Positive Psychology Exposed

I’m thankful for so many things including my family’s health, my health, this weather front from Hawaii, my work, my Church Council colleagues, clean flannel sheets, and Ruth Whippman’s America the Anxious.

Read the whole book, but Chapter 8, a critical history of the Positive Psychology movement, is especially insightful. Positive psychology, or happiness studies, is only twenty years old. After studying the financial backers that gave rise to it, and the founding academics’ research, here’s Whippman’s critique:

“Clearly anyone in the happiness trade has a strong financial incentive to at the very least play up the amount of agency we have over our own well-being and to play down the elements that we are unable to change. And, like the self-help industry, positive psychology almost defiantly downplays the role of our life circumstances in our happiness. In contrast, it emphasizes to the max the ability of the individual to radically alter his or her own levels of contentment by sheer effort and force of will.”

Whippman later turns up the heat:

“With its almost belligerent denial that structural obstacles to happiness exist, it seems to promote a dangerous level of social and political disengagement about tackling the injustices of the wider world. On a more personal level, I find it unforgiving and dismissive of others’ often very real problems and all too liable to veer into victim blaming. Most important, it seems to undermine the very idea of a supportive community in which we all take responsibility for one another’s welfare, something that is at the very foundation of happiness.”

Whippman convincingly argues that the scientific basis of the movement is mostly smoke and mirrors. She exposes famous academics’ research as seriously flawed. I want to see how they respond. They have gotten very rich inaccurately marketing happiness studies as scientific.

Whippman’s review of relevant research coupled with personal forays applying happiness strategies, leads to provocative insights. Among the most important:

• To be more happy, stop thinking so much about how to be more happy.

• Instead, be more social. Spend more time with people, than alone.

• Also, stop trying to avoid sadness and related negative emotions. Embrace them as inevitable parts of life.

That last point is especially important for parents of children who increasingly experience anxiety. Whippman argues the rise in anxiety among children and adolescents is largely a result of helicopter parents attempting to shield their children from challenging life experiences and the negative emotions that often accompany them.

The Torah says, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.” Meaning I read this book as an endurance athlete. Athletes improve their fitness by running or swimming or cycling or lifting weights to the point that their muscles breakdown. Then, as a result of sleep and scheduled rest, the muscles rebound past the original point, meaning the athlete is stronger and more fit. They key is repeated exposure to resistance followed by rest.

To truly flourish in life, all of us, but young people in particular, need more resistance, or in modern parlance, we need to “lean in” more to life’s difficulties. Then, overtime, through the help of supportive friends, parents and/or public institutions, we will bounce back more resilient and happier than before. Two steps forward, one back. Or more accurately, two steps backward, one forward.

Too many parents want to protect their children from any steps backwards, but when it comes to their mental health, that backfires. Once, when the Eldest was 12 or 13 years-old, her soccer team turned more competitive. As a result, she rode the bench for most of a soccer doubleheader one cold, wet weekend on a muddy field in Shelton, WA. The GalPal and I were both bent as a result of this unexpected turn of events. On the drive home, the Good Wife informed me she was, “Going to talk to the coach!” To which I responded, “No you’re not.” Her instinct was understandable, but it’s exactly what Whippman says parents should guard against.

As it turned out, Eld was well-liked by her teammates and they rallied around her. She moved on from the demotion way more quickly and skillfully than her parents. I’m not sure how I succeeded in talking the GalPal down from the “talking to the coach” ledge; but as a result, Eld is a little more resilient, and according to Whippman, probably a little more happy.

When dealt a setback in life, don’t side step the inevitable negative emotions, instead, get more comfortable being uncomfortable. And unless it’s physical or emotional abuse, teach your children to do the same. They’ll thank you as adults with improved mental health.




Sign(s) of the Apocalypse

Sports Illustrated used to have a weekly “sign of the apocalypse” blurb which was some especially depressing sports-related quote or news event. Let’s revive it with this mind-blowing missive from Darren Rovell, ESPN Senior Writer:

“$13.2 million: Estimated value to Big Baller Brand as a result of the back and forth between LaVar Ball and Donald Trump over the UCLA basketball players release from China. The value grew another $4 million over the last 24 hours, including Trump’s two tweets on the topic this morning.”

Anyone who reads and/or talks about LaVar Ball is being played. Thanks to this post, I’m complicit in the mania now.

Two hundred years from now, in 2217, when academics are writing about the steady decline of the U.S. throughout the 21st and 22nd Centuries, an especially creative historian will point to the Donald Trump-Lavar Ball twitter back-and-forth as the beginning of the end of U.S. hegemony.

The President now supports Roy Moore because Moore denies the allegations. Trump strikes me as more amoral, than immoral. His only core values, as far as I can tell, are related, attract more attention and acquire more wealth. We have a President that doesn’t factor in the country’s best interests. And he has over three years left to wreak havoc.

Most depressing of all, my political party couldn’t find anyone to beat this guy.

Postscript: I hereby pledge to post again tomorrow. Something a little more upbeat for the best holiday of the year.


Commas Matter, Dawg

If you’re like me, you can use a laugh. Cue “Suspect asks for a ‘lawyer, dawg’. Judge says he asked for a ‘lawyer dog’.

Despite the allegation of a serious crime, I double dog dare you to read it without laughing aloud.

“Reason’s Ed Krayewski explains that, of course, this assertion is utterly absurd. Demesme was not referring to a dog with a license to practice law, since no such dog exists outside of memes. Rather, as Krayewski writes, Demesme was plainly speaking in vernacular; his statement would be more accurately transcribed as “why don’t you just give me a lawyer, dawg.” The ambiguity rests in the court transcript, not the suspect’s actual words.”


Some PTA’s Paying Teachers’ Salaries

Like in Seattle Washington. Here’s the district’s rationale.

Many well-to-do parents’ fear their children will not enjoy the same economic privilege they have. That anxiety explains a lot of the inequities embedded in our public education system. In fact, I’m surprised super wealthy parents in the U.S. haven’t followed the lead of the super wealthy 30-something Chinese parents I met twenty years ago in a Beijing suburb. Focused intensely on English language instruction, those parents built a K-8 boarding school specifically for their children. It was a weird, disconcerting place, but I bet the teachers made quite a bit more money than their public school Chinese counterparts.

I wonder. Why haven’t any multi-millionaire parent groups (that I know of) created schools exclusively for their children staffed with teachers making $200,000/year? I suppose the answer is they feel the best public and private K-12 schools are good enough. If that changes, I will not be surprised. And yes, I will say, I called it.


Studies Show That Religious People Are Happier Than The Nonreligious

From Ruth Whippman in America the Anxious:

“Almost all the studies show that religious people tend to have a greater number of social ties and stronger and more supportive communities. When the studies control for the increased levels of social connection, the link between religion and happiness almost always disappears.”

This is my fav positive psychology book. The one I’d recommend to someone brand new to the subject. I dig Whippman’s skepticism, insights, journalistic bent, and British wit. Only complaint, she could use some working class friends.

Monday Assorted Links

1. Students’ grades determine where they eat lunch at Florida schools. While trying to process this, I was overcome by a strong desire to excise the peninsula along the Alabama-Georgia borders. Let it drift away I say.

2. Olympic marathon champ Jemima Sumgong banned four years for EPO. This is so common place, why doesn’t the Olympic Organizing Committee wait four years and distribute the awards right before the next game’s Opening Ceremony. And while we’re at it, let’s all agree to wait ten years to give wedding gifts. Make sure the relationship sticks before springing for that state-of-the-art toaster oven.

3. How to Get Entirely Tax-Free Retirement Income. An excellent explanation of why Health Savings Accounts rock.

4. When Your Shitty Health Insurance Doubles in Price.

“Remember, health insurance is not really health insurance. It’s just “large medical bill insurance” – a shaky precaution against having to pay for expensive procedures, so you can keep your investments instead of using them to pay the bills, perhaps eventually becoming poor enough that you are covered by public health insurance (Medicaid). A better name for it might be wealth insurance.”

5. Here’s why you may want to stop judging your emotions.

“. . . research from the University of California, Berkeley found that the pressure to feel upbeat can make you feel downbeat, while embracing your darker moods can actually make you feel better in the long run.

“We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health,” said senior author Iris Mauss.

At this point, researchers can only speculate on why accepting your joyless emotions can defuse them, like dark clouds passing swiftly in front of the sun and out of sight.

“Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you’re not giving them as much attention,” Mauss said. “And perhaps, if you’re constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up.”