Shili Xiong, a famous Chinese scholar, assigned a book to his student, Fuguan Xu, to read. When Xu came back next time, Xiong asked, “What do you think of this book?”
“It has many faulty places,” answered Xu, followed by his criticism of several places of the book. After he finished, he complacently waited for the master’s praises of his intellectual sharpness.
But what he got from the master was severe admonishment, “You don’t know how to read books! Every book has good places as well as bad places. You should look at its good places first. Otherwise, what can you learn from reading?”
“This is a life-changing admonishment,” Xu recalled decades later in 1980, “And it could be a life-changing admonishment for all the other people who are too proud to learn.”
Taking the Admonishment to Heart
This surely includes me. Sometimes when I read books, I simply surf through the chapters, sniff when there’s anything suspicious, and feel “I already knew that” when things are correct. And just like Xiong warned, I learned little from these books.
This happens frequently when I move out of my reading comfort zone. For example, most positive psychology books I read are written by prominent researchers, such as Barbara Fredrickson’s Positivity and Jon Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. Last month I was reading The Happiness Advantage written by Shawn Achor, who worked with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar to teach the famous Positive Psychology course at Harvard. This book doesn’t cite as much research as those I am more accustomed to. Instead it uses a lot of the author’s personal stories. I often found myself reading it in Xu Fuguan’s fashion, dismissing Achor’s stories as self-help-book-style anecdotal evidence and shrugging over the data when he did present research thinking, “I already knew that!”
It was in the middle of reading this book when I heard the admonishment of Xiong about focusing on the negative points of books. I immediately recognized my problem and shifted my focus when I resumed reading Achor’s book. Now I appreciate his stories as good illustrations of the positive psychology principles and appreciate the research he presents as solid foundations of his stories. I learned more from his book after this shift of focus.
And I am not the only person who benefited from Xiong’s admonishment. This story is well known in China. I searched for it online and found many people expressed the same feeling that it helped them to learn more from reading.
I call it Appreciative Reading. The Appreciative Inquiry proposed by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva was meant for organization management and achieved considerable success in business applications. But it can also be used in other fields such as education, sports, and the military. And when you use it in reading, that’s Appreciative Reading, which means you approach the contents of the books in an appreciative manner, rather than looking for their weaknesses.
Of course, just like the application of Appreciative Inquiry in any other fields, Appreciative Reading doesn’t mean ignoring the weak and bad points of the books. The key thing is, as Roy Baumeister and others have so clearly pointed out, that people naturally have a negativity bias: we tend to give more attention to negative information compared to positive information. This makes evolutionary sense because humans needed to prioritize processing of bad information in order to survive. For example, if you ignore the signs of kindness of your neighbor, you lose a friend, but if you ignore the signs of an ambushing tiger — or an oncoming car, you may lose your life. Therefore, we have a tendency to be more vigilant to negative information, which means we may systematically evaluate things worse than they really are. Appreciative Inquiry is an effective mental discipline to battle this bias.
Appreciative Film Viewing
We can easily expand Appreciative Reading to other realms of life, like watching movies and shows. There is no perfect movie. Every movie has its strengths and weaknesses. It depends on how you watch it. I still remember how surprised I was when I browsed the list of the hundreds of positive psychology movies in Positive Psychology At The Movies and found it included many movies in my rotten tomato category. However, after reading the way the authors described these movies as illustrations of human strengths, I found that I dismissed these movies recklessly just because of their partial faults.
Another example is what you notice first and most when you visit a foreign country, or a new place in general. I often ask friends and search online before I travel to a place for the first time. It’s not uncommon that sometimes you get comments so different that you wondered whether they visited the same place. Apparently they focused on different sides of the same coin. I didn’t find any research about this, but I think it makes sense to argue that those who appreciatively “read” the new places – let’s call them appreciative tourists – would enjoy their trips more and build more mental capital from the visits than the negative tourists.
My favorite application of Appreciative Reading is, of course, reading people. But I will save that for my next post – and don’t complain. Appreciate what you’ve already read. 8)
Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323–370.
Cooperrider, D., Whitney, D. and Stavros,J. (2008). Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, 2nd Edition (Book & CD) . Brunswick, OH: Crown Publishing, Inc.
Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2008). Positive psychology at the movies: Using films to build virtues and character strengths. Gottingen, Germany: Hogrefe.
Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2013). Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Films to Build Character Strengths and Well-Being Gottingen, Germany: Hogrefe.
Xu, F., (1980). Selected Articles of Fuguan Xu. Taiwan: Student’s Publisher.
Surhone, L. M. Tennoe, M. T. & Henssonow, S. F. (Eds.) (2010). Xu Fuguan. Betascript Publishing.
Books… and more books courtesy of Alexandre Dulaunoy
Sunrise over the city courtesy of joiseyshowaa
RE: positive tourism. My mom was just telling me about an experience she had at a hotel where she had accidentally locked her key in the room. A passing engineer gave her a ride to the front desk and graciously offered to wait for her while she got a new key. Unfortunately the front desk agent was somewhat rude and citing “policy” insisted on making her wait for security escort her before bringing a new key (she did not have ID on her.) The engineer offered to vouch for her identity so he could help expedite things and brought her back to the room.
When she checked out of the hotel, she tried to bring up the incident to the front desk supervisor, complaining about the careless handling of the front desk agent and explaining that there are better ways serve their guests when they lock themselves out of the room. The supervisor had a defensive reaction and again cited policy as the reason for the agent’s rudeness.
I told my Mom she should not have told them the story of the rude front desk agent, she should have told them the story of the helpful engineer. They would have listened more and learned more. My mom could instantly see the logic of this, but she did say, “but that’s not the way our minds work.” Sad but true!
A thought provoking post – Thank you.
Beautiful story, Jeremy!
I think your mom is right. Our minds work in a negatively biased way. But this doesn’t mean it is correct, nor does it mean we can’t change it. Appreciative Inquiry is a clear example.
And your comment came in right in time! I have some similar experience today. My facebook account was hacked and sent out spam posts to everybody’s wall today. This is a bad thing, of course. But I was touched by how many people reminded me immediately and told me to change my password, including some people whom I didn’t contact for years. At the end, what I remember is the kindness of friends (it turns out that facebook friends can be real friends :)), rather than the evil minded hacks of some low life losers.
Yukun – since reading your article I’ve become more conscious about appreciative reading, and it’s made reading more enjoyable. Thank you.
Thanks Amanda. So glad it helps!
I enjoyed this article tremendously and find myself drawn more and more to the study of positive psychology after realizing that I have been living many principles of it for years. Your comment “I often ask friends and search online before I travel to a place for the first time. It’s not uncommon that sometimes you get comments so different that you wondered whether they visited the same place.”, led me to want to respond. You also mentioned that you had not found any books that provided research or insight into why this occurs. I am hear to tell you that I am currently reading a book that does. It is titled Rapt by Winifred Gallagher. Based on your posts, I have a feeling you will really enjoy it.
Thanks, Cheryl. What I meant was actually “I didn’t find any research about the corrleation between the how you “read” the places and how much you enjoy the tours”. And yes, I agreew with you that the RAPT book has a good insight into this. I read that before and enjoyed it. But thanks for recommendation!
One more comment I would like to make. I too read the Happiness Advantage and enjoyed it tremendously. Although it may have been less thorough in laying out the research, I found the personal stories is what helped me retain more of the concept being laid out by Shawn Achor. In the book I referred to early (Rapt) there was more data and less stories which made it a bit more labor intensive to read for a lay person.
Just an observation.