September 05, 2013

Self-Help for the Affluent

Positive psychology's bourgie biasJames Coyne

Positive psychology gurus and coaches give lots of advice about how we should lead our lives. Their threat is that if we don’t follow their advice, we will not only be unhappy, we risk sickness and death.

When Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America was published outside of the United States, the book was retitled Smile or Die. The publisher was concerned that non-native English speakers might not understand the play on words in the original title. I think the retitling is actually more apt in capturing the message of positive psychology: buy our advice, buy our books, attend our workshops or die.

Positive psychology claims to distinguish itself from New Age hucksters and silliness because it is based on solid science, top-notch research. These claims have recently fallen on hard times.

First, there was the savaging of Barbara Fredrickson’s absurdly precise positivity ratio. She had claimed in books and workshops that a balance of 2.9013 of positive to negative feelings was necessary to flourish. A team consisting of a psychology graduate student, a psychology professor, and a physicist critically examined the original journal article, "Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing," on which these claims were based. They concluded,

We find no theoretical or empirical justification for the use of differential equations drawn from fluid dynamics, a subfield of physics, to describe changes in human emotions over time; furthermore, we demonstrate that the purported application of these equations contains numerous fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors.

One of the authors, physicist Alan Sokal, later remarked,

The main claim made by Fredrickson and Losada is so implausible on its face that some red flags ought to have been raised.

Then there was the demise of Fredrickson's claim to have used genomic analysis to resolve the classic question of whether people should just strive for happiness (hedonic well-being) or pursue meaning (eudaimonic well-being) in their lives. Fredrickson claimed to find that “hedonic and eudaimonic well-being engage distinct gene regulatory programs despite their similar effects on total well-being and depressive symptoms” and came down on the side of striving for meaningfulness.

Fredrickson explained to her results to the media:

It’s not the amount of hedonic happiness that’s a problem…It’s that it’s not matched by eudaimonic well-being. It’s great when both are in step. But if you have more hedonic well-being than would be expected, that’s when this [gene] pattern that’s akin to adversity emerged.

So, the heading of an Atlantic article:

People who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity.

The basis for the claims had appeared in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). But I showed in a blog post that like the positivity ratio, these claims were based on statistical nonsense. The Short Flourishing Scale supposedly measures distinct concepts of eudaimonic well-being versus hedonic well-being. But scores were so highly correlated (.71) that two could be considered to be assessing facets of the same characteristic. It is only by voodoo statistics that they could be shown to be related differently to gene expression. Complicated multivariate statistical analyses were used to produce results that were an artifact of the analyses, not the patterns in the original data.

I examined the original reports concerning the scales and the data presented in Fredricksons PNAS paper and I could not understand the basis for her claim that these scales provided valid and reliable assessments of personal characteristics. The supposedly contrasting scales certainly did not have a needed discriminant validity for measuring two distinct concepts. To examine content validityI looked at the actual items. I found some particularly serious problems with the measure of eudaimonic well-being.

The general question is phrased “During the past month how often did you feel…?” And the six response options are “never, once or twice, about once a week, about two or three times a week, almost every day, or every day.” The specific items to be evaluated were

  • that you had something important to contribute to society,
  • that you belonged to a community (like a social group, your school, or your neighborhood)
  • that our society is a good place, or is becoming a better place, for all people
  • that people are basically good
  • that the way our society works made sense to you

The documentation for the scale cautions:

The original wording for item 6 was 'that our society is becoming a better place for people like you.' This item does not work in all cultural contexts.

Indeed. But I think there are more defects in the construction of this scale.

Positive psychology has been criticized as overemphasizing the potential of individuals to transcend their circumstances. Not every life context affords the same opportunities for flourishing. The promise that “smile, think positive thoughts, and you will be happy and healthy” underestimates the importance of social context for psychological well-being and health. Look at these items with that criticism in mind.

It would be fascinating to do a cognitive interview assessment of what respondents are actually thinking about when they complete the items. I think there are strong class and minority/majority differences. Certainly, priveleged white people have many more opportunities to draw upon than low-income minority persons to feel they contributed something to society and much more basis for concluding that our society is a good place and the way it works makes sense.

In its pencil and paper and online self-assessments, positive psychology assumes that it is personal characteristics that are being assessed and that they are modifiable with the advice and exercises that the workshops and the books provide. The emphasis on character and character-building is neo-Victorian. Positive psychology assumes that life is a level playing field except for the advantages or disadvantages that people have created for themselves. It is not circumstances that matter, so much as what we think about them.

Once we acknowledge the contribution of social economic circumstances, it can be readily seen that for many people, it is not personal characteristics driving responses to these items. In the case of the poor and minorities and other disadvantaged people, responses can be driven by overwhelmingly crushing characteristics of their circumstances.

Undoubtedly, rich white persons in the suburbs are more likely to score high on these measures. Positive psychology is applied ideology, not science, in encouraging them to congratulate themselves on the personal achievement the high score represents. And if they are still unhappy or in ill health, the problem lies with the personal characteristics and their modifiable attitudes.

As for the poor and disadvantaged and the physically ill, they have only themselves to blame. As a wealthy positive psychology entrepreneur recently declared “Your attitude is the reason you are poor.” He went on to cite Barbara Fredrickson:

In an article in the Journal of Business Venturing, leading positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson found positive emotions help build essential resources for entrepreneurs. Among those resources, the top three she found were social capital, resilience, and big picture thinking.

'It’s not just one of those things that’s going to matter more than the others,' Fredrickson said. 'All three are part of a larger web that creates an upward spiral.'

So what is the solution to poverty and social inequality? Poor people have to think positive, start smiling, and express gratitude. What a program for individual and social change—or a shameful fraud. As Barbara Ehrenrich has pointed out in Bright-Sided (or Smile or Die), the downside of this ideology is personal self-blame and national denial. Reviewing Bright-SidedThomas Frank remarked,

We’re always being told that looking on the bright side is good for us, but now we see that it’s a great way to brush off poverty, disease, and unemployment, to rationalize an order where all the rewards go to those on top. The people who are sick or jobless—why, they just aren’t thinking positively. They have no one to blame but themselves.


James Coyne is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the director of behavioral oncology research at the Abramson Cancer Center. He is an elected fellow of the American Psychological Association, Society of Behavioral Medicine, and Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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barry.cull's picture

The goal of positive psychology is to fulfill a mission within in general psychology. The mission is "what is knowable about how we as humans can reach our full potential and flourish ". To suggest that it is "happyology " is a misreading of the scientific basis of the subject matter. Indeed, it is likely that some of the early conclusion of the science (it is a very young field) are mistaken and wrong. But don't condemn the whole enterprise. We wouldn't abandon physics because we found some of the conclusions of Newton to be off the mark.

One of the exciting findings within the field, by the way, is the power of mindfulness to enhance our interconnectedness. The work of Daniel Siegel and others is demonstrating that the changes in social relationships that occur through the practice of mindfulness happens at a deep neurological level. Our lives with others happens, if we are mindful, with engagement and meaning. Two sources of well being that trump hedonistic pleasures.

buddhaddy's picture

Wonderful thoughts on the power of mindfulness. It makes perfect sense that an interaction between any two people, when one or both is as mindful as possible, would be much deeper and meaningful. And it's good thing that Einstein and others did find some flaws in newton's thinking, The wonders of Quantum physics often seems like a mathematics-based buddhist gospel.

bez's picture

the problem with saying "we" or "people" in a discussion like this is that everybody winds up getting lumped together as a single uniform group when perfect consensus doesn't exist anywhere - and certainly not on touchy issues like race and privilege. I for one don't demonize anyone. I may, in the process of making a particular point, cite an institution, philosophy, individual or general category of people. But that doesn't mean I'm making all of anybody one thing or another.

Seems to me phrases like "why do/don't we all" and others are convenient simplifications...

buddhaddy's picture

A refreshing point of view. it is my belief that one of the most beautiful things about the reality that I experience is the utter lack of same-ness anywhere I look. Even if things appear identical, it is fascinating to tease out their actual differences. And that goes for souls as well.

Danny's picture

What do you mean by "souls"?

buddhaddy's picture

Actually, my face is red. I mean whatever set of actions, tendencies, thoughts, feelings, etc. that makes you "you". not a very clear statement on my part.

buddhaddy's picture

And how do you protect others when
protecting yourself?
By pursuing the practice
developing it, devoting yourself to it.
—Shakyamuni Buddha

DB's picture

" How does our current system require that a majority be in poverty?"
Require is probably the wrong word. Our humanly order at this time simply is one of staggering and growing inequality. Inequality is a necessary factor for extreme accumulation of wealth. These pairs of opposites rest upon one another. The assault on the natural world is another form of inequality.

buddhaddy's picture

all of these trials have been with us since the beginning of humanity, and before. Animals even sometimes exhibit unnecessary cruelty. inequality, slavery, racism, hatred, compassion, charity, kindness, and love have all been in the world in just about equal portions throughout history. This time is no better or worse than any other. read history. one of the most beautiful things about this world wide web is that just about all of history is there for you to read. if not, it's in a book somewhere. Even Genghis Khan was followed by a more benevolent ruler. the cycle of existence. Jesus said "the poor will always be with you". (yes, I'm a buddhist). If you redistributed all of the money in the world so that each person had an equal amount, within a few years, there would be rich and poor. Because some are better at making money, and desire it more. that's the nature of things. Suffering is caused by desire, not by the rich.

Danny's picture

Indeed, the assault on the natural world is another form of equality. I hate to sound kind of hopeless, but the greed and selfishness inherent in a system that ALWAYS ends up about profit--no matter how good our intentions--is wrecking our planet and there doesn't seem to be anything that we in the current poisonous state of affairs, can do to stop it.

buddhaddy's picture

how do you see our planet being wrecked? there is some pollution, but volcanoes have done far worse damage. there people hurting others, and many more doing kindnesses. look at the horrors of humanity's past actions, all the way to the beginning, and you'll see this today is a far more civilized world. because of Karma, I believe there will always be the duality of good and evil, happiness and sadness, pain and pleasure, selfishness and charity, because of the beauty of personal choice. As to what we can do about it: We can work to change individuals as often as we can. Each day, we can find situations or people that we can influence in a good way, if we choose to do that hard work. And I'm encouraged by the fact that a horrible man like Adolph Hitler could motivate so many people to kill, enslave, and torture, and yet, with those odds, we still have the kinder world of today. I believe the good outweighs the bad. None of what I say are to be considered truths. They are just my opinions from whatever mindfulness I have been able to explore, through my own observations, trials and choices.

Danny's picture

Well, the changing of our climate is one of the primary ways we are wrecking our planet, but there are many many others. Just open your eyes. Do you believe at all what the smart people are telling us, or only in magic and mystical fairy-tale notions like your apparent take on "karma".

buddhaddy's picture

"the changing of the planet". Is about as specific as you can get? For each "scientist" or "climatologist" you come up with that says we're ruining the planet, i can come up with one that says it's hogwash. There is one meteorologist who is well known for accurately predicting the current storm seasons who shows some significant proof that not only are we not "overheating" the planet, but that we are headed for a mini ice-age to peak in the mid 50's. If that's so, then perhaps a little over-heating would be a good thing. What I'm getting at, is that whenever we try to change things, behaviors, technology, there are always unintended consequences, some worse than what we are trying to fix. It is the butterfly effect. You cannot know what the consequences of any action would be. that being said, I still believe that Freedom is always the best way. If we would have simply said, in California, in the 70's, "these are the emission standards, i don't care how you achieve them, we would have had whole new industries, cleaner air a million different ways. instead we mandated the catalytic converter, most likely because someone's nephew invented it and needed business. How's that working out? Look up Joe Bastardi, or will you only go to those blogs that reflect what you want to think?

Rob_'s picture

"For each "scientist" or "climatologist" you come up with that says we're ruining the planet, i can come up with one that says it's hogwash."

When 97% of the climate scientists proclaim there is man-made climate change, you will not come up with a comparable number saying it isn't so. You can't even do basic math.

Your ignorance of many matters is that obvious.

buddhaddy's picture

97% of the "climate scientists". Even if there is man-made climate change, no one can say with truth that it might be beneficial. who knows what's coming? Can you say with certainty? Can your "climate scientists"?

Rob_'s picture

Now we're back to your flaky, "no one can really know". Even though you claim to be informed about this issue, you are not. You wouldn't be saying things like "it might be beneficial". There are no projections that this will be beneficial. Thus, the concern for cutting carbon emissions.

buddhaddy's picture

when 97% of all of them do, then i'll concede that point. show me the details on that statistic, and i can hopefully clear some of my ignorance, with your help.

Rob_'s picture

Because you can't look this up? I mean, you made your statement based on something didn't you? How about you show me where you get your information?

http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus

buddhaddy's picture

We can do this all day. I can google it as easily as you can. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_scientists_opposing_the_mainstream_...
but this will get us nowhere. but i'm sure that "My" scientists aren't as smart as "yours". Joe bastardi has made more accurate climate forecasts and given more detail on his science than any i've seen from your group. did you look at him? or is he not one of your "97%".

Rob_'s picture

Meteorologists don't study climate change. As a matter of fact they aren't even trained in the knowledge that would equip them to do and understand it. But you would know this if you actually read the link I sent you about Joe Bastardi. Short term weather prediction is not the same as the study of long term climate change. And further, if you had read the link I sent, there were many points made debunking Bastardi's ridiculous claims.

So you sent me a link? So what? I never said there weren't any dissenters. Your statement was claiming a 50/50 split. So for someone so informed on this matter, why would you categorically make such an untrue statement? Oh ... that's because you're lying about being informed about all of this.

And I realize you're very bad at details. You should read something before sending it to me. Here's a couple things of note.

"Each scientist included in this list has published at least one peer-reviewed article in the broad field of natural sciences, although not necessarily in a field relevant to climatology."

"As of August 2012, fewer than 10 of the statements in the references for this list are part of the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The rest are statements from other sources such as interviews, opinion pieces, online essays and presentations. Academic papers almost never reject the view that human impacts have contributed to climate change."

So it looks like most, if not all of these people aren't even involved in the study of climate change. And hardly any have put forth their ideas for peer review. You do know what peer review is, don't you?

So feel free to post more links that reinforce my position and weakens yours. It's amusing.

zumacraig's picture

I find myself just standing/sitting still at random times through out the day caught in astounding wonder as to why we've acquiesced to this ridiculous, arbitrary system of value and profit.

buddhaddy's picture

Profit is taking in more than you provide. Do you not want to eat today, rather than give it all to another? That is a personal profit. We all have that choice. Do you not want a liveable wage for your work? That is profit. You want enough income to provide your needs and possibly some wants. Is that not personal profit? How can we live in a world without profit? is it only some that shouldn't have profit? Exactly how much profit is too much? Not in generalities like "extravagant living", or "having a big yacht when others are starving". But exactly how much is too much? I am living much more extravagantly compared to my childhood and some of my younger years, but I live a simple life, and I have no retirement, even though I am approaching retirement years. This is due to my own bad choices, and my own Karma. Who should I blame? These are not truths, just the results of my attempts at mindfulness on my journey through this life.

Danny's picture

How do all humans "take in more than they provide"? Does money grow on trees? What you are calling or defend as profit; from where does it come?

buddhaddy's picture

i stand corrected. only those who don't starve to death take in more than they provide.

buddhaddy's picture

If you don't take in more food than you burn, you will likely die, and you will definitely not get fat as I see so many on the dole becoming. If you don't take in more than you need to eat and have shelter, you won't have spare cash for a big screen TV, satellite TV, Cell phone, car, etc. I work with those in poverty every day. I'm in their homes often. I don't see any of those things missing from their lives. In many cases they have more than I do. If you told them to do without those things until they can provide them for themselves, what do you think they would say? Honestly? Money definitely does not grow on trees. But if everyone in a society who is physically and mentally able does not provide some of the work, to what ever their capabilities are, then the system will eventually crash. Why do you think that in some pre, and neo-historic societies the old and incapable volunteered to walk away and die? because if they were kept, fed, and cared for, they would bring down the whole clan. Today we can care for the truly infirm, simply because of the sheer size of our population. But if the rest of us do not do whatever part we can to provide for ourselves, (that includes working at Macdonalds, roomming with others, living without luxuries if necessary), then we will all fail in the end.

zumacraig's picture

'Requires' is the only word to describe the relationship between poverty and capitalism. There has to be a lower class that cleans the toilets and makes the stuff so we can buy it for cheap. Inequality is not just some natural human phenomenon. We created it and we can change it. However, wallowing in quests of personal enlightenment and blaming the government keep the reactionary buddhist complacent in the face of the 'staggering inequality'. A faithful buddhist, on the other hand, is constantly working to uncover ideologies that perpetuate suffering and works to change the cause of such suffering. As a faithful buddhist, I don't sit in meditation to gain some sort of glimpse of eternal consciousness. I sit to relax, refresh and THINK clearer.

buddhaddy's picture

As a nurses aid years ago, I cleaned worse than toilets for many, not rich, and found it to be honorable work. I did not think I was lower class, and no one told me I was. Those works led me to middle-class. I still help those less fortunate. How do you classify me?

zumacraig's picture

Everyone should have to clean the toilets at some point. But you can still defend capitalism and make believe it's honorable work to get to the middle class. That's part of the myth. Don't you see. For lots of folks, cleaning toilets is the top of the heap. And for others, they can't even get to that level. We think having some shitty job in college on our way to the suburbs validates the protestant work ethic. It doesn't. Not to mention the fact that we're still thinking in terms of the individual. There are no individuals, we are all connected and the way society is today is anti-human, anti-collective and absolutely irrational. If we realized this and focused instead on making sure everyone had enough good food to eat, comfortable shelter, medical care and meaningful work in meeting these values, there'd be almost zero suffering in the world. That's buddhism! Not sitting in meditation for hours and being more mindful at work or while you eat! Lot's of people wont like this change and will fight it tooth and nail. They're either deluded or capitalists. The former will find relief and the latter will have to deal with their feelings. It's going to be a lot of hard work precisely because it's a sea change of the collective and not just agreeing on some point of view.

buddhaddy's picture

what is the law that guarantees that cleaning toilets is the top of the heap for any person? if a person is unhappy in any position, they can work to change it. if they are lazy, they reap what they sow. if they are not bright enough, they may be happy to have any job at all. I agree with you that having some lousy job just to get to the suburbs is probably not very meaningful, to me at least. but who am I to judge my fellow human? We are all connected. At least that's what I believe. But when you say that society is anti-human and absolutely irrational, you have to explain those statements. without that, they are simply that: statements. they mean nothing. how is current society anti-human? I see many acts of kindness in my daily life, in the news, and through discussion with others. If you look for those random acts of kindness, they're mixed in with all those selfish acts. giving food, shelter, jobs, etc. doesn't guarantee happiness. Look around you mindfully, at the rich. do they all seem happy?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhist equality is that the toilet cleaner and the hedge fund manager are both entirely equal as potential buddhas, and should be respected as such.

buddhaddy's picture

Well Said. And as potential buddhas, I believe they can choose to suffer or not, regardless of their circumstances.

Danny's picture

This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever read--good luck getting "thinking" people to respond to this nonsense. I'm done.

buddhaddy's picture

Well, we are becoming a nation of quitters, so being done is appropriate. I shouldn't ask for people to actually think about what they're saying. I would have longer conversations.

zumacraig's picture

Buddhaddy,
You refuse to take responsibility for anything you say on here. You refuse to think. You refuse to discuss or engage. Then you project this on all of those who do take a moment to think and converse and have the audacity to say that no one thinks about what they say. Danny, me, Rob have all attempted to have a discussion with you and you always respond with some dismissive sophistry or obfuscation. If you could see this, you'd see that it is you who is stopping the conversations. No one is quitting here. Quite the opposite. There's nothing to quit when one side of the discussion refuses to engage, is reactive and refuses to think (hint: that's you).

You're not alone though. There's quite a few deluded buddhists who've taken up the vow so non-thinking and reactive right wing ideology. It's quite amazing given the fact these two things have nothing to do with faithful buddhism. Which, in fact, is about critical thinking, seeing and ending the causes of suffering, ideological awareness/intentionality and demystification.

buddhaddy's picture

:)

zumacraig's picture

Comments and mindsets like this are what keep you idiots deluded and the masses suffering. Look up Zizek's critique of buddhism. Only someone who has no idea what buddhism or suffering nor any inclination to learn or think would say people 'choose to suffer no matter the circumstances.' You are the worst kind of oppressor, the one that is willfully ignorant, absolutely stupid or mentally ill. Conversing with you is a complete waste of time.

buddhaddy's picture

I'd rather look up what the buddha said about buddhism. i generally like to go to the source. the name calling is entertaining, because I can visualize you sitting there in your parent's basement, red-faced, pounding the keyboard, rather than actually doing personal research. But it's getting old.

zumacraig's picture

I usually ignore your nonsense here, but damn what you write above is just complete crap. The equality between the worker is that they are human. Drop the buddha nature bunk. This is exactly the point I've been trying to make above. All of these platitudes and practices just keep us from actually thinking/doing anything to change the system that is the obvious cause of the world's suffering.

Now, I know you'll reply with some buddha-heme and refuse any real conversation. Too bad.

buddhaddy's picture

is this not a buddhist discussion?

Dominic Gomez's picture

That you and I equally have the potential to be fully human is crap to you?

zumacraig's picture

You and I are perfectly human already. Get that buddha nature stuff out of the way and start working on your ideological blindness.

buddhaddy's picture

blindness enhances the other senses. In this way, it is a strength, not a weakness.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Of course we have the appearance of human beings. But what does being human really entail?

buddhaddy's picture

A question I ask frequently, especially in light of current and especially future science of robotics, artificial intelligence, genetic modification, etc. what will being human entail in 50 years? 100 years? not that far off. Is being human simply our actions? is there an "I"?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Current obsessions with ephemera is not leading to humanism, but action (karma) will.

buddhaddy's picture

And, just for the sake of mindfulness, please define "action".

Dominic Gomez's picture

Don't just sit there, do something. Vote with your feet. Action speaks louder than thoughts. A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

buddhaddy's picture

Besides voting with your feet, can you not help a suffering person also? voting takes much less effort, especially if someone busses you to the polls. But the personal offering of help or charity is so much more fufilling.

buddhaddy's picture

True. Action is the only thing that will lead anywhere.

zumacraig's picture

Flesh and blood.