I have always had a positive feeling about positive psychology. Compared to Freud’s negative psychology, positive psychology felt, and still feels like a needed correction.
This does not mean that those who theorize about positive psychology always get it right. Like the rest of us, they occasionally get it wrong.
Case in point: a famous study of human happiness by Barbara Frederickson and Marcial Losada. It’s portentous title: Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing,
Apparently, the paper uses statistical analysis to prove that people who have positive thoughts are more likely to be happier.
Of course, for all we know, people who are happier have more positive feelings—doesn’t that constitute happiness—but, not having read the paper, I do not know whether the authors consider that possibility.
In the meantime, before getting lost in the thorny issue of how correct or incorrect the statistical analysis is—not to create too much suspense, but it has recently been shown to have been incorrect—we need to underscore the conceptual basis for the study.
First, the study seems to care more about how people feel, and less about how they function in the world. The difference between the two is stark and striking.
Second, the study defines happiness in terms of “flourishing” and contrasts it to “languishing.” I have no objecting to the notion of languishing—it seems akin to the old sin of sloth-- but flourishing, the latest buzzword in the world of positive psychology, seems more fitted to plants and flowers than to human beings.
When a team wins the Super Bowl or a marketer wins a new contract or a politician wins an election you would not normally say that any of them are flourishing. The term is too flowery to describe success in competitive enterprise.
Whatever the tests and the surveys show, one needs to use great caution when formulating concepts. Aspiring to live like a flower or a potted plant takes you out of the competitive arena and puts you on a windowsill… there to flourish or to languish.
But that is the least of the study’s problems. According to the Guardian, a psychology graduate student named Nicholas Brown has discovered that the math used by Frederickson and Losada is, to be kind about it, bunk.
I will not regale you with their mathematical mistakes. I do not know enough to do so cogently. The Guardian article summarizes them and offers some references. Instead, I note Brown’s epiphany about the new path that positive psychology has recently taken.
The Guardian reports:
There was a slide showing a butterfly graph – the branch of mathematical modelling most often associated with chaos theory. On the graph was a tipping point that claimed to identify the precise emotional co-ordinates that divide those people who "flourish" from those who "languish".
According to the graph, it all came down to a specific ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions. If your ratio was greater than 2.9013 positive emotions to 1 negative emotion you were flourishing in life. If your ratio was less than that number you were languishing.
It was as simple as that. The mysteries of love, happiness, fulfilment, success, disappointment, heartache, failure, experience, random luck, environment, culture, gender, genes, and all the other myriad ingredients that make up a human life could be reduced to the figure of 2.9013.
Of course, Brown was right to be skeptical, and not just about the number. The study seems to suggest that if you can learn to think positive thoughts and to feel positive feelings you will be happy. Apparently, it does not tell us how much of a role luck plays or whether negative emotions might make you a better competitor for showing you potential pitfalls. Nor does it ask whether hard work, a key to success in most human endeavors, is accompanied by positive affect or whether it matters.
Brown expressed his greatest skepticism about the number that Frederickson and Losada came up with. After all, it is one part of their study that can be subject to empirical calculation.
The Guardian reports:
Referring to the bizarrely precise tipping point ratio of 2.9013 that Fredrickson and Losada trumpeted applied to all humans regardless of age, gender, race or culture, the authors – in fact Brown, in this sentence – wrote: "The idea that any aspect of human behaviour or experience should be universally and reproducibly constant to five significant digits would, if proven, constitute a unique moment in the history of the social sciences."
Whether or not the study is junk science, it seems clearly to have used junk math.
Of course, positive thinking is not a very new idea. Its modern version seems to have begun when Aaron Beck instructed his depressed patients to learn how to balance the positive and the negative, but, by now it seems to have veered off into the domain of metaphysics.
The Guardian explains:
The concept of positive thinking dates back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Throughout written history, metaphysicians have grappled with questions of happiness and free will. The second-century Stoic sage Epictetus argued that "Your will needn't be affected by an incident unless you let it". In other words, we can be masters and not victims of fate because what we believe our capability to be determines the strength of that capability.
Does the mind really control everything? Is a trauma a trauma because there is something intrinsically traumatic about it or because you have allowed yourself to be traumatized?
True enough, some people are more resilient. They deal with trauma more effectively, but they rarely do so merely by performing mental gymnastics.
Take an example. What happens if someone insults you in front of a third person? Does the insult become less painful if you have a positive attitude and positive feelings? If you evince positive affect when faced with an insult might that not show that you do not know what just happened or are trying to pretend that it did not?
If other people witness the insult and see you as diminished, your good feelings will not influence the way that they see you or treat you in the future.
The idea harkens to the words of Hamlet. Arguing with his boon friends Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet declared that Denmark was a prison.
His friends disagreed.
… there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.
Hamlet is saying that if it feels like a prison, it is a prison. And if a prison feels like a pasture, is it then a pasture? And if you think that the prison is a pasture and decide to walk outside, what happens then?
One recognizes that many serious thinkers, both within and without the field of positive psychology believe that reality is what we make of it, and that our powerful minds can create it as we would wish it to be.
What happens when other people are not in on the joke?