A New Science of Suffering, the Wisdom of the Soul, and the New Behavioral Economics of Happiness: Towards a General Theory of Well-being

Paul T.P. WONG (Editor), Lok Sang HO (Editor), Richard Gregory COWDEN (Editor), Claude-Hélène MAYER (Editor), Fan YANG (Editor)

Research output: Other PublicationsSpecial issue (Editor)


New developments in positive psychology have evolved into the 2nd and 3rd waves, going beyond the individual and positive focus towards complex systems, multi-cultures, and the existential positive psychology of transcending suffering. The present project aims at developing a general theory of well-being that integrates all the above changes as the new frontier of positive psychology.

At a time when humanity is threatened by all kinds of existential crises, from climate change to nuclear war, from ideological polarization to a widening income gap, we need to develop a big-picture theoretical framework showing that happiness is not just for those living in peace and prosperity, but also for those struggling in dire poverty and war-ravaged countries like Ukraine, not just for the self, but also for others, not just for the present, but also for future generations. This broader approach towards wellbeing opens up new vistas for research and interventions.

The world of suffering has largely been ignored by well-being researchers because of the dominance of research on positive emotions. Our main thesis is that everyone wants happiness and to avoid pain, but until we can overcome or transform suffering, happiness will continue to elude us. Pain or suffering is an inescapable part of life. We need a new science of suffering to understand (a) different kinds of suffering such as necessary (e.g., personal growth) vs. unnecessary suffering (e.g., the evil or hell we inflict on each other); and (b) the different conditions under which suffering can hurt us or make us stronger.

In a digital age, the “enemy” is often invisible or pervasive; therefore, adaptation becomes more complex and challenging. Walter Cannon’s wisdom of the body and George Vaillant’s wisdom of the ego are no longer sufficient; we also need the wisdom of how to live and die well. Such wisdom can be considered existential intelligence, characterized by enlightened knowledge, a dialectical mindset, and transcendental values.
A general theory of well-being needs to cover the complete spectrum of psychological well-being, from mental illness to mental health. Such a theory is capable of integrating the bright and dark sides of life and providing road signs to achieving wholeness, inner peace, balance, and harmony – the cornerstones of wellbeing and flourishing in every season of life.

In view of the above, the new behavioral economics of happiness is no longer just about what will make one happy but is also concerned with how to meet our deepest yearnings for meaning, love, and connection with the Divine or Tao. It is also concerned with how to create a more compassionate world guided by the wisdom of the soul. Ultimately, what is personal is also universal, and vice versa, because at the deepest level, we are all interconnected parts of the whole.
Original languageEnglish
Specialist publicationFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - May 2023


  • existential positive psychology
  • flourishing
  • happiness
  • life intelligence
  • suffering
  • well-being


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