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Beyond positive psychology to spiritual well-being: faith in teaching psychology at the university

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

Prof. Grace KOO (KOO) is a professor of Education Psychology at the University of Philippines. She took her post-doctoral studies on Mind, Brain and Education at Harvard University. As an expert in the study of spiritual well-being, KOO taught in five seminaries and is a frequently invited speaker in both academic and church events.

In view of the emerging popularity of Positive Psychology (PP), KOO addressed the issues of relationship between PP and Christian Faith, including the power and limitations, and some of the false promises of PP and its influence on Prosperity Gospel. KOO argued for the need to go beyond positive psychology and to attain real joy and spiritual well-being as described in the Bible. Messages of sin and repentance, saving grace and personal holiness are then reiterated and the Bible teachings are included. Lastly, KOO shared how teaching could help her integrate faith and learning in a secular university. 

A common phenomenon in popular culture is to go after happiness. Happiness is defined by the modern culture as success by all means, such as in excitement, wealth and health. KOO pointed out the ironic contrast of this thinking with the Bible teaching which says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blesses are the meek…” (Matthew 5:3-5, New International Bible). She suggested that instead of advocating for “positive illusions” what we really need is to go back to the Bible for “reality orientation” by our judgment and critical thinking.

KOO expounded that the philosophical and psychological conception behind these value qualities is a worldview.  She referred to Martin Seligman’s theory of “human flourishing” (See Seligman, Flourish, 2012), saying that positive psychology wants to throw away sin.  It is the deception of innate sin which overlooks the fact that man lacks the ability to do what is right, and to love those whom he does not like.   “Sin allures us into both wrongdoing and the comforting conclusion that one is spiritually all right as one is.” (quoted from J.I. Packer, 18 Words, p.78). She also pointed out that virtue is not possible without God. Our infused virtue is by God’s gift of faith, hope and love. And it is a virtue when a person can turn an adversity to a blessing in life. Virtue is more important than happiness. Virtue provides a moral map on how we should live a meaningful life. Mother Teresa is a good example of what is really meant by a meaningful life. 

Regarding the integration of faith and learning in higher education, KOO adopted the perspectival integration approach which emphasizes the application of Christian worldview to the entire spectrum of education, manifesting the Christian worldview in her own perspective on psychology and contemporary issues.  KOO explained the importance of Christian mind to distinguish the difference between happiness and joy.  It is the Holy Spirit which enables Christians to live a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22).  Happiness rejects pain, but joy embraces pain as well. It is God’s love and faithfulness which gives us the reason and power for joy, despite our living in a broken world of broken relationships. There is indeed a need to move from brokenness to wholeness - “shalom” by our belief and faith in Jesus who paid it all so that we will be whole, even with life’s warts and all. 

Lastly, KOO concluded that happiness has become a cultural obsession today and it should be replaced by “wholeness” in spiritual well-being. The Bible teaches that real joy comes from God and not from human strength; as it says: “the joy of the Lord is my strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). As a Christian professor, he/she should be able to exemplify that the Christian God is the source of our joy as much as the object of our joy.


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