take these ideas as a call-to-arms to carefully address the multiple layers that make up a person. Mentioning pillars is insufficient and how cares whether there are 3 or 4, lets start exploring the links between them….and start addressing those all important contextual variables reflecting values and meaning systems. There’s no reason we can’t merge the nomothetic and idiographic (sorry for the jargon but these two words carry so much depth).



Judy Krings 8 July 2009 - 10:20 am

Fascinating on all levels. Can’t wait to follow this discussion. Curiosity, individual, and cultural values. Meaty and essential for us to research and understand. The world is becoming smaller and more familial everyday. I felt a little anxiety when I was reading these posts. GREAT!
My curiosity is alive and well. Thanks or your research and blatant honestly, Todd. It’s not just about happiness!

Editor S.M. 8 July 2009 - 6:19 pm

Todd and Judy, really interesting points about dialectical thinking. And multiple layer thinking. This was great to read.

If things are dialectical, and we are so drawn to taxomonies in research, then how do these two directions work together?


Steve Wright 8 July 2009 - 11:43 pm

Jocelyn, Thank you for writing this article. Dr. Moon raises some important issues involving cultural differences. I lived in Korea for four years (during which I feel as though I lived one complete lifetime) and have been in contact with east Asian culture(s) the rest of my adult life. Dr. Moon’s discussion is wiser and more insightful than it might at first appear. East Asian academics tend to have some familiarity with Western culture(s), but some psychologists (many of whom have little knowledge of cultures radically different from their own) make assumptions and create theoretical frameworks that often leave the Asian academics feeling uncomfortable. Dr. Moon has done two things here. He is able to explain using clear and simple examples that allow a Westerner to easily appreciate important differences, but more significantly he’s created both a parallel “Eastern” structure to Seligman’s model as well as a construct that transcends both (“frames of meaning”). “Relationships, institutions, and virtues” (as compared with “individual, institutions, and strengths”) seems an Eastern counterpoint – more emphasis on social networks and obligation, more emphasis on virtue (which is also more relational) and less on individual strengths. And as Senia suggested, “meaning” is more than just culture. As Jocelyn pointed out, the model and Dr. Moon’s supportive explanations can inform various fields including discussions of ethics in international business.

Todd’s comments drawing on the under-appreciated literature exploring some of these important cultural differences reminds me that Eastern academics live with a kind of dialectic every day in their work. They need to follow certain enlightenment and other Western values and engage with a prevailing view shaped primarily by a majority Western academic viewpoint in order to be successful in the international academic community, but their Eastern sensibilities (with deep roots in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism) may lead them to want to approach many issues in a rather different way. Rarely, the most talented are able to find an elegant synthesis, integrating the two. And I couldn’t agree more with Todd that although hard, we need to develop systems based approaches that include the “architectural frameworks” of values and meaning systems.

Nicholas, I agree that cultural frame and context are of fundamental importance, shaping emotional responses, or as Jocelyn put it, “how we are taught to think.” But I’m reminded much more of Bronfenbrenner’s “macrosystem” (Ecological Systems Theory), which has been explained as everything in another cultural context (let’s say, in France) having a certain tint (let’s say blue) – a pervasive bouquet of coloration. The same is true for one’s one culture, but we typically don’t see it because it’s like water for fish. (Thus the eloquent critique quoted by WJ.) For those researchers who think this is not important and that they are able to transcend their culture fully, I would be unconvinced, and lament the reduction in richness: rose-colored glasses don’t make everything rosy; they actually make the world look grey and colorless.

Jocelyn 9 July 2009 - 8:41 am

Wow! What a day’s comments! I hope that Dr. Moon is getting copied on this great engagement with his important perspective.

Todd Kashdan 9 July 2009 - 3:10 pm

Steve, thanks for the enlightening addition to the conversation. I have little to add than to nod my head a great deal. This is why I think it is so very important to bend over backwards with complex methodologies before making claims for anything that is universal across cultures. Global self-reports can’t cut it because any discussion of values and meaning are removed from the item content. That being said, rank ordering of concepts is a great approach to do cross-cultural work on the degree of generalizability of a topic. As a good exemplar, read:

Grouzet, F., Kasser, T., Ahuvia, A., Dols, J., Kim, Y., Lau, S., Ryan, R., Saunders, S., Schmuck, P., & Sheldon, K. M. (2005). The structure of goal contents across 15 cultures. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 89, 800-816.

So glad to read this discussion and to hear the readiness people have to move beyond the simple to capture real-life as its lived.



Senia 9 July 2009 - 3:24 pm

Steve, Todd, Jocelyn, Nick, Judy, Wayne,
Love this discussion – it’s becoming one of my favorites.


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