The Science of Happiness: Read with Skepticism?

Three months ago, I bought a special edition Time magazine, ‘The Science of Happiness – new discoveries for a more joyful life’.

Time.jpg

I bought it because I’m into this stuff. I believe there’s a reason why more and more people are talking about, and practicing, things like meditation and mindfulness. I don’t think it’s because we’re all undercover spiritual gurus (although, maybe we are?)… Instead, it seems a case of simple economics. Happiness (or more generally, well-being) is in demand, and meditation and mindfulness practices are a couple of the key suppliers.

I began writing this post with the intention it be about the positive effects of another happiness supplier: practicing gratitude. This idea stemmed from a piece written in the magazine. Here’s an extract of said piece:

“In a series of studies, psychologists Robert Emmons of the University of Chicago, Davis, and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami found that those who did exercises to cultivate feelings of gratitude, such as keeping weekly journals, ended up feeling happier, healthier, more energetic and more optimistic than those who didn’t.”

As with most things I set out to do, it hasn’t really panned out the way I thought it would. This blog post, although guided by my interest in the positive effects of practicing gratitude, isn’t about the positive effects of gratitude at all. Instead its morphed into a post regarding The Science of Happiness.

So, what is The Science of Happiness? This article from the Huffington Post explains it much better than I ever could:

“The phrase “the science of happiness” refers to a new field of social science called positive psychology positive psychology functions constructively in helping us get more of what we do want, and making ourselves better, happier people.”

Sounds legit, right?

Before we get into that, I’ll go back to the gratitude thing for a second… my interest in the positive effects of practicing gratitude led me to seek out more information on the topic. In doing so, I stumbled upon a blog post ‘The 31 benefits of gratitude you didn’t know about’ on the blog ‘Happier Human’ (it’s a relatively short and worthwhile read).

Whenever I stumble upon something interesting, whether it be a piece of work, music, art, whatever, one of the first things I do is channel my inner Scooby-Doo to find out who done it? The Happier Human blog is run by a man named Amit Amin. According to the blog’s home page, Amit, after being unhappy for a period of time became thoroughly interested in The Science of Happiness/positive psychology (I use these terms interchangeably). It seems the blog serves as his outlet for the work he’s done studying positive psychology.

Fantastic I thought! What an amazing resource! However, the title on the home page of his site ominously states: Read with Skepticism, and includes this passage:

Five years ago, I was unhappy. Positive psychology, the ‘science’ of happiness, offered hope that traditional psychology did not. So I started this blog. I would research a topic and write up my findings, hoping to help both myself and others. Three years ago, I stopped. Not because no one was reading what I wrote. Fifteen to thirty thousand people visit each month. I stopped because I had realized that in the ways that matters, positive psychology was just like traditional psychology – it was a scientific mess.

This was disheartening to read. I’ve been so interested in The Science of Happiness – specifically for the potential its research and studies have to guide me to make positive changes in my life. I believe in it! I’d even been thinking about doing something similar to Amit with this blog space… If a guy like Amit, who poured countless hours of his life into research and writing on positive psychology, ultimately became disillusioned with it all, it made me question whether my belief was misguided.

Amit goes on to write about the problems inherent in The Science of Happiness:

Science is a process of truth seeking. Make a prediction, run an experiment, observe the results. The opacity of the brain turns the results of most experiments into unreliable nonsense.

Translation (I think): the brain has a really hard time examining itself.

Decades of work on complex statistical methods meant to overcome this problem have mostly failed…Because the incentives that guide research in the social sciences mostly lead to the production of garbage studies that fail to replicate.

Translation (in full-blown layman’s terminology): studies need money; money comes from somewhere; that somewhere wants the study to prove their shit, not fuck with it. That is, studies can be prone to bias for a number of reasons.

Doom and gloom!

Sure… if you choose to look at things that way…

I don’t.

The reality is everything in this world is biased to a certain extent (…just look at the News). Science is not excepted from this bias. Fact is, we aren’t impartial observers. We are humans; flawed as fuck and beautiful because of it.

Because we’re flawed, there’ll always be contradictory information out there – objectivity is kind of an impossibility.

For example, maybe scientific studies exist claiming to have proven yogurt is good for cats. So you feed your cat Greek yogurt because, you know, only the best for Foo Foo (and yes I realise no one actually names their cat Foo Foo). Then you find out the market leading seller of cat-yogurt paid a scientist a ga-gillion dollars to do these studies. I’m no scientist, but if I was, I’m sure that for a cool ga-gillion I could find a way to prove to you yogurt was good for Foo Foo too… The point of all this? I don’t care who you are, a ga-gillion is a lot…

…Or maybe a surveys been done to prove something that proves nothing…

 

You don’t have to believe every new thing you read, or the latest study. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. Amit’s advice to Read with Skepticism seems like good advice to me. It’s also true you don’t have to believe in every old belief you might be clinging to either…

Believe in what then? Nothing?? No… Believe in whatever you choose to believe in! But don’t be afraid to let it go if evidence begins to mount against your chosen belief. This is where I think we all struggle, myself certainly being no exception.

The work Amit has done is clearly of value – as evidenced by the thousands of people who still visit his site daily – and he obviously believed in it for a time, until maybe this belief shifted. That’s totally fine.

Personally I think The Science of Happiness/positive psychology is a valuable new (relatively) scientific field.

With a focus on “constructively…helping us get more of what we…want, and making ourselves better, happier people” the potential exists, I believe, for The Science of Happiness to contribute greatly to humanity’s overall well-being by challenging the way we view the world.

Sometimes we’ll get it wrong, so sure Read with Skepticism… but how can having a focus like that possibly be a bad thing?

2 thoughts on “The Science of Happiness: Read with Skepticism?”

  1. First: your opening image, sea of blue frown faces with one yellow smiley face used to be my gravitar! so fun to see that again.
    Second: I like cerebral/psychological reading as well and regarding the ‘science’ of happiness or positive psychology – be your own experiment. Some things are logical and if it seems logical (or common sense) to you, your probably right about it. Keeping a gratitude journal, being present, not allowing yourself to assume the actions/expressions/motivations of others as a reflection on you are all things that enhance your emotional wellbeing. You don’t need a scientific study to ‘prove’ that meditation or being positive is good for you anymore than you need a study to prove that eating fresh fruits and vegetables are also good for you. Science is fun and intereting but we are blunting our own critical thinking skills when we just follow the latest ‘fad’ for what is or isn’t good for us. Use your (own) head. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Found the image online and fell in love with it: fit the piece perfectly I thought!

      Thank you Karyn for your insights. So often it seems I’m guilty of reading something (a new ‘fad’ as you put it) and only intellectualising it, as opposed to actually experimenting with it (i.e. putting it into practice) to see whether this thing in fact does add value to my life (whether that be by way of emotional well-being, or what-have-you).

      I couldn’t agree more with your words: “be your own experiment”. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

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