I Was Wrong

No, not about how to properly load the dishwasher, I’m very right about that.

I was wrong about the merits of Positive Psychology, a newish subfield of psychology dedicated to the study of happiness or “subjective well-being”. When I read the literature, I believed it was based upon solid social science. Ruth Whippman taught me otherwise.

As referenced in Michael Schien’s subtly titled Forbes piece, “Positive Psychology is Garbage”, Barbara Ehrenreich does the same in her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

Writing in Forbes, Schien explains Seligman’s success, the pseudo-intellectual founder of the movement:

“When describing his concepts, Seligman uses big words about statistics, mathematical equations, and empirical data. For most of us, this serves as the equivalent of a doctor’s white coat—it seems authoritative, so we don’t question it.”

Guilty as charged. Later, he adds:

“It’s a lesson you would do well to follow. When trying to get people to pay you for your ideas, present them in terms that have the whiff of science whenever possible. Equations. Data. Statistical analysis. Remember, it’s not that the science itself actually matters, it’s the appearance of science that counts.”

I’m left believing happiness is partly the result of being born to happy parents. Other things that tip the balance from despair to joy include a good night’s sleep, a few close friends, healthy food, sunshine, art, physical activity, and socially redeeming work.

But without equations, data, and statistical analysis, I don’t expect anyone to pay my list any attention.

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.”

Assigned Reading and Viewing

• You’re interested in adolescent mental health and like long-form, non-fiction journalism. The Silicon Valley Suicides.

• You wonder what it would be like to be a young Syrian woman who escapes from The Islamic State. ISIS Women and Enforcers in Syria Recount Collaboration, Anguish, and Escape.

• You dig athletic excellence and redemption stories. After rehabilitation, the best of Michael Phelps may lie ahead. Mid-story, I wondered, has there ever been a more physically dominant athlete in any sport?

• This Thanksgiving you want to be more intentional about giving thanks. Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier.

• You’re thankful Adele is back. “Nannies talk very slow and very calm to try to make the world make sense.” Who knew?

• You’re grateful Adele is coming to Thanksgiving dinner.

Retrain Your Brain to Be Grateful Part Two

Ledgerwood’s and the others research applies most poignantly to teaching. Consider this hypothetical. A teacher has 25 students, four whom really like her, 19 who don’t have strong feelings one way or the other, and two who really dislike her class. The two act out regularly and are highly skilled at getting under her skin. Even though they represent 8% of the classroom total, they occupy 80% of the teacher’s thinking. Consequently, they teacher wrongly concludes that most of the students are unhappy and thinks negatively about their work more generally.

This phenomenon, which Ledgerwood describes as “getting stuck in the loss frame” applies to school administrators too. More often than not, administrators’ thinking is disproportionately influenced by a few especially adversarial faculty.

Maybe the same applies to doctors working with lots of patients or ministers interacting with numerous parishioners. Or anyone whose work is characterized by continuous personal interactions.

Ledgerwood ends her talk by sharing the personal example of being pressed by her husband to “think of the good things” that happened during her day. And she’s quick to describe two positive memories. But what if you’re work or life situation is so difficult that when it comes to cultivating gratitude, you can’t gain any traction or develop positive momentum?

If I was to take the baton from Ledgerwood at the end of her talk, I’d pivot from psychology to sociology. Meaning you greatly increase your odds of being more positive if you consciously surround yourself with “gain framers”. The inverse of this, you greatly increase your odds of being more grateful if you assiduously avoid people who are “stuck in the loss frame”.

Ledgerwood contends we have to work really hard at retraining our brains. The sociological corollary is we have to be more intentional about who we seek out to partner with—whether in our work lives or our personal lives.

Once a Week Write Down What You’re Most Thankful For

We tend to take the most positive aspects of our lives for granted—good health; family; friends; a roof over our heads; freedoms; or warm, sunny, weekend days in October. It’s especially important that family and friends feel truly appreciated, because when they feel unvalued, those all important relationships suffer.

If you don’t stop to count your blessings on occasion, you’ll probably succumb to negativity. My friend is right when he says, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Curse the darkness with any regularity and people will avoid you. When that happens, negativity usually spirals downward.

University of California, Riverside psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky studies “happiness interventions”. Her research team asks, what if, with just a few behavioral adjustments, we could maintain a high level of happiness throughout our days, our years, or even our entire lives?

Here’s an interesting experiment of theirs. One set of volunteers was asked to keep a gratitude journal once a week, while another was asked to do so three times a week. Those who counted their blessings once a week exhibited a marked increase in happiness–but those who did so three times a week displayed no such uptick. Lyubomirsky speculates that for the latter group, gratitude became a chore, or worse, they ran out of things to be grateful for. The initial burst of happiness was thus deflated by monotony and irritation.*

While pondering this research, and writing this, I’ve been thinking about my mom. As is true for all octogenarians, her health isn’t what it used to be and my dad’s sudden death almost two decades ago was an understandable blow to her happiness. I can’t truly walk in her shoes, or understand why this author wants to die at age 75, but I’m confident even she would benefit from starting a gratitude journal.

Scratch that. Especially she. The more challenging one’s life, the more important it is to account for every last blessing. Starting a gratitude journal is an admission. An admission that gratitude doesn’t come naturally, it requires intentionality.

As always, I appreciate your reading.

* as described by Mark Joseph Stern