May 2012 - Happier Human


Monthly Archives: May 2012

How to Fake a Smile For Health and Happiness

Is it good to fake a smile?

Is the best thing with smiling, “fake it til’ you make it”. Or does this  just lead to more repressed negative emotions that will someday boil over?

This posts discusses the reasons we fake a smile, when not to do it and how to do properly fake a smile. Let’s get to it…

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The Inside Job: How Happy Happens

Joy begets joy.

You probably know at least a few people who are eternal, effervescent bundles of bliss: no matter how tiring or challenging their day, they just exude happiness. And whenever they enter a room, every person inside it lights up like a holiday tree, catching some of their pleasure, if only momentarily.

Ever wonder what they’re doing differently?

Here’s their ‘secret’, according to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis:

They were born lucky. They won the cortical lottery. Digest these quotes from the research article, Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill:

  1. Research has shown over and over again “that one’s level of well-being is reasonably stable over time (Eid & Diener, 2004).”
  2. “Behavioral genetic studies show that well-being is moderately heritable.” Identical twins raised apart “were much more similar in their levels of well-being than were dizygotic [fraternal] twins who were reared apart.” (Tellegen et al. 1988)
  3. “Whereas any single demographic factor typically correlates less than .2 with well-being reports…. personality tend to correlate much more strongly with well-being.” Personality… changes little over a person’s lifetime (Deiner & Lucas, 1999).

Hmmm. That’s great news for those born happy. Kinda sucks for me.

I definitely didn’t win the cortical lottery. 

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Book Review: Flourish – Creating a Happiness by Using the Concept of PERMA

Want a review and summary of Martin Seligman’s book, “Flourish”?

Perhaps something with a bit of insight mixed in? If so you have come to the right place.

We humans all have the same innate desires – we all want to flourish. 

Flourish is a book from the great psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman. He wrote the books Authentic Happiness, Learned Optimism and the brand new The Hope Circuit.

He achieved his initial fame as the proponent of the theory of learned helplessness.  Seligman is also the founder of positive psychology.

Flourish has four major components I will discuss:

  1. PERMA – his new encompassing theory of happiness.
  2. Simple positivity exercises can have a profound effect when made into a habit.
  3. Success in life is based on character and motivation. IQ plays a part, but not as much as most people think.
  4. His viewpoint of psychology and psychiatry, and of the necessity of positive psychology.

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The Power of Positivity, In Moderation: The Losada Ratio

The Losada ratio is the sum of the positivity in a system divided by the sum of its negativity. A ratio of 3.0 to 6.0 has been found to be highly correlated with high performance.

The Losada ratio is also known as the positivity ratio, Gottman ratio, and Losada line.

Losada Ratio | Losada Line example

The first suspicion of a positivity ratio came from the field of marital stability and relationship analysis, from the research of John Gottman. Over the course of dozens of studies and thousands of observations, he gained the ability to predict whether or not a couple would divorce with over 90% accuracy. A key factor of that prediction was the ratio of positive expressions to negative expressions.

The second suspicion of a positivity ratio came from the field of organizational psychology, from the research of Marcial Losada. Adopting Gottman’s coding methodology for business teams, Losada observed teams of eight while they developed strategic plans. Once again, the ratio of positive expressions to negative expressions was highly predictive of team success, as judged by both hard numbers like profitability, and soft numbers like evaluations by colleagues and superiors.

The study which finally brought the positivity ratio to its current level of popularity came from the field of positive psychology, from the research of Barbara Fredrickson. She found that college students with a positivity ratio above 3 were significantly more likely to have high mental and social health.

These findings have been subsequently confirmed in additional settings (e.g. a nursing home), having been cited over 700 times.

Losada Ratio Table of Contents

What’s my Losada ratio, and what does it mean?

You can take a quick test here to find out your positivity ratio.

In general, the higher your ratio the better. There are limits – above 6 and especially above 11, but most people are unlikely to ever approach such high levels.

Positive emotions are beneficial in many areas of life, increasing general health, lifespan, social functioning, mental health, income, productivity, and more.

Can I increase my positivity ratio?

Absolutely. There are dozens of positive psychology exercises you can use to increase your positivity ratio. I’ve personally increased my ratio from 1.7, six months ago, to 2.6 now. In order, I’ve found the following four exercises to be the most effective in increasing Losada ratio: laughing, gratitude, physical exercise, and self-compassion.

Why 2.9 and above on Losada Line?

The commonly mentioned dividing line of 2.9 has now been shown to be bogus. More accurate is a positivity range, of around 3 to 6. Why is so much more positivity than negativity required to reach a state of flourishing?

Humans experience negativity much stronger than positivity. This tendency can be seen in many fields, from behavioral economics to psychology. Compare:

Upon seeing you, a friend compliments your appearance.


Upon seeing you, a friend insults your appearance.

The compliment is likely to make you feel better for a few moments – maybe even a few hours. The insult is likely to keep playing on repeat for hours, maybe even days.

For a system to be in a positive state, a significant amount of positivity is required to balance against the over-weighted power of negativity.

But why does positivity lead to increased performance? It’s an evolutionary adaption – happiness is a signal that it’s okay to make long-term investments.

An Example:

From Barbara Fredrickson’s paper, Beyond the Moment:

When we are in a state of relative safety and satiety—when there are few threats demanding intense, narrowed attention—positive emotions allow us to pursue our long-term interests. In our ancestors, transitory states of positive emotions led to behavior that may seem pointless or extravagant from the perspective of immediate survival, but that perhaps conferred serious advantages in the long term.

A positivity ratio above 3.0 signaled safety and satiety – that Joe was surrounded by friends, healthy, had a stockpile of food, and that now was the best time to make long-term investments.

That is the function of positive emotion – to tell the body, now is the time – you are safe, so you can stop worrying about the day-to-day worries of the present, and go make true your dreams of the future.

To learn more, read this article.

Why do we even need negativity?

Said differently, why is too much positivity a bad thing? It can be dysfunctional. Let’s take a simple example:

You were born highly optimistic. Wanting to produce even more positive emotion, you spend years increasing your natural levels of optimism through cognitive behavioral therapy.

One day, you decide to move to Italy and start a vineyard. Your friends warn you to be cautious, “you don’t know anything about the business, and you can’t even speak Italian!”

Feeling optimistic, you believe you can learn things along the way. Unfortunately, reality bites back hard – your first batch of grapes sours and the second produce disgusting wine. The third batch produces a wine that is OK, selling a few bottles, but not enough to cover your costs. Your friends caution you to chalk up the failure to life experience and move on.

Feeling optimistic, you believe you can turn things around. With your credit already ruined, you turn to your friends and family for money. You continue to fail. You go broke, in the process ruining not just your life, but that of those around you.

Negative emotion can be useful.

Dysfunctional Mathematics Controversy

According to the original proponents of the Losada ratio, 2.9 marks the dividing line between normal and flourish. That number came from the use of incorrectly applied complex mathematics. Barbara Fredrickson and Losada modeled human performance against positive and negative emotion using a three-dimensional non-linear, dynamic system. If you want a sense of what that means, read the section below in red.

The math behind 2.9 has now been proven bogus. The underlying theory that positivity induces flourishing is still valid, but the idea that some universal dividing line exists at 2.9 has been disproven. To summarize the problems:

  • The value 2.9 was asserted as being the dividing line across all situations for all people. We know this is false because a quick look at the actual studies done shows a range of dividing lines. This makes sense – things will be different for people of different age, gender, educational level, personality, group membership, and so on.
  • There were a number of mathematical errors. No need to take my word for it – from one of the two original authors of the theory, Barbara Fredrickson, “I’ve come to see sufficient reason to question the particular mathematical framework Losada and I adopted.”

Chaos Theory & Positive Psychology?

Both Losada and Barbara Fredrickson modeled human performance against positive and negative emotion using a three-dimensional non-linear, dynamic system. That modeling has now been shown to be bogus, but for historical purposes, I preserved my original attempt to explain the math.

What’s a non-linear system?

Let’s start with a hypothetical model of happiness:

Happiness (value of 0 to 10) = Money (value of 0 to 5) + Optimism (value of 0 to 3) + Gratitude (value of 0 to 2)

This is an example of a linear model. In English – the variables don’t interact with one another. An example:

Joe is well off doctor (money = 5), slightly pessimistic (optimism = 1), and not very grateful (gratitude=.25).

Using the equation above, his happiness = money (5) + optimism (1) + gratitude (.25) = 6.25

So he’s doing okay. If, through HappierHuman training, Joe increased his levels of gratitude by 100%, to .5, his happiness would increase by 4%, to 6.5.

But that doesn’t seem right… The model is too simplistic. A doubling of gratitude should increase happiness by much more than 4%.

A more accurate model would look like this:

Happiness = MoneyGratitude + Optimism

This is an example of a non-linear model – some of the variables interact with one another. Rather than the money and gratitude scores being added together, the money score is being exponentially increased by the gratitude score. This model is also too simplistic, but is more realistic – after all, what point is there to having tons of money if you can’t appreciate and be grateful for it?

Now, when Joe’s levels of gratitude doubles, his happiness increases by 30%.

Human emotions are incredibly powerful, and they build on themselves. Let’s say you had become 10% happier five years ago, it’s highly likely your life now would be entirely different. Much like the butterfly effect, small changes in emotion can have profound effects down the road – hence the need for a non-linear system (more: chaos theory).

What’s a three-dimensional system?

The two graphs above show how changing levels of gratitude changes levels of happiness. But what if we wanted to see what happens when changing money and gratitude, at the same time?

Happiness graph

That’s what it would look like. At lower levels of gratitude, each of the three lines is about the same. But as gratitude continues to increase, the happiness value of the hypothetical man with lots of money (money = 6), starts shooting above the others.

The complex dynamics of business teams.

Losada Line

Putting it all together, the above graph is a model connecting the positivity ratio of business teams with their level of performance.

The x-axis contains a two-dimensional representation of performance. At -20, the business team has lots of people asking questions. At +20, the business team has lots of people advocating their own viewpoints. Clearly, we want a business team that does both – one that learns and is open to new ideas, but that also acts on its beliefs.

The y-axis contains the emotional space of the business team. Recall that we want lots of positive… but also some negative? For that, a team needs a large emotional space, one that accommodates all sorts of behaviors (questing, optimistic, pessimistic, etc…). The Losada ratio directly controls the size of the emotional space.

This graph is three-dimensional because, like the happiness graph with 3 curves, this graph has three different curves, each with a different positivity ratio.

The largest set of figure-eight lines, in gray, represents a high-performing team. We know this team is high-performing because they have dots across the entire graph – points where they’re open to new ideas, points where they’re advocating their own ideas, and points where they’re neutral.

The smallest set of figure-eight lines, in blinding white, represents a low-performing team. This curve has only a few points, all of which are centered around self-advocacy.

This is the basis of the theory behind the positivity ratio. Too much negativity restricts the range of possible behaviors to a few options. On the other hand, a positivity ratio above 2.9 expands the range of behavior. That flexibility, in turn, contributes to high-performance.

This is also the reason why this model predicts that too much positivity is bad – as you can see, the curve with a high positivity ratio is larger than the curve with a small positivity ratio. Once the ratio passes 11, the curve gets too big. So big, in fact, that the entire model breaks down.

Show me the science!

The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model

This study attempted to correlate the performance of business teams with their relative displays of positivity to negativity, inquiry to advocacy, and other orientation to self-orientation.

60 business teams of eight individuals each were observed in a computerized lab while they developed strategic plans.

The “verbal communication among team members” was coded along three bipolar dimensions and then tested against performance levels.

Positivity/Negativity (P/N): “A speech act was coded as “positive” if the person speaking showed support, encouragement or appreciation (e.g., “that’s a good idea”), and it was coded as “negative” if the person speaking showed disapproval (e.g., “that’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard”), sarcasm, or cynicism.”

Inquiry/Advocacy: “A speech act was coded as “inquiry” if it involved a question aimed at exploring and examining a position and as “advocacy” if it involved arguing in favor of the speaker’s viewpoint.”

Other/Self: “A speech act was coded as “self” if it referred to the person speaking or to the group present at the lab or the company the person speaking belonged, and it was coded as “other” if the reference was to a person or group outside the company to which the person speaking belonged.”

Team Performance: “The sample of 60 business teams was subdivided into three performance levels based on extensive business performance data.” Data included measures of profitability, customer satisfaction, assessments by superiors, peers, and subordinates. “A team was assigned to the high-performance category if it achieved high ratings in all three measures. A team was assigned to the low-performance category if it had low ratings in all three measures. Medium performance teams did not achieve ratings that were either consistently high or consistently low.”

The combination of the inquiry/advocacy and other/ self-ratios was able to predict high-performance. The positivity/negativity ratio, in turn, was able to predict inquiry/advocacy, other/self, and high-performance. The non-linear Lorenz model build by Losada uses the positivity/negativity ratio to predict the inquiry/advocacy and other/ self-ratios, which in turn predict performance.

positivity ratio

“The P/N ratio for high-performance teams is very similar to the one that Gottman (1994) found for couples that were able to achieve a harmonious and sustainable relationship over time. Gottman also found that couples whose marriages ended in divorce had a preponderance of negativity over positivity in their overall interaction over time, just like the low-performance team in our study: ‘Dissolution is related to positive-to-negative ratios of less than one (there is more negative than positive), whereas stability is associated with ratios that are around 5.0’ (Gottman, 1994, p. 331).”


The optimal ratio calculated by this study is 5.6, which is a full 2.5 points higher than the ratio recommended by most of the other losada ratio studies. Is this because the focus was on business teams rather than human individuals? Because of the coding methodology?

Full study here.

Losada, M., & Heaphy, E. (2004). The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(6), 740-765. doi:10.1177/0002764203260208

Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing

This study tested the Losada hypothesis on individual adults (a prior, the hypothesis had been only tested on marriages and business teams), as well as summarizing the existing literature. This study has been cited over 700 times, making it one of the most popular positive psychology studies to date.

188 college students completed a number of surveys over the course of a month.

Each evening for 28 days, participants completed a test similar to this one, which calculates a positivity ratio by dividing the number of strongly felt positive emotions experienced over the past 24 hours by the number of strongly felt negative emotions. A monthly positivity ratio was calculated by taking an average of the daily ratios.

In turn, this ratio was compared against the results of a 33-item measure of psychology and social function (Keyes, 2002). Those with high scores on this measure were classified as flourishing; those with medium and low scores as non-flourishing.

The mean positivity ratio for flourishing individuals was 3.3. The mean positivity ratio for non-flourishing individuals was 2.2.

The sample size isn’t small, but neither is it so large that this study should be cited over 700 times before replication.

The sample is off only college students. It is possible that different types of people in different periods of their lives may have different positivity ratios.

The definition of flourishing used in this study is limited to mental and social health. Is there also a correlation between the positivity ratio and GPAs? If not, why isn’t increased mental and social health translating into improved academic performance?

Full study here.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678

Nice To Know You: Positive Emotions, Self–Other Overlap, and Complex Understanding in the Formation of a New Relationship

This study tested the hypothesis that a higher positivity ratio among new college students would predict them having a better understanding of and relationship with them.

247 first-year college students completed a number of surveys during a number of different times: 3 weeks before their semester started, 1 week after classes began, 5 weeks after classes began, and daily for four weeks, between week 1 and week 5.

Each evening for 4 weeks, participants completed a test similar to this one, which calculates a positivity ratio by dividing the number of strongly felt positive emotions experienced over the past 24 hours by the number of strongly felt negative emotions. A monthly positivity ratio was calculated by taking an average of the daily ratios.

In turn, this ratio was compared against self-other overlap (perceived relationship closeness), and complex understanding of others (rather than seeing their roommate as a singular entity, e.g. good or bad, instead seeming them as sometimes good and sometimes bad). Extroversion was also measured as a control.

Even after controlling for extroversion, the positivity ratio was significantly predictive of self-other overlap, both at week 1 and week 5.

The positivity ratio affected self-other overlap partially through its impact on the increasing participants complex understanding of their roommates. Those with a high ratio experienced about three times as much of an increase in their complex understanding from week 1 to week 5.

The average positivity ratio of those with a high self-other overlap and complex understanding was 2.9; the average ratio of those with low scores was 2.13.

The cut-off point between high and low can be arbitrarily defined so that the average ratio of the high group is 2.9. Was the cut-off point actually arbitrarily defined in such a way?

Full study here.

Waugh, C.E. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2006). Nice to know you: Positive emotions, self-other overlap, and complex understanding in the formation of a new relationship. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 93–106.

Marital Processes Predictive of Later Dissolution: Behavior, Physiology, and Health

A longitudinal study which attempted to find variables which could be used to classify a couple as being at risk for divorce.


79 couples were observed in a lab, where their positive and negative interactions were observed and coded in detail by researchers. Couples were instructed to discuss problem areas in their marriage with one another. The couples were surveyed twice – once at the beginning of the study, and a second time four years later.


Interactions coded as positive included: neutral or positive problem description,  task-oriented relationship information, assent,  humor-laugh, and miscellaneous other positive.

Interactions coded as negative included: complain, criticize, negative relationship issue problem talk, yes-but, defensive, put down, escalate negative affect, and miscellaneous other negatives.

Based on these interactions, couples were separated into two groups: regulated and unregulated. Although the classification algorithm used many different sources of data to build the classification (individual interaction codes, like anger and withdrawal, the sum of the positive interaction codes, the sum of the negative interaction codes, etc…) the most predictive component of the classification was the ratio of the sum of the positive interaction codes to the sum of the negative interaction codes.

The regulated couples had a positivity ratio of about 5.8; the unregulated couples a ratio of about .86.


During the 4 year period, nonregulated couples were three times more likely to consider divorce, twice as likely to get separated, and 2.5 times as likely to get divorced as regulated couples.


How easily can the positivity ratio of a couple be changed?

If it could be changed, would that actually impact that probability of getting divorced (correlation vs. causation)?

Why do Gottman’s later papers on predicting divorce tend towards using other models (that is, non-positivity ratio models)?

Full study here.

Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1992). Marital Processes Predictive of Later Dissolution: Behavior, Physiology, and Health. Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology63(2), 221-233.

The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking: The Critical Positivity Ratio

This paper raises a number of fair critiques against the math behind the universal 2.9 dividing line. The abstract:

“We examine critically the claims made by Fredrickson and Losada (2005) concerning the construct is known as the “positivity ratio.” 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. The lack of relevance of these equations and their incorrect application lead us to conclude that Fredrickson and Losada’s claim to have demonstrated the existence of a critical minimum positivity ratio of 2.9013 is entirely unfounded. More generally, we urge future researchers to exercise caution in the use of advanced mathematical tools such as nonlinear dynamics and in particular to verify that the elementary conditions for their valid application have been met.”

You can read the full paper here.

Brown, N. J., Sokal, A. D., & Friedman, H. L. (2013). The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking: The Critical Positivity Ratio.

Updated Thinking on Positivity Ratios

This is Barbara Fredrickson’s response to the critique above. The paper can be summarized in one sentence,

“I’ve come to see sufficient reason to question the particular mathematical framework Losada and I adopted.”

She argues, and I agree, that although the math is incorrect, the idea that positivity in moderation is beneficial is still true, and can be well described by the broad-and-build theory of positive emotion.

You can read the full response here.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Updated Thinking on Positivity Ratios.

Toward a Humanistic Positive Psychology

This paper raises a number of fair critiques against the mindset of positivity and the wide, out-of-context use of the positivity ratio. However, most of its arguments are non-sequitur or straw men. In addition, the paper argues for a “humanistically informed positive psychology.”

I personally disagree, but the paper is an interesting read.

Ben-Sharar says it well,

The fundamental difference between humanistic psychology and positive psychology is in their relationship to research, epistemology, and methodology. Many who joined the ‘Third Wave’ were not rigorous. Humanistic psychology gave birth to the self-help movement, and lots of self-help books have come out with concepts grounded in emotion and intuition. Positive psychology combines those things with reason and research.

You can read it here.

Schneider, K. (2011). Toward a Humanistic Positive Psychology. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis22(1), 32-38.

Altering Positive/Negative Interaction Ratios of Mothers and Young Children.

Because this study had a small sample size (eight mother-child pairs, for 16 participants total), I quote the paper’s abstract below rather than providing my own summary.

“Based on classic marital research of John Gottman, a popular notion exists that interpersonal relationships thrive when the number of positive interactions outweighs negative interactions by a ratio of five to one. Though many have given similar advice for parents and caregivers, Gottman’s findings and methodology may not generalize to relationships of parents and young children. Were similar ratio findings to be validated for parent-child relationships, explicit ratio advice may be incorporated as a component of clinical practice (e.g., behavioral parent training). To begin investigating potential clinical implications, a project was conducted that examined mothers’ ability to achieve prescribed ratios following brief instruction. Baseline ratio levels for a small sample of nonclinical mother-child dyads were approximately one positive for every one negative. When instructed to attain a 5 to 1 ratio, all participants improved their ratios; half the sample achieved the target ratio. Mothers in the study altered their ratios primarily by boosting the number of positives they used with their children.”

Full study here.

Armstrong, A. B., & Field, C. E. (2012). Altering Positive/Negative Interaction Ratios of Mothers and Young Children. Child & Family Behavior Therapy34(3), 231-242. doi:10.1080/07317107.2012.707094

Positivity and Well-being Among Community-Residing Elders and Nursing Home Residents: What Is the Optimal Affect Balance?

Because I do not have access to the full study, I quote the paper’s abstract below rather than providing my own summary. If you can help me procure access to this paper, I will send you a virtual hug (or I can send you a cookie, if you’d prefer).

“To explore whether a ratio of positive to negative affect, from the work of Fredricksen and Losada, could predict high levels of well-being in elderly samples and especially in nursing home residents despite multiple chronic health conditions, consonant with Ryff and Singer’s notion of “flourishing under fire.” Method: We used two samples: a probability sample of community-residing elders and a sample from nursing homes. We calculated ratios of positive to negative affect in each sample and measured well-being with social interaction, mental health, life satisfaction, and general well-being. Results: The positivity ratio of 2.9 differentiated high levels of well-being in both the samples, as in previous research on younger samples. Discussion: Although we expected the positivity ratio to perform less well among nursing home residents, we found that it differentiated residents with high well-being just as well as in the community sample. The ability to regulate positive effect to maintain a relative ratio of positive over negative effect appears to be an important aspect of successful adjustment in late life. Further research is needed on objective indicators of quality of life and on whether intra-individual shifts in affect balance are coupled with shifts in indicators of positive mental health.”

More information here.
Meeks, S., Van Haitsma, K., Kostiwa, I., & Murrell, S. A. (2012). Positivity and Well-being Among Community-Residing Elders and Nursing Home Residents: What Is the Optimal Affect Balance?. Journals Of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences & Social Sciences, 67(4), 460-467.

Book Review: The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

Happiness Hypothesis is good!

I read, a lot. At least one book a week, often more.

My list of non-fiction books I’ve read but need to review is currently 43 and of that list the Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom is in my top five. Also, of that list, this is one of only three books I’ve read twice.

The author Jonathan Haidt takes a lifetime of philosophical pursuit into the meaning and maximization of life, combines it with decades of personal scientific inquiry into moral psychology, and uses as its base recent advances in positive psychology. To keep this review succinct, I’ll be focusing on just three of its eleven chapters. I highly encourage you to get the book and check out all the other chapters yourself!
Book Review: The Happiness Hypothesis

The Elephant & The Rider

The first step towards making significant change is acceptance. A common idea written about throughout positive psychology, cognitive science, social psychology, and behavioral economics is that the world is not as it seems – we as conscious, thinking humans are much less conscious than we believe. 

We make New Year’s resolution and are not surprised when we fail. When we decide to exercise, lose weight, spend more time at home we go. at it guns blazing for a few days and all to often fall back to our old ways. If we stop watching TV for a few days we may act different, but with no surprise, we bend back into our old habits.

The Happiness Hypothesis (Check it out!) gives this occurrence a name – the elephant & the rider.

“Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will…. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.”

Acceptance is the first step because once we acknowledge the true complexity of consciousness, instead of trying and failing to whip the elephant to our will, we can gently nudge it to greater and more permanent effect. What’s needed to implement massive personal change isn’t massive willpower – it’s just the right set of tools.

Meditation, Prozac, & Cognitive Therapy

The Happiness Hypothesis (Check it out!) is like a mystery novel – the author explores a series of suspects, one by one, hoping that each, in turn, is the answer to the question, “What’s the best path to sustained happiness?” The first suspect was meditation, followed by Prozac and cognitive therapy.

Meditation– with more than 2,000 years of development and 500 million to one billion adherents, Buddhism, the source of meditation, is big and old. Buddhism teaches the idea of non-attachment. As we cannot fully control our external environment, Buddhism suggests that humans reject the outside world and generate happiness from within. Some of the tenants of this philosophy/religion have been scientifically validated: much of our life is a never-ending rat-race; despite our effort and focus, much of what happens to us is outside our control; and happiness can be reliably generated from within. Nevertheless, positive psychology suggests Buddhism may have taken the idea of non-attachment to its extreme –

“So to cut off all attachments, to shun the pleasures of sensuality and triumph in an effort to escape the pains of loss and defeat—this now strikes me as an inappropriate response to the inevitable presence of some suffering in every life.” 

Prozac– if you could put something in your mouth that makes you happy but requires no effort, would you? If you’re like the vast majority of Americans, your answer is a clear no. You don’t believe in shortcuts. Except that you’re probably taking one every day. You’re probably eating some sweet, fatty, and otherwise unhealthy food that brings you pleasure when you put it in your mouth. Why not take something even better? Prozac can increase levels of happiness, both for those that are depressed and for those that aren’t. The author took Prozac, loved its effect (he says he had the rosiest disposition ever in his life), but choose to discontinue its use due to the side-effects. I agree with the author – if there were no side effects, I might take this pill. Is it truly evil to be happier, act kinder, see more optimistically, and give more love? Luckily, we can defer the moral calculus – a true happiness pill is decades or more away.
Cognitive Therapy– it’s something that some of us have heard of… as a treatment for the depressed. One of the first lessons Positive Psychology has shared, in the form of Martin Seligman’s second book, Learned Optimism, is that joy and happiness can be permanently increased by changing our thought patterns. We’re not talking about suppressing negative thoughts – that’s dangerous and a recipe for stress and disaster. Cognitive therapy is something more difficult, actively changing our thought patterns. To give a personal example, for all of my life there are certain very annoying things my family members have said to me. I actually tense up each time they say these things to me because I’m suppressing my negative mental reaction, because if I had ever talked back as a kid it wouldn’t have been pretty, and now that they’ve been saying it for decades, no matter how much I protest now they keep on saying it. I tried all sorts of things – talking to them about it, taking deep breathes, but nothing has worked. Cognitive therapy did. Now, when they say something that generates a negative thought, I catch myself in the act of mentally cringing, stop myself from having negative self-talk, and replace it with something positive – “oh, they’re just saying that because they care so much about me, how sweet.” Now when they call, I can pick up the phone and smile. It took a few months and dozens of repetitions, but it worked.

H = S + C + V (Happiness Equation)

As simple as the above answers may be, they were nothing more than pieces of the final answer. The second developed hypothesis that the author considered was:

Happiness (H) = Biological set point (S) + Conditions of your life (C) + Voluntary Activities (V)

Biological Set Point (S)

The biological set point, unfortunately for those that weren’t born with bundles of joy and enthusiasm (like myself), is an extremely strong beginning –

“Twin studies generally show that from 50 percent to 80 percent of all the variance among people in their average levels of happiness can be explained by differences in their genes rather than in their life experiences.”

That’s right – 50% to 80% of our life happiness is explained by genetic factors, essentially outside of our control. Fortunately, the reason this blog exists is that science has also validated that there are proven ways to permanently increase our happiness.

Conditions of your life (C)

It’s not by getting that new car or big house you’ve been dreaming of.  Because we quickly adapt to new things, new toys, furniture, electric devices, homes, refrigerators and like bring us increased joy for a few days, weeks, or months, and then that’s it. Three life conditions that really matter:

  • Commuting: “Many people choose to move farther away from their jobs in search of a larger house. But although people quickly adapt to having more space,36 they don’t fully adapt to the longer commute, particularly if it involves driving in heavy traffic.  Even after years of commuting, those whose commutes are traffic-filled still arrive at work with higher levels of stress hormones.”
  • Lack of control: “In a review paper that Rodin and I wrote, we concluded that changing an institution’s environment to increase the sense of control among its workers, students, patients, or other users was one of the most effective possible ways to increase their sense of engagement, energy, and happiness.”
  • Relationships: “The condition that is usually said to trump all others in importance is the strength and number of a person’s relationships. Good relationships make people happy, and happy people enjoy more and better relationships than unhappy people. Conflicts in relationships—having an annoying office mate or room-mate, or having a chronic conflict with your spouse—is one of the surest ways to reduce your happiness. You never adapt to interpersonal conflict; it damages every day, even days when you don’t see the other person but ruminate about the conflict nonetheless.”

Voluntary Activities (V)

There are three classes of voluntary activities that have been shown to consistently increase levels of happiness:

  • Expressing gratitude and kindness is a way to fight adaption effects. If we start taking something good for granted, it stops giving us joy. If we express gratitude, we can reverse that process:  “Studies that have assigned people to perform a random act of kindness every week, or to count their blessings regularly for several weeks, find small but sustained increases in happiness. So take the initiative! Choose your own gratifying activities, do them regularly (but not to the point of tedium), and raise your overall level of happiness.”
  • Meditating and employing mindfulness techniques to enjoy the present, rather than ruminating on the past or stressing about the future can boost mood, both in the short term, but especially in the long term.
  • Engaging in flow and pursuing our strengths has been associated with increased levels of satisfaction. Specifically, “Seligman proposes that V is largely a matter of arranging your day and your environment to increase both pleasures and [flow activities].” See here for a description of flow.
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom - Book Review

Check out this book!

Conscious Pursuit of Happiness

This book review of Happiness Hypothesis (Check it out!) has turned more into a summary.

This was to be expected given the rich collection of information the book contains. I highly recommend you check out the entire book yourself. It is one of the key books on happiness. A “must read” Let me finish with what I think is the book’s most powerful quote:

“The elephant cares about prestige, not happiness, and it looks eternally to others to figure out what is prestigious. The elephant will pursue its evolutionary goals even when greater happiness can be found elsewhere. If everyone is chasing the same limited amount of prestige, then all are stuck in a zero-sum game, an eternal arms race, a world in which rising wealth does not bring rising happiness. The pursuit of luxury goods is a happiness trap; it is a dead end that people race toward in the mistaken belief that it will make them happy.”

–  Excerpt from Happiness Hypothesis

If you want to be happier, happiness hypothesis is one of the best books for you. It really gets into the specifics of the science. Not glossing over the idea in some shallow manner. If you . have read my other book reviews you know I often find major elements with books I dislike, even if I give them a careful ovrall recommendation, I rarely “gush”.  That should tell you that this book is truely worth your time.

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The 5 Excuses You’re Using to Sabotage Your Happiness

It is easy to sabotage happiness.

Most often people do not realize they are even sabotaging their happiness. They just believe that happiness eludes them. But all too frequently if we step back and look at things from a neutral perspective we can see how we sabotage our own happiness.

Why don’t we more actively pursue happiness?

  1. We think hard work and delayed gratification will get us there.
  2. We believe its selfish.
  3. Cynicism: We think the world is already doomed and it doesn’t matter
  4. Thinking our happiness should come second.
  5. We think we’re already as happy as we’re going to get.

Each of these mentalities impedes or distorts our quest to be as happy as we can and want to be.

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