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Savor People

written by Yukun Zhao 16 November 2010

Yukun Zhao, MAPP '10, was born and raised near Shanghai in China. He is the Founder and President of Huaren Applied Positive Psychology Institute (HAPPI), which is dedicated to promoting positive psychology and its applications in Chinese communities. He co-founded the Global Chinese Positive Psychology Association. He is also an acclaimed author of two books published in China. Full bio. Yukun's articles for Positive Psychology News Daily are here.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

Experiencing Awe

Do you remember the feelings you had when you faced amazing landscapes like the Grand Canyon?

I was stunned when I first walked up to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The enormous beauty and immense scale struck me like a thunder. I was completely overwhelmed by the unbelievable wonder of nature. Awe was the only thing I could feel in my heart.

That was surely an unforgettable experience. But not unmatched.

Sullenberger Honored at the Rose Parade

Captain Sullenberger
Honored at the Rose Parade

Several years later on a cold spring day, a miracle happened over the Hudson River. Captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, ditched a plane safely in the river and saved 155 lives against all odds. When I got to know about his feat and the help of numerous volunteer boat owners who left their personal business to fish people out of the river, awe emerged in my heart again. And the magnitude was no less than that inspired by the Grand Canyon.

Barbara Fredrickson, the leading researcher on positive emotions, writes in her book Positivity that “awe happens when you come across goodness on a grand scale. You literally feel overwhelmed by greatness.” Almost like summarizing up my experience, she pointed out, “Sometimes we’re awed by nature, as with stunning sunsets at the Grand Canyon……Other times we’re awed by humanity as when we see Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon.”

Indeed, awe arises no matter whether we are witnessing the wonders of nature or the wonders of humanity.

Children and cherry trees

We get positive emotions from people

Exploring People-scapes

By no means is awe the only positive emotion that can be inspired by both nature and humanity. On the contrary, every positive emotion that we get from the nature can be garnered from humanity. You probably feel the same serenity when you are walking in Yosemite and talking to someone you love, the same joy when you see flowers blossom on cherry trees and the children playing under the trees, the same inspiration when you look up at the night stars and you read a biography of Martin Luther King Jr., the same hope when the first green appears in the early spring and your children start walking by themselves.

I enjoy traveling and seeing beautiful landscapes. I have harvested lots of positive emotions from these experiences. Recently, I developed a new hobby of harvesting positive emotions from people. I call it exploring people-scapes.

Appreciating the Ordinary as well as the Grand

Running Together

Running Together

The explorations can be reading about great figures like Mother Teresa and Confucius, watching games of Roger Federer and Michael Jordan, listening to music of Bob Dylan and Yoyo Ma, and watching shows of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The positive emotions I got from these experiences are just like those from travels to Yellowstone, the Great Wall, and many other famous attractions in the world.

But more importantly and more frequently, I derive positive emotions from people around me in my daily life. The Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls are great, but we don’t live there, so we learn to find beauties in the ordinary world surrounding us. Similarly we can learn to find beauty in the ordinary people around us.

Character strength is the Key

Whenever I derive a positive emotion from people, I find character strengths behind it. Kindness brings gratitude, social intelligence brings love, integrity brings inspiration, humor brings amusement, and virtually any strength in grand scale brings awe. Peterson and Seligman define one of the criteria of a character strength to be the existence of prodigies. It’s easy to find people who possess some strengths to an extraordinary degree, like judgment in Captain Sullenberger and bravery in Wesley Autrey, called the Subway Superman. These are obvious people-scapes of character strengths.

Experience the world, especially the people

Experience the world, especially the people

Ordinary people in our daily lives have strong character strengths too. They may not be as impressive as those of the prodigies, but they are often grander than you thought. Just as beauty can be in the eyes of beholder, strength can be in the eyes of the appreciator.

Then there’s no surprise that Chris Peterson, the leading researcher in character strengths, said in a blog about his trip to China this summer that “although I enjoyed very much my sightseeing and my meals, the highlights of my trip all involved my experiences with people.” He talked much more about the people he met than the famous wonders of China such as the Terra Cotta Warriors. And the subtitle of his blog? “Experience another part of the world, especially the people there”!

That’s the reward of exploring people-scapes. The character strengths of the people around you can fill your life with positive emotions and make it more worth living!


Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Peterson, C. (2010). Positive Psychology and China. Psychology Today Blogs. .

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Colorado River in Marble Canyon courrtesy of Joshua M
Capt. Chesley B “Sully” Sullenberger honored at the Rose Parade courtesy of prayitno
Positive Emotions from people courtesy of Wonderland
Running Together courtesy of Mike Baird
Chinese New Year courtesy of Brian Yap

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Jeremy McCarthy 17 November 2010 - 12:20 pm

I love the idea of exploring people-scapes. This resonated with me as a tie-in to Carl Rogers’ idea of “unconditional positive regard” from humanistic psychology. If your goal is to have unconditional positive regard for people it nudges you to scan the people-scapes for the strengths and virtues.

Ali 29 November 2010 - 3:32 pm

What an inspiring article!

I truly believe if one can travel, they should. Being in a country surrounded by people who don’t speak the same language– it’s then you realize how alike we all are (in strengths), yet different with our cultures.

We don’t always focus on another’s strengths; sometimes I think it is easier to go up to a new friend and tell them of their strengths than to look at an older companion and be in awe that over the years they are still the kind and gentle-hearted person you once met. We should go out and celebrate the strengths — it is too common to fault one and try to fix weakness.

It’s great to observe in others strengths, but what happens next? Compliments, gifts, pats on the back, a nice letter? How do you celebrate someone for who he/she is?

Yukun Zhao 29 November 2010 - 5:51 pm

Yes, Ali, I agree with you about the benefit of travel (talking about “Being in a country surrounded by people who don’t speak the same language”! :-)) and the fact that we often ignore others’ strengths.

For how to celebrate others’ strengths, actually I was going to write about that, but didn’t want the article to be too long. I use the four savoring suggestions Marty quoted in Authentic Happiness as my cheat sheet:

1, sharpen perception
2, absorption
3, build memoir
4, share with others

The first 2 were a little difficult to practice, but the next 2 were easier and sometimes even obvious.


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