Home All Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 26 August 2008

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

By Bridget Grenville-Cleave


Over the past decade or so there have been many Positive Psychology articles exploring the relationship between money and happiness. Myers (2000), Diener and Oishi (2000), Blanchflower and Oswald (2004), and Layard (2005) amongst others have presented research which suggests that increasing wealth does not buy happiness (this graph illustrates this point for the USA). The argument, put simply, is that in the Western World economic well-being has increased significantly since the 1950s, but that during the same period of time, levels of happiness have stayed pretty much the same. Amongst the explanations put forward are the existence of the so-called hedonic treadmill and the happiness set-point, which mean that happiness only increases temporarily – eventually we return to our genetically predetermined base level.

Happiness is on the up…

The good news is that according to a new study by Inglehart, Foa, Peterson and Welzel (2008), happiness is actually increasing: in this longitudinal study between 1981 and 2007, happiness levels went up in 45 out of 52 countries. And contrary to what you might conclude from Myers’ graph (mentioned above), the US is one of those countries which shows an upward trend in happiness (p. 276). Several countries (e.g. India, Ireland, and Mexico) show steeply rising trends, and only four countries show downward trends (Austria, Belgium, the UK, and West Germany). So how do we explain the apparent inconsistency between Myers and Inglehart et al?

…says who?


In Inglehart et al’s study, data was taken from the World Values Survey, in which life satisfaction is assessed by asking people how satisfied they are with their life as a whole (using a scale that ranges from 1 (not at all satisfied) to 10 (very satisfied)) and happiness is assessed by asking how happy they are using four categories (very happy, rather happy, not very happy and not at all happy). The researchers then constructed their own Subjective Well-Being Index (SWB = life satisfaction – 2.5 x happiness). Using this measure, they conclude that since the 1980s (the date from which they have consistent country-level data) happiness is increasing in the vast majority of the countries they studied.

Myers, on the other hand, doesn’t use life satisfaction data at all: instead his graph is based on happiness data in the General Social Survey, which asks “taken all together, how would you say things are these days–would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” As a result, he reports that the number of Americans who describe themselves as being “very happy” has declined from 35% to 33% between 1957 and 1998 (p. 61). But if you look at the GSS data on happiness for the years 1972 (the earliest data I could access) and 2006, those saying they are “very happy” increased by 2.7%, those who said they are “pretty happy” increased by 2.9% and those who said they are “not too happy” declined by 5.5%… The trend from the early 1970s onwards, then, seems to be that happiness is increasing. So perhaps both Myers and Inglehart et al are correct in the conclusions they draw from their data, even though they appear to be contradictory… No wonder statistics is such a popular subject with politicians!

Statistics aside, what is particularly important about Inglehart et al’s paper is that they draw a very clear distinction between life satisfaction and happiness. They link economic prosperity to life satisfaction and SWB, but not to happiness. Interestingly, these researchers suggest that even though happiness and life satisfaction tend to rise and fall together, they can move in different directions (p. 272-3), which explains why some ex-communist Eastern European countries saw happiness increase, but life satisfaction decrease, during their transition to democracy in the 80s and 90s. Thus the linkage between happiness, life satisfaction, and wealth is not as straightforward as we might at first think.

Free Choice Increases Happiness?

deomcracy-s_k_s.jpgHappiness has risen, they suggest, due to increasing democratization over the past 25 years, which means that people increasingly feel they have free choice (e.g. freedom of speech, to travel and in politics) and control over their lives. Significantly, according to their research, free choice was the only variable which showed a statistically significant association with change in SWB, regardless of whether the SWB Index, happiness, or life satisfaction was the dependent variable. In fact “by itself, free choice explained 30% of the change over time in SWB” (p. 270).

Free choice and control over one’s life are linked to economic security, of course, but they are about much more than that. Social tolerance of diverse lifestyles (e.g. of sexuality, gender equality, other ethnic groups, religious expression, self expression and so on) is a vital component in increasing personal happiness, because it broadens the range of choices available. Whilst economic growth may ultimately be an important factor in increasing well-being, social tolerance seems to be much more so (see chart below); as a result we now have some evidence that it is possible to increase happiness at a country level.

So what does applied positive psychology tell us about developing social tolerance? Well, unsurprisingly given the recency of these conclusions, according to my search of PsycARTICLES and PsycINFO at the moment, not a lot, which means there may be a great opportunity for someone out there to make a major contribution to this field. Any takers?





Blanchflower, D. & Oswald, A. (2004, July). Well-being over time in Britain and the USA. Journal of Public Economics, 88(7/8), 1359.

Diener, E. & Oishi, S. (2000). Money and happiness: Income and subjective well-being across nations. In E.Diener & E.M. Suh, Culture and Subjective Well-Being (Well Being and Quality of Life), (pp. 185-218). Cambridge, MA, US: The MIT Press.

Inglehart, R., Foa, R., Peterson, C. & Welzel, C. (2008). Development, freedom, and rising happiness: A global perspective (1981-2007). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(4), 264-285.

Layard, R. (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. New York: Penguin.

Myers, D. (2000). The funds, friends and faith of happy people. American Psychologist, 55(1), 56-67


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Senia Maymin 26 August 2008 - 8:38 am

Bridget, I’m so glad you write about this Ingerhart et al. paper. I think it’s such an interesting conclusion about Freedom and Happiness. This is the first time that I have seen these concepts linked. I’ve heard something about a linkage like this in Gallup Well-Being Index, but from what remember the dependent variable was more security or safety than free choice. This paper is extremely interesting to me. Thank you.

Christine Duvivier 26 August 2008 - 10:25 am


Thank you so much for this article– you’ve taken on one of the most complex, contradictory topics in positive psychology and clarified some of the factors. Thanks also for emphasizing the value of control in one’s life. I am especially interested in the effect on adolescents.
Sadly, we give teens very little control over their education today, but I hope that– as articles like yours build awareness– we can change this.

SteveM 26 August 2008 - 1:45 pm

“Lies, Damn Lies, And Statistics” is a very appropriate title for this essay. I find in this piece and others, along with their supporting comments an inference that happiness is strongly correlated with autonomy. And by extension, the more autonomy, the better.

I fully support Positive Psychology as a paradigm. But its legitimacy can be challenged from two directions if its proponents do not espouse the construct with a certain sense of humility.

The first is an unmistakable undercurrent of the perfectibility of man. Which is a backdoor attempt to obliterate Original Sin, (i.e., eradication of negative human behaviors through psychological conditioning). And incorporate that into Positive Psychology as least as an implicit axiom. Which is way overreaching. The claims of Positive Psychology should be bounded to day-to-day life-management. And not extend into pseudo-theological values determination. Allow me to clarify my thinking using this quote:

Free choice and control over one’s life are linked to economic security, of course, but they are about much more than that. Social Tolerance of diverse lifestyles (e.g. of sexuality, gender equality, other ethnic groups, religious expression, self expression and so on) is a vital component in increasing personal happiness, because it broadens the range of choices available. Whilst economic growth may ultimately be an important factor in increasing well-being, Social Tolerance seems to be much more so (see chart below); as a result we now have some evidence that it is possible to increase happiness at a country level.

Social Tolerance may be a good thing. But one of its prominent manifestations is Limousine Liberalism. I.e., offload personal responsibility and obligation to others or to the state. Happiness is pretty easy to generate with a stunted “Weltanschauung” limited to self-indulgent self-absorption. I see plenty of people who lead those kinds of lives. And they generally seem pretty happy to me.

Another point I’d like to make is about this idea of teleology. Unfortunately, squashing all of the negative “isms” under the rubric of Social Tolerance, usually generates alternative targets with which to express the more base human instincts. Self identified “tolerant” people may not be racist, but instead may direct their bile to the religious. The idiot-Professor Paul Myers’ recent “stomp the Eucharist” stunt generated tons of tolerant, hate filled applause comments on his website. That is a rich anecdote that is also broadly instructive. And in the most “Socially Tolerant” parts of Europe, residual traditional Christian believers must often camouflage their spiritual sensibilities in order to avoid scorn. I’m guessing that at the atomic level, increased Social Tolerance has done little to reduce the magnitude of petty jealousy, anger, envy, seven deadly sins… in fact the concomitant “tolerance” for vulgar expression provides a telescopic view of that truism. Myer’s website invited the Socially Tolerant to self-impale themselves on their f-bomb skewers. So the tolerant emperor has no clothes. Why does that not surprise me?

My second point bleeds over into the first because of a natural correlation. And that is the tribal nature of man that defines and bounds communal ego-states. It is a mistake to co-mingle Positive Psychological with Trancendental values. Because everything that is espoused by Positive Psychology can remain true inside of a tribal social architecture that is amoral from a theological perspective. A communal architecture which is conventionally moral internally may be ruthless towards outsiders. E.g., the anthropomorphical,socially tolerant among us are distressed to read that chimpanzees are cannibalistic when they encounter an outside group. The chimpanzees have formulas for happiness. The Epicureans had formulas for happiness. And so did the ancient Romans. For each cohort, their community lives could be very supportive and tender. But at the same time, an average Roman could cheer wildly as dehumanized “others” were slaughtered in the Coliseum. But hey, he went home happy after the spectacle.

I’m not challenging Social Tolerance per se. I’m just suggesting that the proponents of Positive Psychology be aware of the hubris of self congratulation that extends beyond its natural boundaries.


Jonathan 26 August 2008 - 5:21 pm

OK, so I am not a MAPP or even a psychology student … so a little explanation please: How is “happiness” increased with autonomy but ‘happiness’ is decreased with increasing choices?

Also, what is this “genetic” “pre-set” to which you refer? Isn’t the main purpose of positive psychology to increase our ability to be “happy”? Its not like a too short leg, or baldness … is it? If it is, is it not futile to work on our happiness? Perhaps it is a “predisposition”, like being shy or something … a thing we can consciously change?

I am not challenging .. just confused!



SteveM 26 August 2008 - 6:47 pm

I enjoyed Smack MacDougal’s linguistic excursion. Although I’m not sure what he/she is getting at.

Jonathan’s query strikes a more obvious cord at least indirectly on another recurrent topic on this Forum – genetics and evolutionary psychology.

Divining a genetic for rationalization for happiness is equivalent to the medieval theologians counting the number of angels on the head of pin. There just may be a genetic basis, just like their may indeed be angels of some finite dimension. But both are still mindless exercises that have no real value beyond curiosity, conducted by people with too much time on there hands.

What’s the point except to provide PowerPoint fodder at the next PP symposium? (See the quote by WFB below in case any of these time-wasters teach at Harvard.)

One could follow the PP paradigm with precision and know absolutely nothing about emotion mapping to the regions of the brain. And emotion mapping of the brain will not instruct anyone on how to be happier. Which makes the “What’s the point?” question about these exercises in scientific meandering rather obvious.

General psychiatry and psychology do not need evolution to support their clinical observations and conclusions. So why then must PP? There is no doubt genetic reasons why someone may be predisposed to happiness or mental illness. But so what? What clinical value does that provide?

And from an evolutionary context, telling a distressed person that he should be happy because Steven Pinker says it is part of his evolutionary adaptation places Pinker on a pedestal where he does not belong. (And even Pinker’s stuff is a bunch of blowing smoke speculation. And I don’t know where the hell he teaches.)

Brain-scan-o-rama has created a new high-tech version of phrenology. Only instead of feeling the lumps on somebody’s noggin and predicting their psycho-pathologies, the modern, medicalized phrenologist looks at color gradients and tells a patient how he is supposed to be feeling. “Your limbic aura is decidedly monochromatic! You should be miserable!”


I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University. (William F. Buckley, RIP)

Bridget 26 August 2008 - 7:57 pm

Hi Senia,
Thanks for your comments. What struck me about the paper is that it starts to address the ‘3rd pillar’ (communities & societies) mentioned in Peterson’s Primer (p20). I think there’s potential for Positive Psychology to draw together the research from other disciplines in a way which at least causes us to question how some communities and societies flourish and others don’t, even if it doesn’t (can’t/shouldn’t) provide all the answers.

Bridget 26 August 2008 - 8:08 pm

Hi Christine
Thanks for these thoughts. Yes I mentioned control but deliberately didn’t dwell on it. It was the subject of my latest Mapp assignment & a very challenging area (not least to condense into a shortish PPND article!). Linking to some of the points raised by other readers below, one of the weaknesses of the Inglehart paper (I thought) is the lack of definitions / assumption that we all mean the same thing. And this is where it starts to get tricky – Positive psychology claims to be a science. If so, it needs to be scrupulous about the scientific basics like definitions. On the other hand, I’m think I’m a fairly pragmatic person; so for example when I look at the results of any of the psychological assessments I don’t assume that they tell ‘the whole truth’, but use them as a starting point for what I hope will be a useful discussion. So like you I think it’s useful to consider the value of control in one’s life, but I wouldn’t necessarily advocate that it would be a useful discussion for everyone. Does that make sense?

Bridget 26 August 2008 - 8:17 pm

Hi SteveM, Smack and Jonathan
Thanks for taking the time to write. Hmmmmmmm. Just to say I’m not ignoring your comments, I’m just considering them! I have to be honest that I don’t at this precise moment follow them all (then again it’s 1.15am here in the UK and I’ve been driving most of the day), so give me a while and I’ll come back to you. Perhaps some of the other US-based readers might be in a position to comment further?

Jo 27 August 2008 - 8:23 am

Timely – I was reading an economist’s blog in NZ yesterday and I will patch this over.

@Jonathan, perhaps don’t think “choice” think “control”.

I don’t want a supermarket who presents me with 37 brands of baked beans. A commitment to say 9 at three price points and 3 quality levels would do fine. If I could trust the information they provided, I could choose with control of the outcome. The reasons that we have so much superficial choice that adds no pleasure, engagement or meaning to our lives is sad and perhaps is the next topic in organizational psychology!

Oh I love a conversation that takes me to the edge.
Bridget are you going to the DOP conference in January?

SteveM 27 August 2008 - 8:25 am


Thanks for you clarification.

Re: “Measuring Happiness”

“Moreso, if a man would improvise, in how many ways would he.”

“In short, measuring happiness measures a man’s fullness in relation to things that COULD BE experienced.”

The recently departed Solzhenytsen, conquered his gulag oppressors by using an internal dialectic of resistence while in captivity. Therefore was he “happy” while incarcerated? Meta-physically perhaps. But there are few events in Everyman’s life with that kind of drama. And happiness or lack of it is generally experienced at a much more mundane level. So I don’t see your fit.

Re: “Measuring Contentedness”

I’m afraid I can’t agree with you at all on this one. Because you limit contendedness to material satisfaction. In fact,

“In short, measuring contentedness measures a man’s fullness in relation to things HAVE BEEN experienced.”

has an embedded fallacy. Because a person with a strictly materialistic view of contentment can never be content. He must always be searching for the “next big thing”.

Contentment does not arise from “things” that have been experienced, but rather from experiences that are aligned with a person’s fundamental values. And values outside of material acquisition are driven by human relationships. Note however that that says nothing about the nature of those relationships. A sadist could be contently sadistic.

And finally, Re: “Future of Positive Psychology”

“…Positive Psychology shall not get far along toward understanding about the Nature of Man…”

Understanding the “Nature of Man” is the part that scares me. I am attracted to Positive Pyschology mostly because it assumes that that philosophical ground has already been plowed. It’s pragmatic axiom is that a person can choose to be either happy or distresed and PP points out mechanisms the he can employ to make himself happier.

There is a lot about PP clinical implementation that still needs maturation, especially related to therapeutic treatment of the mentally ill psychiatric patient,rather than merely life-management advice for the fundamentally sound. And its expectations have to be better grounded (more on that later).

But that fact that PP is so intellectually accesible is one of its greatest strengths. The last thing it needs is a priesthood that invents complexity where none exists.

Wayne Jencke 27 August 2008 - 4:17 pm

SteveM, I agree with your comments that “The last thing it needs is a priesthood that invents complexity where none exists”. When I read psychology papers I always have the feeling of “deja vu” as most theories are just rebranded minor tweaks of basic concepts. For example is there really a huge difference between savouring and gratitude or hope and self efficacy.

Just a quick comment on your cynicism about brain scanning. The advantage is that it can sort out the pearls of wisdom from much of the hype that is promoted in self help books.

Also its not hard to imagine a future where brain scanning can be used to assist people to be happier. For example people might be able to see which strategies work best for them at a limbic level.

Wayne Jencke 27 August 2008 - 4:24 pm

Bridget – one of the major trends in psychology research is to move away from questionnaires because the validity is often questionable – for example mood state biases the way you fill in a questionnaire. Psychologists are also starting to use implicit measures (as opposed to explicit) because of the importance of the preconscious.

I guess this is why Barbara Frederickson has set up her PEP lab.

Bridget 27 August 2008 - 6:15 pm

Hi Wayne
Re validity of questionnaires… thanks, another interesting comment. There seem to be two camps, those who think that well-being can be measured subjectively and those who don’t. The way you fill in a questionnaire is biased by a lot more than just your mood state though – e.g. your environment, whether the researcher is present, whether the researcher smiles at you, how the questions are phrased/language used etc. I’ve no idea how this gets quantified in research, if at all. And could one not suggest that mood state is precisely the point?

I suppose we could reach the stage of determining whether or not people are happy through brain imagery/scanning techniques, but this sounds a bit Big Brother-ish to me. And I reserve the right to disagree with whatever my brain says about my mood state 😉

Gloria 27 August 2008 - 6:30 pm

Here is an article you might all find interesting for conversation’s sake:


SteveM 27 August 2008 - 7:11 pm

Re: Brain Scam

Just kidding… Wayne, I agree with you totally on the validity of brain scanning as an R&D tool. But some people are getting way ahead of the curve by claiming clinical utility (for behavior not organic pathology) very prematurely or making exaggerated correlations between scan results and mood or behavior.

BTW, I thought my scan joke above was sort of clever. But augment it like this and it becomes a winner:

Dr. Misanthrope to Happy Patient – “Your limbic aura is decidedly monochromatic! So wipe that smile off your face! You should be miserable!”


Kathryn Britton 29 August 2008 - 3:50 pm


Your article reminds me of the keynote speaker for the 2006 Positive Psychology Summit, Richard Florida — currently Professor of Business and Creativity at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. He argued that instead of creating jobs and people will come, we’re now in a global state where ‘creative’ jobs go where people want to live, and that there is a hugely divergent dispersal of the ‘creative class.’ 25 megaregions in the world define the output of the world.

So for city politicians wondering what controls the flow of ‘social capital,’ he linked the importance of Place to subjective well-being through 2 factors:

1) Quality of the place — being able to do things you want to do

2) Tolerance and openness

The second point seems to tie in with your message.

Among other evidence, he found that the rates of patented innovation in different cities correlates highly with their levels of tolerance for gays and lesbians.

This is sketchy — it’s all from my handwritten notes from listening to him speak — but it might give you another place to look if you want to pursue the social tolerance theme further.


SteveM 29 August 2008 - 4:51 pm

Hoo Boy.

Here’s challenge #3 to the legitimacy of the Positive Psychology paradigm. PP (or any psychology) for that matter should be universal in its applicability. But what I read not just between the lines, but under, on top and around them on this site content is apparently PPFE (Positive Psychology For Elites)

So much of the stuff here about PP relates to these expansive career implications and with “fulfillment” and “growth” and “mindful work” and “tolerance” and whatever as the basis for happiness.

But who in PP is speaking for the little guy? The truck driver, the seamstress, the gardener, the bellhop? The person without a job? They have lives to live, hopefully happily. Where is the PP instruction that is relevant to them in the context of their life experiences?

And beyond them, are the people who require therapeutic support because of diagnosed mental illness. They may be 3 degrees removed from employment even. I happen to believe that PP can indeed help them. But it’s a lot harder moving someone from a -3 to +1 on Dr Seligman’s Distress – Happiness scale than from +1 to +5. That inflection point can be huge. The last thing an unemployed -3 is thinking about is GLOBE density around the neighborhood when he’s trying to sort things out in his life.

BTW, the happiest guy I ever met is the UPS delivery guy in my neighborhood. If I could be just half as happy as he is, I’d be really happy. So conversely, where is the interest is seeking out the regular-guy-happy to see what makes them tick? Maybe cull some bits of wisdom from people who don’t frequent faculty clubs.



P.S. Sorry to burst your bubble, but the insularity made me itch.

Kathryn Britton 29 August 2008 - 7:36 pm


Somehow I thought you might react — I just wish your reaction were more in the spirit of inquiry than attack. Some things any of us say may be off the mark, but doesn’t exploring where the grain of truth exists among the error serve us better than name-calling? I don’t understand why you would spend your time on this site if you believe it is illegitimate.

There are some communities in the world where people are moving in — and others where they are moving out. Not everybody. But one place can go from 1 million people to 250,000 in the same time frame that another grows by that amount. So what makes the difference? Whether or not Florida’s hypothesis is correct, isn’t that an interesting question?

Who knows, maybe the UPS person in your neighborhood is a natural at gratitude and hope — maybe he knows how to “keep on the sunny side.”


SteveM 29 August 2008 - 8:30 pm


I don’t think I called anybody names. Did I? (seriously.) I think this site is wholly legitimate. I think PP is wholly legitimate. I hate to read about people caught up in the classical psycho-therapy perpetual motion machines (till the money runs out.) I think PP is a pro-active therapeutic mechanism that if artfully applied, can subvert that process out of the box.

My point as a objective proponent rather than clinical practitioner of PP is the need for PP to first establish its bona fides as a generalized therapeutic strategy. I do not think it has done that yet.

Web communities have a tendency to self-reinforce what eventually become localized norms. I just don’t think that PP is sufficiently mature to exert that luxury at this point in time.

Your criticism of me regarding no real positive feedback is well taken. Thanks. Let me try to fill in the gap.

Related to my criticism, Penn has a huge footprint in PP related research with their Penn Comprehensive Neuro-Science Center. As a PP proponent and visitor to this site, I’d want to know how is Dr. Seligman’s program tied into that? What’s happening even localized to Penn with PP and traditional psychology methods. And especially integration with psychiatry. What appears to work on a more general level? I’d love to read about that on this site. Because it’s those kinds of answers that will give PP the leverage it needs to move forward into general psych practice. Limiting PP conversations to I’m OK, You’re OK at this site is too self-limiting.

Perhaps this just represents a general bias I have. But I mentioned in an earlier post that what left me deflated about reading Seligman and Csik… initially was their descriptions of happiness or flow or whatever without clear instruction on how to get it. Especially for the psychiatrically distressed. I’m afraid if PP gets caught up in the ancillary issues of tolerance and inclusion without working through those very tough clinical issues, it is selling itself short.


Jeff Dustin 29 August 2008 - 9:27 pm

I’ve been avoiding posting because of the rancorous nature of the comments section. I find the belligerent stances lately irritating and unproductive. Its a shame because I enjoy the articles and the once friendly banter and sense of community.

I hope Senia & Kathryn will consider closing the comments permanently. That way the nasty arguments can be kept in private email not in a public forum.

SteveM 30 August 2008 - 9:57 am


“…rancorous…belligerent…nasty…”? You are inventing enmity where none exists. Someone may be personalizing “business” here, but it’s not me.

OK, granted, I can be sardonic. In fact I AM sardonic. But I’m never malevolent or ill tempered. I’m an ENTP and those negative emotion-wasters don’t suit me.

However, the subtext of almost everything I write is dead serious when it’s just about business. The critique I wrote about Dr. Vaillant’s article was dead serious, because from my PoV, it is so patently dangerous to PP as a therapeutic proposition.

If PP continues to creep towards a set of implied axioms that integrate evolution with meta-physics, its legitimacy could be irreparably damaged. And if this forum limits intellectual contributions to those which exclusively self-reinforce a wired world-view, then the danger is made more extreme.

While the ENTP in me makes me sardonic (sorry for any over the top comments, btw), it also allows me view a proposition independent of its genesis. So yeah, I’m sure Dr. Vaillant is a great, smart guy. But Harvard should not make a person’s propositions immune from criticism. A I call ’em as I see ’em. A priesthood is dangerous in any scientific discipline.

The idea that comments should be closed. Man… Jeff, these are words, not bullets you are trying to dodge. Given, my contributions, which in the long run are transient artifacts, I’m sure you’ll live to fight another day should you accidentally happen across one.

BTW, you can criticize my positions all you want. Be ruthless as long as you are intelligent about it. It’s just business.


P.S. More about criticizing my positions. I wish you would. What don’t you tell me how I have wrong in my reply to Dr. Vaillant’s article. I’m serious. Maybe I do have it wrong. I am always willing to modify my positions based on new knowledge and understanding. But if my observations are at least somewhat right, then you guys are doing yourselves a disservice by not addressing my proposition head on. I.e., having a dedicated dialog that bounds PP’s terrestrial versus transcendental value claims.

Jeff Dustin 30 August 2008 - 10:36 am

I didn’t read your critique of Vaillant. I didn’t say it was you specifically that was rancorous.

I don’t care a whit what arguments anyone here makes. I’m not the only casual reader that comes here to learn how to use positive psychology personally. When I read the comments section I find it doesn’t further the goal of making me happier.

I used to enjoy reading the comments but the bitterness makes it quite unpleasant.

SteveM 30 August 2008 - 10:46 am


OK, can you point to a “bitter” posting by anybody as a baseline reference so we could better understand your PoV?

Harmless SteveM

Kathryn Britton 30 August 2008 - 11:50 am

SteveM and Jeff,

Whew, I’d hate to cut off comments altogether, but I know what Jeff means about a sense of rancor.

I think it comes down to the way Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada described effective negative feedback in their 2005 paper — after making the point that too much positivity leads to limit cycle of its own. They said that negative feedback is

* specific
* not personal
* contains suggestions for improvement

So, SteveM, you could have said about my posting about Richard Florida,

Is your discussion of Place too limited? Is the idea of the “creative class” a useful one as we think about Place? Does it leave out the experiences of too many people who may be benefited more by other attributes of Place?

There would be no attributions that I and others like me were elitist — a generalization that I don’t think my post warrants and one that makes me feel personally attacked. It makes it harder for me to formulate opinions because it puts me on edge about being “politically correct.”

Then there might have been a suggestion about other ways to think about the same situation. Maybe you did have those in your post above, but my focus was so narrowed by the “attack” that I didn’t see them.

It’s all a matter of what makes a useful conversation that takes us forward. I’m perfectly open to learning that my interpretations are one-sided or limited. I sort of wondered about the validity of Florida’s stuff as I posted it — not so much doubting as not knowing. But I thought it was worth airing.

Is that helpful? I think the rule of thumb is trying to put disagreement in a way that joins both sides in a constructive reach for a clearer understanding.


Kathryn Britton 30 August 2008 - 12:01 pm


Your comment about Csikszentmihalyi and Seligman is interesting:

“But I mentioned in an earlier post that what left me deflated about reading Seligman and Csik… initially was their descriptions of happiness or flow or whatever without clear instruction on how to get it. Especially for the psychiatrically distressed. I’m afraid if PP gets caught up in the ancillary issues of tolerance and inclusion without working through those very tough clinical issues, it is selling itself short.”

Actually Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi aren’t identical in this frame. There are a lot of suggestions, for example, in Authentic Happiness about achieving greater well-being. In fact, Seligman makes the comment on p. 121, “Csikszentmihalyi has been very careful to avoid writing “self-improvement” books such as this one. His books on flow describe who has flow and who does not, but nowhere does he directly tell his readers how to acquire more flow. His reticence is partly because he comes from a European descriptive tradition, rather than from the American interventionist one. Thus he hopes that by describing flow eloquently and then stepping aside, the creative reader will invent his own ways to build more flow into his life. In contrast, I come unapologetically from the American tradition, and I believe enough is known about how gratifications come about to give advice about enhancing them.”

I believe he once said that publishers of Authentic Happiness gave it its name partly to get shelved in the self-help sections of bookstores rather than the psychology sections because that would lead to a greater readership.

So now we could have a discussion about what suggestions are made and how useful they are. There’s an interesting tension between giving advice and making sure you don’t talk beyond the evidence.


SteveM 30 August 2008 - 1:29 pm


Great note to re-center the conversation. Points well taken. Thanks.

First of all, I was placed on this planet to adore women, not attack them. In fact, I spend my days alternately mesmerized by their sublimely beautiful architecture and entirely flummoxed by how they think. (So the retreats to my man-cave for rumination, sports and alcoholic beverages in fraternity with my equally soft-minded XY’d colleagues.) Attack mode against God’s greatest, paradoxical gift to mankind!? Totally out of my frame of understanding.

Back to “bounding” the PP components of the social and theological landscape. I agree that (urban) centers of creatively are a good thing. And it has been well established that gay communities thrive in cities. Adding their own creative flavor. (And to be complete, unique excesses as well.)

However, most people are not “creative” in that way. They are “Ham and Egger’s”. Call them what you will, they live not in vibrant center cities, but on cul de sacs and bedroom communities. And they usually not “spiritual” in an Eastern mysticism way either. Their religious sensibilities are generally pretty conventional.

My “elitest” claim centers on the overtones of the site that suggest specific kinds of “tolerance” and “spirituality” are conditional goals for happiness as described in the PP model. By making that (implicit) claim, about 85% of America is left out of the PP orbit of influence. It’s not that they are “intolerant” or “nonspiritual”. Just that their life-experiences are far removed from that kind of introspection.

So I apologize if my use of “elitist” was incorrect or misunderstood. But I think you get my drift. My argument is that PP as a universal construct should limit its influence profile to improving the lives of individuals in the context of their existing value system. And avoid linkages to specific issues of meta-physics, pseudo-theology or preferred social constructs.


Jeff Dustin 30 August 2008 - 2:07 pm


It is so easy to misrepresent yourself online. You mean to say one thing but culture gets in the way. I once offended an Irish person by accidentally accusing him of shyness. He claimed that he wasn’t shy at all, but that the Irish tend toward more reserve than Americans. I don’t know if that is true or not, but it caused quite a stir.

Here are some ideas to look at for easier communication.

*How about “keeping quote marks for direct quotes”? The “quote marks” seem like they are “mocking” the other person’s “ideas”. Does this make “sense” to “you”?

*Slang can be easily misinterpreted. To me when somebody says the word Sheesh, I think they’re calling me an idiot.

*Accusations anger people. Inquiry lets everone investigate an issue and come to their own conclusions.

SteveM 30 August 2008 - 2:57 pm


I see what you are saying. Up to a point.

I think challenging an idea using this luxuriant language of ours, including its pointed arrows of punctuation and grammar fair game.

BTW, people are mocked, not ideas. Which are formless and wholly indifferent to our characterizations of them. They just sit there waiting to be applauded, stomped on or pushed aside. People can indeed can be wounded by mocking. But I don’t see anyone here employing that crude tool of dialectical impotence.

Calling a dopey idea “dopey” because it is, doesn’t rub me the wrong way. As long as I’m not calling the owner of an “idiotic” idea an “idiot” what’s the big deal? (I assign the appellation of “idiot” to myself alone.)

As for “Sheesh” Unfortunately, I can’t control when you infer what I am not implying. Sheesh…

Now let me inquire. Where were we?


P.S. I’m outta “” marks. Can you lend me some?

Jeff Dustin 30 August 2008 - 5:57 pm


Thank you for your recent comments.

I am somebody who cares a lot about this site. I have since day one. Perhaps I’m just a little too protective of what I see as a common good. Trolling robs people of this public service.

What is a good way to limit trolling and still protect free speech?

SteveM 30 August 2008 - 7:18 pm


OK Jeff. Let me guess. The “Scarlet T” is meant for me? You win. I surrender.

Kathryn, let me answer Jeff’s question for you. Good way to limit “trolling” (oops sorry for the use of “”‘s Jeff), because this is a surgical strike, is to dispatch a crew of PP happy assassins to my man-cave, have them bind me and my boys (shame about those guys being collateral damage) up with duct tape and force us to watch an endless loop of Married with Children reruns until lethal catatonia sets it. If only Terminix could be so effective in eliminating pests.

That said, if the standard for the “T” designation is set to the depth of the member of the community with the thinnest skin, then you won’t be left with much interesting to talk about.

Let me make a suggestion before the PP enabled amiable brutes arrive to do me in. Consider categorizing sections of the site into something like “Personal Growth” for those who visit for than reason, and “PP Implementation Strategies” or something which would focus more on how PP could be integrated with existing psychological treatment modalities.

And most importantly from my now irrelevant PoV, the Implementation section would be the platform for in-depth discussions about elicitation techniques and conversational methods that could trigger PP thinking with the disaffected sitting on the minus side of Dr. Seligman’s scale.

Jeff, the coast is clear, the field is open. You are free to move about the freshly innocuous cabin…


Kathryn Britton 31 August 2008 - 9:30 am


I think I’m beginning to understand your dissatisfaction: this site doesn’t address “how PP could be integrated with existing psychological treatment modalities.”

That is outside the competence of most if not all of the contributors. I believe that PP has things to offer people, as you put it, on the minus side of Dr. Seligman’s scale. But that’s just a belief, and I have no training or relevant experience to back it up. If you do have that expertise and do have ideas about how PP could address the needs of that part of our population, why not share them — either in comments or even by offering a guest article.

As for TV-induced catatonia, that’s not my approach of choice for dealing with differences of opinion. Actually I think it is a good time to practice respectful disagreement and letting ourselves be open to change by hearing other points of view — especially for Americans who are entering the intense part of a strongly contested election. That is to say, the charge of trolling is only aimed at your means of expression, not your point of view (POV). The problem I have is that it is hard to find your real POV in the middle of all the negative-emotion-inducing language. I get distracted too easily, I guess.


SteveM 31 August 2008 - 10:52 am



Thanks for the note. Closing comments.

I do “Decision Management” consulting for a living and a huge part of making good decisions is predicated on good “dialog” or “conversation management”. There are interactive techniques in language use to keep a client or stakeholders focused on positive progress as a decision context plays out. One need not be a Ph.D. psychologist to apply the methods. If fact I wish some pyschologists (and all pyschiatrists who are drug-centric) would learn some. These are some of the intervention strategies I’m thinking about relative to PP. They apply to in both general coaching as well as therapeutic environments.

I was on the board of directors of a Washington DC non-profit that services the homeless mentally ill. Regardless of the value of medication, a key interest of mine has always been how to engage those people conversationally to get them pointed in the right direction. And the depressed especially have a huge “Knowing-Doing” gap. It’s their negative self talk inertia that would prevent PP from taking hold even if were presented. A catalytic mechanism is required to set the wheels of PP in motion for someone one minus side of the scale. If your assessment of Csik’s take on flow is accurate, i.e., merely observing that it’s a good thing, well yeah, but so’s taking a walk in the park. I don’t get the value of merely pointing out the obvious. I hope Dr. Seligman is more aggressive in investigating PP uptake techniques.

OK, back to the little dust-up here with my pal. You gotta take note that passive-aggression is aggression nonetheless even if it’s couched in helplessness. Someone feels offended by anything, he only need claim offense under the pretext that he is merely protecting the integrity of the community. But if he is ready to accuse without specifying what exactly offends him. Is too lazy to read any the underlying arguments of a legitimate difference of opinion. And perhaps not equiped to rebut them intelligently, well that’s a sign of a not even a dilettante (I’m one of those). Rather it’s a sign of an ego, that unfortunately is not matched up with proportional talent. And that mindset coagulates the darkest of all clouds in any opinion – the thick, opaque stew of banality.

BTW, I think some of my backhanded swipes were actually rather clever. But that’s just me.

You’re a doll. Keep up the great work.

I gave it my best shot. Really. I’m outta here.


Bridget 31 August 2008 - 3:31 pm

Hi Steve M
Although the conversation has moved on from your original comments (26th Aug/1.45pm), I wanted to come back with a response because you made some important points, and also I wanted to clarify my own position.

Firstly I think (I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong) what you are saying in a nutshell is that Positive Psychology is commenting on subjects which you don’t think it’s qualified to (what you call ‘pseudo-theological values determination’), and that it should stick to individual psychology.

This is a very interesting argument, and I can see your point of view that social tolerance might have a negative side to it, insofar as one could become so tolerant as to not to care about anyone but oneself. Perhaps you’re right – there may well be a tendency to say ‘I’m all right Jack’ and to focus only on what makes ME happy. Personally I try to take a systems view and would suggest that there is a fine line here (which I didn’t express in my article, so you’re right to point it out). Even positive things can have negative results if taken too far.

My own interest in PP comes from the perspective that no (wo)man is an island (OK, maybe there are some but they’re few and far between ;->). I’m interested in what PP says about groups of people, be they work, community or social groups, and about how people might be able to improve their lives collectively. There are some interesting points on group/organizational well-being in the POB/POS literature, although perhaps it is still a little light on scientific research. Much of the PP research suggests that happiness/well-being/life satisfaction is as much, if not more, about you and your relations with others than it is about you yourself, so from my own perspective, saying that ‘PP should be bounded to day-to-day life management’ would make such individuals even more self-centred – and if taken too far, would ultimately lead back to caring only about the self and not about others (mentioned above), which we both agree is not a good thing…. Does that make sense? So I think maybe we’re saying similar things, but coming from different angles?

Sorry I hadn’t heard of Paul Myers until you mentioned him. And apologies if you read theological overtones into what I wrote – I’m an atheist (but not of Myers’ ilk) so there should be none there. As for the rest of PP, I haven’t read much, apart from the specific research into that topic, which mentions religion/spirituality. So I wouldn’t agree with all the theological references you make in your comments. Personally I would prefer if Templeton didn’t fund a lot of the PP research.

Finally I think the point of writing for Positive Psychology News Daily (for me anyway) is to look at new research which might challenge existing ideas or add new information. I’m not saying the Inglehart et al research is faultless; in fact it could be criticised in many ways, some of which have been mentioned in the comments. I’m not sure where the “hubris of self-congratulation” comes into it.


Bridget 31 August 2008 - 3:49 pm

Re Florida, I will certainly follow that up, it looks interesting stuff.

Bridget 31 August 2008 - 4:22 pm

Hi SteveM/Kathryn/Jeff

Thanks for the energetic discussion! I think the most important points are to do with 1) elitism and 2) clinical applications. Personally I don’t think tolerance and inclusion are ancillary (or elitist) issues, but that’s my own POV. My area of interest with PP is at the group level, and specifically in organizations like schools and work – that doesn’t mean to say that I think this is more important than application at individual-level.

The problem as I see it is twofold 1) PP has not gone beyond the dozen or so validated interventions (savouring, mindfulness, gratitude, random acts of kindness, using strengths etc). None of these are new, are they? Maybe there is some apprehension on the part of clinicians to apply PP interventions because it sounds too basic to be true. Lyubomirsky’s advice is to find the right fit, but the risk is that you stray from what has been validated. But does that really matter, as long as you get the right outcome? 2) there is an argument that if you’re not a qualified therapist/counselor/psychologist/psychiatrist etc, you shouldn’t be dealing with people who fall into the 0 to -10 category anyway. In the UK, positive psychologists are not recognised by the professional association, the British Psychological Society; this may of course change. But obviously we’re dealing with real people here, so it’s not always clear cut. Many of those I coach may fall into that category for some aspects of their lives. Frisch’s QOLTC approach seems to cover the full range, but not all of his interventions are validated. Perhaps getting PP to become a “bona-fide generalized therapeutic strategy” is a matter of time?


Jeff Dustin 31 August 2008 - 5:32 pm

I agree that tolerance is the very essence of counter-elitism. Working definitions of tolerance probably involve inclusion of diversity. That could be of opinions, points-of-view, races, gender, age. Elitism is about exclusion and conserving status. A caste system with brahmin at the top of the social pyramid is a very rigid example of elitism.

Per therapeutic applications of PP, I believe that good therapists probably incorporate these basic research ideas without even realizing it. Talk therapy can build optimism, hope, self-efficacy and other strengths. PP is in large measure about identifying and building strengths.
Therapy can work quite well when the strengths of the two parties are well-matched. These are my opinions of course.

I found Frisch’s Quality of Life Therapy approach quite practical. In fact, I think taking stock of your life and its various important domains of value can be satisfying and motivate change through dissonance.

Thanks for reading my comments!

Wayne Jencke 1 September 2008 - 5:38 am

Bridget, bring on the new ideas – most of the PP interventions have been around for years. The emphasis on strengths is a little tedious and superficial. For example I’d love to know why “love of learning” and “appreciation of beauty” have little impact on life satisfaction.

To a certain extent positive psychology does have a religious zeal to it. If you question the rhetoric you might be branded an “unbeliever”. Similarly positive psychology conferences are like a revival meeting.

I also support you concerns on the Templeton foundation funding positive psychology research as invariably the research will be biased (not consciously) to coincide with the benefactors beliefs. I suspect this is one reason mindfulness is overlooked has it doesn’t have a good fit with Christianity.

By the way you have to appreciate the irony – positive mood induction supposedly improves your ability in abstract thinking – given this you would expect PPDN to be brimming with new ideas.

Kathryn Britton 1 September 2008 - 12:09 pm


Could you add a pointer to the research that shows that “love of learning” and “appreciation of beauty and excellence” have little impact on life satisfaction. I’ve heard that thirdhand a few times, and have wondered whether it is that they have little impact or that they have relatively less impact than other strengths.

Love of learning certainly brings me personally lots of life satisfaction, at least partly because it’s a strength I share with my husband so we’re in it together.


Wayne Jencke 1 September 2008 - 1:41 pm

They’re partial correlations – the top item of the bottom 5 is “love of learning” which has a partial correlation of .15 with life satisfaction. This compares with “love” (no 5 overall) which has a partial correlation of .35.

See my website for more information: http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=153

I suspect that working on your strengths activates higher level strengths such as curiosity and zest. Try this simple experiment with a client – rather than working on a strength juts ask them to do something different everyday and look at the impact it has on life satisfaction.

Bridget 1 September 2008 - 5:28 pm

Hi Wayne
Re emphasis on strengths: on the one hand, you could probably make the ‘tedious & superficial’ criticism of all validated PP interventions (being that there are so few of them and they have been around for years). On the other, I’ve worked in business for long enough to know that the vast majority of organisations focus primarily on weaknesses & how to mitigate them, so talking about using strengths in that context is for many quite refreshing. The VIA strengths are good as a starting point for that kind of discussion, especially if one isn’t practised enough to isolate the client’s strengths using a conversational approach a la Linley, such as you suggest. I think one should be flexible in how they’re used though and resist using them as labels.

Finally re new ideas – this is something that has frequently been mentioned on the UK MAPP programme. I think there have been some good new ideas on PPND, and yes there could be more. But we’re talking about i) academia and ii) big business here…;->


Wayne Jencke 2 September 2008 - 6:50 am

Bridget – I’d love to know what the good new ideas are? Could you list them – I’d like to check out the research.

My experience with strengths is very simple – its like the Nike ad – “Just do it”. I think happy people are engaged. Thats why I have it (engagement) as the centre piece of my ACCEPTional Resilience coaching model

Jonathan 2 September 2008 - 5:15 pm


My question was simple really: one of the basic ideas in PP is that too many choices makes us feel bad (because we never feel our choice was adequate). I was asking how increasing “freedom” (which also increases our choices) does not also cause us to be overwhelmed with choices.

I am not a psychologist, PP student, MAPP grad, psychiatrist, neuro-scientist, therapist, or in any way formally educated in psychology.

I just need clarification, please. And others, please keep your glib comments about this to yourself. I am interpreting these as “making fun of”, not as “discussions related to” (as no one is answering my question, just pointing out how this is linked to ideas they do not like – exception: Jo. Thanks!)

Bridget 3 September 2008 - 6:59 am

Hi Wayne
If you are looking for new validated/researched interventions (i.e not savouring, mindfulness, random acts of kindness, using strengths and so on) then as far as I know there haven’t been any published (which was the concern of some of the UK Mapp people); the majority of the recent interventions research has concentrated on developing and fine-tuning our understanding of the existing ones. On the basis that people disagree over what happiness/ well-being/ life satisfaction are and how they should be measured there’s still a lot of basics to be sorted out.

Senia – please correct me if I’m wrong – I think the majority of PPND authors are practitioners rather than researchers, so we can talk about how positive psychology applies in real life (which is what I meant) but we’re probably not in position to discover/reveal new validated interventions on this forum. If it’s new research you are interested in, many of my articles refer to 2006-2008 papers.

I’m not sure that’s answered your question though…


Bridget 3 September 2008 - 8:24 am

Hi Jonathan
Thanks for being so patient. You raise a good question here. I don’t know if there is an answer to your question in the research. I’m not an expert on choice but I would suggest that it might be about definitions. I have 3 possible answers here: freedom / free choice which arises from democracy (which is what Inglehart et al refer to) is different to the choice I face when I’m buying baked beans in the supermarket (to use Jo’s example). Broadly speaking a country is either democratic or it’s not – and we’re talking about a few big freedoms, like freedom to vote, free speech, freedom of the press etc, which does increase our autonomy and the amount of choice available to us, but, I would suggest, this is not in the ‘overwhelming’ category. [Is it possible to have too much democracy? In the UK we usually have a handful of parties to vote for at an election; I guess if we had tens or hundreds that might get into the ‘overwhelming’ category]. If I don’t have this kind of freedom / free choice, my autonomy is affected: I am constrained in some way, and I may be prevented from expressing the real me. Whereas consumer choice (which I think is what Barry Schwartz focuses on) is different – if I only have 2 choices of baked beans (or none at all) I’m not sure that it affects my autonomy or constrains me in any way. Did we feel constrained before the Sony Walkman was invented, for example? I’m sure we may have felt more ‘liberated’ afterwards but that’s not the same thing.

Another answer may be to do with the outcome measure. In Inglehart et al’s paper they use happiness and life satisfaction to mean different things, hence the suggestion that happiness of ex-communist countries rose but life satisfaction fell during transition. Perhaps freedom/free choice is associated with happiness, and (consumer) choice with life satisfaction.

Thirdly it may be about timing – a sort of Tipping Point idea – perhaps you need to have freedom/free choice before you can have (vast) consumer choice. The former isn’t overwhelming (because it’s generally about a few major choices not thousands of smaller ones), but as more and more consumer choices are opened up, you’re more likely to feel overwhelmed.

Anyway, those are my own thoughts; not sure if that helps. Hopefully someone reading will know the ‘official’ answer.


SteveM 3 September 2008 - 8:31 am

I promised myself that I would stop contributing to this forum in order to minimize the level of distress experienced by the more fragile members of this forum. But ideas are my opium – sorry…

You good people are getting wrapped around the axle by mistakenly assuming that there are fixed importance coefficients for each of the happiness value factors. When in fact, a composite happiness function is unique to each individual.

This is another illustration of why it is so important for PP to be integrated into existing psychological paradigms. Look at the happiness vector from a Jungian context, and use the Myers-Briggs temperament profiles as a classification ontology.

So you have sixteen temperaments and no doubt 16 different happiness vectors. A hearth & home centric ISTJ is probably not going to have the same “Love of learning” coefficient that a gonzo ENTP may have (me for example). And of course from an M-B context, differential intensities across the happiness vector conditioned by temperament are neither good nor bad. Since they are only reflections of those same underlying temperaments.

The danger to PP is the tendency to prescriptively tell people how they are supposed to be happy, rather than in merely providing a supporting architecture of life management insights consistent with individual temperaments.

There are some interesting ways for eliciting differential subjective value. I’ll put together a web-based model for you too try. It was developed by an eccentric genius when he was at Penn BTW. We could then compare individual and group happiness weights. Could be fun.


LucyR 3 September 2008 - 12:12 pm

hi all – what a great comments section! vigorous debate and gorgeous linguistic hoops…stevem, i agree that it would be a danger for PP to tell people how to be happy. however, my experience in the UK within the coaching field to date is the tendency for PP coaches to offer tools/techniques/solutions that are consistent with an individuals needs and most definitely not prescriptive. i think it is an interesting idea to link strengths with other psychological constructs such as MBTI. i’d like to see the results of this. i hesitate though as i have found that clients enjoy the notion they can draw on different strengths at varied times without any prescribed list.

would be interested tohear thoughts.

birtha 6 October 2010 - 11:50 am

cool…….. i want to be a psychologist when i grow up and this is kind of helpful


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