Positive psychology – The second wave
Dr. Tim Lomas,
University of East London, School of Psychology,
It is nearly twenty years since Martin Seligman used his 1998 American Psychological Association
presidential address to inaugurate the notion of ‘positive psychology.’ The rationale for its creation
was Seligman’s contention that psychology had hitherto tended to focus mainly on what is wrong
with people, on dysfunction, disorder and distress. There were of course pockets of scholarship that
held a candle for human potential and excellence, like humanistic psychology. Nevertheless, on the
whole, he argued that concepts such as happiness did not attract much attention or credibility in
mainstream psychology. Emerging to redress this lacuna, positive psychology soon became a fertile
new paradigm, encompassing research into a panoply of processes and qualities that could be
deemed ‘positive,’ from overarching constructs such as flourishing, to more specific concepts like
Of course, none of this was radically new: many of these topics had been studied empirically
for years by scholars in disparate fields, and indeed had been debated for centuries, millennia even.
However, part of the appeal of the new field was that it created a conceptual space where these
diverse topics – all of which shared the ‘family resemblance’ (à la Wittgenstein) of pertaining to
wellbeing – could be brought together and considered collectively. Thus, as a novel branch of
scholarship focused specifically and entirely on ‘the science and practice of improving wellbeing’
(Lomas, Hefferon, & Ivtzan, 2015, p.1347), it was a welcome new addition to the broader church of
The critical response
However, it was not without its critics. A prominent focus of concern was the very notion of
‘positive’ which underpinned the entire field. Essentially, positive psychology appeared to be
promulgating a rather polarising positive-negative dichotomy. Certain phenomena were labelled as
positive, and thus presented as inherently desirable. The necessary corollary, of course, is that
contrasting phenomena were implicitly conceptualised as negative, positioned as intrinsically
undesirable. So, for example, optimism tended to be valorised as an unmitigated good, and
pessimism as a categorical impediment to wellbeing. Some scholars did paint a more nuanced
picture; for instance, Seligman (1990, p.292) cautioned that one must be ‘able to use pessimism’s
keen sense of reality when we need it.’ However, in terms of the broader discourse of the field, and
its cultural impact, a less nuanced binary message – simplistically valorising ostensibly positive
phenomena – held sway.
While seemingly offering an upbeat message – linking positive emotions to beneficial
outcomes, such as health (Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998) – this valorisation of positivity was
problematic, for various reasons. Firstly, it often failed to sufficiently appreciate the contextual
complexity of emotional outcomes. For instance, ‘excessive’ optimism can be harmful to wellbeing
(e.g., contributing to underappreciation of risk), while pessimism may be beneficial, such as when it
prompts proactive coping (Norem, 2001). Of even greater concern was Held’s (2002, p.965)
suggestion that this emphasis on positivity contributed to a ‘tyranny of the positive,’ to the cultural
expectation that one should be upbeat, with social censure for people who could not find the
requisite positivity. Similarly, in the work arena, Ehrenreich (2009) accused organisations of
compelling forced jollity as a way of hindering dissent and cajoling more out of workers. Perhaps
most perniciously, this ‘tyranny’ fed into a pervasive cultural discourse in which negative emotional
states are not simply seen as undesirable, but pathological. As Horwitz and Wakeﬁeld (2007) suggest
in The Loss of Sadness, dysphoric emotions that were previously regarded as natural and inherent
dimensions of the human condition have largely been re-framed as disorders, and certainly as
problematic. And, positive psychology arguably contributed, albeit unwittingly, to this process.
The emergence of the second wave
The above critiques could be regarded as undermining positive psychology. However, my colleagues
and I take a different view: stimulated by these concerns, we feel the field is responding receptively,
evolving into what we describe as ‘second wave’ positive psychology (SWPP) (Wong, 2011; Lomas &
Ivtzan, 2015; Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, & Worth, 2015). If the ‘first wave’ is characterised by
valorisation of the positive, SWPP recognises that wellbeing actually involves a subtle, dialectical
interplay between positive and negative phenomena. This recognition challenges that idea that
wellbeing is coterminous with constructs like ‘happiness’; rather, it becomes a more expansive term,
one that includes negative emotions if these serve some broader sense of ‘being/doing well.’ For
instance, Pollard and Davidson (2001, p.10) define wellbeing as ‘a state of successful performance
across the life course integrating physical, cognitive and social-emotional function.’ One could see
how ostensibly negative emotions, like prudent anxiety, could subserve this larger goal. More
specifically, SWPP is underpinned by four dialectical principles: appraisal; co-valence;
complementarity; and evolution.
The principle of appraisal states that it can be hard to categorise phenomena as either
positive or negative, since such appraisals are fundamentally contextually-dependent. For instance,
as noted above, ‘excessive’ optimism can lead to miscalculations of risk, whereas pessimism may
promote prudence. One could problematize most dichotomies in this way. McNulty and Fincham
(2011) showed that prosocial emotions like forgiveness can be harmful if it means one tolerates a
situation that one might otherwise resist, such as an abusive relationship; conversely, ‘anti-social’
emotions like anger can impel one to resist iniquities, and drive progressive social change. Even
happiness and sadness are not immune from such considerations. Superficial forms of happiness
might forestall efforts to pursue deeper states of fulfilment, or tranquilise us into acquiescing to
social contexts that ultimately undermine our wellbeing. Conversely, sadness may be thoroughly
appropriate, such as in response to loss; it may even have real salutary value, a humane response to
suffering perhaps, or a refined aesthetic response to transient beauty. As we dwell on such
considerations, clear-cut determinations of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ become harder to make.
It is not just that such appraisals are difficult; the second principle of co-valence reflects the
idea that many phenomena comprise positive and negative elements (Lazarus, 2003). This is even so
for arguably the most cherished of all human phenomena: love. While there are many forms of love
– from the passion of eros to the selflessness of agape – all are a dialectical blend of light and dark.
There are many ways of viewing this dialectic, but all are variations on the poignant lamentation of
C.S. Lewis (1971) that, ‘To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung
and possibly broken.’ Thus, even while love contains pleasure, joy and bliss, it also harbours worry,
anxiety, and fear. However, this recognition of co-valence leads us inexorably to the third principle:
complementarity. The potential dysphoria inherent in love is not an aberration, but the very
condition of it. The light and dark of love are inseparable, complementary and co-creating sides of
the same coin. Consider that the stronger and more intense one’s love for another, the greater the
risk of heartbreak. As Bauman (2013, p.6) eloquently puts it, ‘to love means opening up to that most
sublime of all human conditions, one in which fear blends with joy into an alloy that no longer allows
its ingredients to separate.’
Finally, the principle of evolution contextualises the very idea of SWPP. Just as SWPP is
defined by an appreciation of dialectics, it is itself an example of a dialectical process, in Hegel’s
sense of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. One might view mainstream psychology, with its apparent
concern with ‘negative’ aspects of human functioning, as the thesis. In critiquing this and embracing
ostensibly positive phenomena, positive psychology presented itself as the antithesis. However,
critics subsequently discerned flaws in this antithesis, as elucidated above. Crucially though, from a
Hegelian perspective, this does not necessarily mean an abandonment of positive psychology, a
reversion back to the original thesis. Rather, the next stage in this dialectical process is ideally
synthesis, in which the truths of both thesis and antithesis are preserved, while their flaws are
overcome. SWPP is just such a synthesis, moving away from a binary classification of phenomena –
valorising positivity while condemning negativity – towards a more nuanced appreciation of the
dialectical complexities of wellbeing (King, 2001).
Delving into the nuances
Thus, SWPP is concerned with exploring the dialectical nuances of flourishing, the delicate interplay
of light and dark. While this exploration can take many forms, I would like to share one way I have
been engaging with these issues. In particular, I have been absorbed by the way some cultures have
developed concepts relating to this kind of dialectical appreciation that appear to be lacking in
English. Indeed, another prominent criticism of positive psychology is that its conceptualisations of
wellbeing are rather culturally-specific – reflecting the North American context in which the field
emerged – yet it presents these as if universally applicable (Lomas, 2015). The charge is that while
concepts in positive psychology have largely been derived from research with ‘WEIRD’ participants –
Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010) – the
field has often tended to presume that these findings can be generalised to other cultures. However,
mindful of these critiques, positive psychology is becoming increasingly appreciative of cultural
differences in constructions and experiences of wellbeing.
For my own part, this burgeoning cross-cultural sensitivity has focused on language. More
specifically, I have begun to create a lexicography of so-called ‘untranslatable words’ relating to
wellbeing, gathered from across the world’s cultures. The general premise of the lexicography is that
a culture’s values and traditions are encoded in its language, which in turn shapes the experiences
and understanding of that culture’s members, a perspective broadly referred to as the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis. The more specific premise of the lexicography is that untranslatable words – words for
which English purportedly lacks an equivalent term – offer a unique window onto concepts that may
be particular to a given culture (Wierzbicka, 1997). Moreover, these words may not just enhance our
understanding of other cultures, but might possibly enrich people’s emotional landscape, enabling
them to recognize and articulate phenomenological states that had hitherto gone unconceptualised.
Thus, I hope this lexicography might help people (from all cultures) to develop a richer interior
world, and experience and express new dimensions of wellbeing (although this is currently just
speculation, and will require a programme of empirical enquiry to substantiate it).
In starting to build the lexicography, I undertook an analysis of 216 such words (Lomas,
2016). Moreover, through grounded theory analysis, I developed a conceptual ‘map’ of the terms,
thereby expanding the nomological network of concepts within positive psychology. The words were
organised into three overarching categories, each of which contained two main themes: feelings
(comprising positive and complex feelings); relationships (comprising intimacy and pro-sociality); and
character (comprising personal resources and spirituality). I shall finish here by elucidating this
theme of complex feelings, as its words provide a beautiful illustration of the kind of complex,
ambivalent constructs that SWPP is concerned with.
Before introducing this theme, there are two general caveats relating to this project. Firstly,
it can be difficult to understand a word in isolation without knowing how it relates to other linguistic
terms in a system (the great insight of structuralism), or how it is deployed in context. That said, this
does not mean that learning foreign words is impossible or valueless if these conditions are not met.
Take, for instance, a word like karma, which has been adopted into English to refer broadly to
causality with respect to ethics. Most English speakers who use this word probably do not know how
it relates to other Sanskrit terms, nor its wealth of meanings in the context of Hindu and Buddhist
teachings. Nevertheless, such speakers evidently find the word useful, and arguably deploy it in ways
that are not completely discordant with its original meanings. Secondly, the definitions in this
lexicography are neither complete, nor final and canonical. For a start, words are polysemous; as
such, each of these words would ideally have its own entire article, delving into its multidimensional
nuances. Moreover, while the explications here are based on definitions offered by dictionaries and
scholars, my interpretations are inevitably subjective and partial (particularly since I’m from a WEIRD
society myself!). However, I’m hoping that this lexicography will evolve with the help of scholars
throughout the world, who may be able to add to and refine it in a spirit of collaboration. Indeed, a
webpage has been set up for this purpose: www.drtimlomas.com/lexicography. With that in mind,
we turn to the words themselves.
‘Untranslatable’ words related to complex feelings
The theme of complex feelings is arguably the most intriguing section of the lexicography. It contains
concepts and processes that are beautifully ambivalent and co-valenced, and are thus emblematic of
SWPP, reflecting the dialectical nature of flourishing. These are not all words for feelings per se, but
include terms that either: (a) relate in some way to complex feelings; or (b) embody a dialectical
mode of appreciation. Regarding the latter, arguably the exemplary concept in this respect is the
Chinese notion of yin-yang (陰陽), associated with Taoism. Separately, yin means cloudy/overcast,
and yang ‘in the sun’ (shone upon). Together, they imply the two sides of a mountain (one sunlit,
one in shadow), and thus articulate the idea of ‘holistic duality,’ i.e., that reality comprises co-
dependent opposites. This notion is an overarching motif for this entire class of terms: in their
various ways, the words here are a dialectical blend of positive and negative, light and dark, together
creating a rich and complex sensibility. Within this overall theme are a number of sub-themes.
The first sub-theme is an evocation of hope and anticipation. Words here are truly co-
valenced, a tantalising blend of savouring the future, combined with fear that it will not come to
pass. In Italian, magari – both an adverb and an interjection – roughly means ‘maybe,’ but also
encompasses ‘in my dreams’ and ‘if only,’ encapsulating both a hopeful wish and wistful regret.
Similarly, in Indonesian, the auxiliary verb belum means ‘not yet,’ but with an optimism that an
event might yet happen. In German, Vorfreude is an intense, joyful anticipation derived from
imagining future pleasures. Rather more melancholic is the Korean han (한), a culturally vital term
expressing sorrow and regret, yet also embodying a quiet patience, hoping that whatever adversity
is causing the sadness will eventually be righted.
Related to han are words pertaining to longing and yearning that are at the heart of their
respective cultures (Wierzbicka, 1997; Silva, 2012). In Portuguese, saudade is a melancholic longing
or nostalgia for a person, place or thing that is far away, either spatially or in time; indeed, as Silva
points out, it can reflect a vague wistfulness for phenomena that may not even exist, like a better
future. Similarly, the German Sehnsucht translates as ‘life longings,’ and captures an ‘intense desire
for alternative states and realizations of life,’ even (or especially) if these are unlikely to be attained
(Scheibe, Freund, & Baltes, 2007, p.778). Toska (tоска) in Russian and hiraeth in Welsh articulate a
complex mix of nostalgia, wistfulness, and longing for one’s homeland. Likewise, in Japanese,
natsukashii (懐かしい) is a nostalgic longing for the past, featuring a delicate blend of happiness for
fond memories, yet sadness that those times are no longer.
Related to words articulating longing are terms expressing desire for freedom. In German,
Fernweh is described by Gabriel (2004, p.155) as the ‘call of faraway places,’ or homesickness for a
place one has never been to. Here too is the well-known Wanderlust, a wonderful example of a
foreign term that has been adopted into English, arguably because it fulfilled some unmet need,
articulating a phenomenon with which English speakers were familiar, and yet lacked their own
native word to capture it. Indeed, as De Boinod (2007, p.5) says, ‘The English language has a long-
established and voracious tendency to naturalize the best foreign words.’ (It is my hope that the
other words in this lexicography will prove similarly useful!) Related to Wanderlust is the Spanish
vacilando, which depicts the idea of wandering, where the act of travelling is valued more than the
destination. In Russian, prostor (простор) captures a desire for spaciousness, roaming free in
limitless expanse, not only physically, but creatively and spiritually (Pesmen, 2000). Finally, the
strange German term Waldeinsamkeit articulates the feeling of solitude when alone in the woods, a
mysterious state described by (Schwartz, 2007, p.201) as the ‘pseudo-magical pull of the untamed
wilderness; a place of living nightmares caught between the dreamscape and Fairyland.’
Finally, there are words capturing complex aesthetic states, evoked through contemplation
of the transient mysteries of life. Japanese is particularly rich in these terms, possibly because
Japanese culture has traditionally been steeped in dialectical models of cognition and appreciation
(Uchida & Ogihara, 2012). With these concepts, it feels like we are at the very heart of SWPP, so I
shall end by dwelling on these in a little more depth.
The aesthetics of the second wave
The first term of interest is aware (哀れ). This expresses the bittersweetness of a brief, fading
moment of transcendent beauty, while the compound mono no aware (物の哀れ) articulates the
pathos of understanding that the world and its beauty are transient in this way. As expressed by
Yoshida Kenkō (1283-1350), ‘If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino… how things
would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty’ (cited in (Keene,
1967, p.7). In Zen – a Buddhist tradition nearly synonymous with Japanese culture – the pre-eminent
symbol of mono no aware is the cherry blossom, whose fragile efflorescence captivates attention
during the bloom of spring. Crucially, appreciation of its beauty is heightened by awareness of its
transiency, in a way that would be missing if its florets were a permanent feature of the landscape.
Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), arguably the greatest master of the Haiku, captured this sense of mono
no aware with particular genius: ‘Summer grasses –; the only remains; of warriors’ dreams.’ Thus, as
Prusinski (2013, p.23) says, with mono no aware, ‘the beauty lies not in the object itself, but in the
whole experience, transformation, and span of time in which the object is present and changing.’
A second term at the heart of Japanese aesthetics is wabi-sabi, an intriguing counter-balance
to the ephemerality of mono no aware: wabi (侘) refers to imperfect beauty, and sabi (寂) to aged
beauty; together, they capture the strange, desolate beauty of aged or imperfect phenomena.
Whereas mono no aware points towards erosion, wabi-sabi reminds us that in this process of
changing, a certain dignity is nonetheless retained. Think of the mysterious power of old ruins, and
the reverential qualities of depth and meaning they can evoke. This sense is depicted by Tanizaki
(1933, pp.11-12) in his classic exposition of Zen aesthetics In Praise of Shadows. He describes
preferring a ‘pensive lustre to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an
artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity… We love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and
weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.’
Finally, we have yūgen (幽玄), described by Suzuki (1959, pp.220-221) as evoking obscurity,
mystery, unknowability, and yet not ‘utter darkness.’ It reflects the notion that the mysteries of
existence may be ineffable and elusive, and beyond rational understanding, but may nevertheless be
sensed in some inchoate, intuitive way. Moreover, yūgen does not simply depict awareness of these
strange depths, but the sense that one is moved to one’s core by these mysteries, without quite
knowing why. Kamo no Chōmei (1212) characterises yūgen thus: ‘It is like an autumn evening under
a colorless expanse of silent sky. Somehow, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall,
tears well uncontrollably’ (cited in Dyrness and kärkkäinen, 2008, p.65).
Western psychology arguably has constructs that are similar to yūgen, like the profound
state of elevation Maslow (1972) labelled ‘peak experiences.’ Deeply profound and illuminating,
peak experiences go far beyond mere hedonic pleasure or even fulfilment, involving qualities like
awe and self-transcendence. However, what is especially unusual and potent about yūgen is the
apparently ‘ordinary’ nature of the phenomena that can evoke it. This is reflected in this haiku by
Basho, often regarded as the ultimate expression of yūgen (Watts, 1957): ‘On a withered branch; A
crow is perched; In the autumn evening.’ Conceptualisations of peak experiences tend to imply that
these can only be experienced on some literal or metaphorical (e.g., developmental) summit. With
yūgen though, there is the profound experience of the ordinary – which is within everyone’s reach –
being revealed as extraordinary, as if lifting a veil on the sacred. Yūgen is thus an apposite place to
finish here, a perfect example of how untranslatable words can usher us into new dialectical modes
of appreciation, and reveal hitherto hidden dimensions of flourishing.
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