The Positivity Pushers


In her New York Times article “The Power of Positive People,” Tara Parker-Pope tells us that we should surround ourselves with positive people, for the sake of our happiness and health. Her article brought a slew of objections–including a comment from me and one from my friend Jenny Golub.

I would not want to cut my slightly grumpy friends from my life–or to be cut off when going through a difficult time or speaking critically of something. “Positivity” is a vague term, but for some people it means “never complaining” or even “never criticizing.” The Iliad–and most of humanity–would be off limits for someone who sought only positive voices and views. Krasznahorkai and Bellow, Gogol and O’Connor would be off the charts.

Like me, but in different words, many of the commenters reject the premise that people can be classified as “positive” or “negative” and that the “positive” people are more valuable. In addition, they question the business of boosting one’s personal happiness without pause or perspective. “Moreover,” Jenny writes, “there is hard work to be done and genuine suffering to alleviate. Let’s just do the work—together—and stop worrying about that illusory, elusive, untrustworthy concept called ‘happiness.'”

That last point deserves an entire book. The “pursuit of happiness” has many meanings, but when it becomes a mandate and a fad, when people are told to do X, Y, and Z to become happier, then happiness loses whatever good it might have.

The current positivity movement–at least as described in the article–makes little room for suffering and self-questioning. Parker-Pope approvingly cites the work of the Blue Zone Team, which offers to help people assess and shape their social networks. For instance, the Team offers a tool for rating your current friends:

The Blue Zone team has created a quiz to help people assess the positive impact of their own social network. The quiz asks questions about your friends and the state of their health, how much they drink, eat and exercise, as well as their outlook. The goal of the quiz is not to dump your less healthy friends, but to identify the people in your life who score the highest and to spend more time with them.

Such a quiz promotes at least four ills: rating one’s friends in the first place (not to mention rating them against each other), rating them according to others’ criteria, treating the ratings as truth, and treating friends as subservient to one’s own agenda.

Parker-Pope and others might respond that they are not encouraging people to rate each other numerically–or to dump anyone in particular–but rather to take social inventory and act upon it. Well, if inventory is the point here, isn’t one better off examining how one is treating others? People are not obligated to be friends–some friendships take hold and others do not, for a panoply of reasons–but probably everyone has shied away from someone’s suffering. Probably everyone has, at some point, belittled someone who did not deserve to be belittled, ignored someone’s kind gestures, held grudges without good reason, or just not bothered to find out who someone was.

The point of such “inventory” need not be to heap guilt upon guilt or embark on a big project of forced amends, but to question one’s ways of regarding and treating others and to make a few genuine shifts.

Moreover, there is something to be said for grim jokes and rotund tears. When there is too much pressure to be happy, to speak in ever-cheery terms, you find yourself sneaking to the library to read Chekhov or Chesterton–whose works deserve much more than a peek or two on the sly. Why not begin more richly?

Yes, some people can drag others down with their attitudes and outlooks–but this isn’t a question of “negativity.” Such a drag can come from excessive self-assurance, in which the positivity pushers participate. It can also come from a bad or outworn habit in the friendship itself. The solution (if there is one) is not to surround oneself with “positive” people but to treat others frankly and kindly, acknowledge the unknown in them, and seek a fitting form of association with them. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes not; both ease and difficulty have a place in friendship, even in acquaintanceship, even in strangerhood.

Not for its lessons here, but for its gorgeousness and illumination, I recommend William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which I can’t wait to read again.


I took the photo of Pollux at the Dallas Institute on Monday. Also, I added to this piece (several times) after posting it.

Happiness Surveys Actually Increase Happiness

Happiness surveys are all the rage these days–but did you know that they can make you happier? Such is the finding of a research group at the Wisconsin Institute for Scientific and Demographic Organizational Measurement. The study, currently under peer review, stands out as the most robust and extensive investigation of the question to date.

Felix Laimingas, the lead researcher and a professor of brain eudaimonia, explained the methodology over sea salt toffee bars and tea. “We gave happiness surveys to a random sampling of 500 pedestrians in Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay,” he said. “For the control group, we approached random pedestrians and asked them, ‘How are you doing?'”

Those who completed the one-question survey (145 out of the original 500) gave their happiness level a mean rating of 7.2 out of 10 (95% CI: 6.8–7.6), whereas the control group reported a mean happiness level of just slightly over “okay,” which translates to 5.2 (95% CI: 4.9–5.5). The difference between the happiness levels of the survey takers and the control group is statistically significant at 20%.

What are the implications? “Well, we’ve got two things to think about,” said Laimingas. “First, since happiness surveys are actually making people happier, they might be affecting some of the research out there on happiness. That’s not a big concern, though, because really all they’re doing is lifting the  level across the board, leaving comparisons intact.” He paused as we each took another sea salt toffee bar, leaving none behind. “The other implication is even more uplifting. If we do lots more of this happiness survey type thing, we’ll make the world a better place. This is TED talk material.”

I expressed some doubt, since my own action research has found that healthy skepticism increases my sense of agency, which (up to a point) makes me happier. Laimingas smiled, being a happy person himself (with a nice personality type to boot). “I’m glad you questioned our findings,” he said. “That gives me a chance to prove them to you.” He offered me a survey and a pencil.

The survey consisted of two questions:

  1. How happy are you now, on a scale of 0 to 10?
  2. How happy are you now, on a scale of 0 to 10?

The first time, I answered “6”; I was fairly content with my life but didn’t want to be naive about the matter. The second time, I gave the same answer.

“Your happiness actually went up,” said Laimingas. “You see, we have to consider the law of repetitive decay. Research has shown that when survey respondents answer the same question twice in a row, they’re likely to be disillusioned or bored the second time. You stayed right at the same level, which means you counteracted the tendency to go down. This means that you were happier as a result of answering these questions.”

I was happy to hear this, since I initially worried (productively) that my duplicate numbers might come across as rude or flippant. “So you are happy with my answers?” I asked.

“Oh, very happy. Happier than ever. And validated.”

If there is bias in happiness, I thought, it’s good bias. Maybe we should have more happiness  studies. Our takeaway: The next time you verge on asking someone “How are you?” consider handing out a quick survey instead. It’s good for science and the world.

Can Happiness Be Rated?

pandaFirst, I’ll upend a possible misunderstanding: My point here is not that “so many things in life cannot be measured.” I agree with that statement but not with the abdication surrounding it. It is exquisitely difficult to measure certain things, such as happiness, but I see reason to peer into the difficulty. Through trying and failing to measure happiness, we can learn more about what it is.

Lately I have seen quite a few studies that include a happiness rating: the study I discussed here, a study that Drake Baer discussed just the other day, and a study that Andrew Gelman mentioned briefly. In all three, the respondents were asked to rate their happiness; in none of them was happiness defined.

Some people may equate happiness with pleasure, others with contentment, others with meaning. Some, when asked about their happiness level, will think of the moment; others, of the week; still others, of the longer term. The complexities continue; most of us are happier in some ways than in others, so how do we weigh the different parts? The weights could change even over the course of a day, depending on what comes into focus. Happiness changes in retrospect, too.

In addition, two people with similar “happiness levels” (that is, who would describe their pleasure, contentment, and meaningful pursuits similarly) might choose different happiness ratings. A person with an exuberant personality might choose a higher rating than someone more subdued, or vice versa.

Given the extraordinary complexity of measuring happiness, I distrust any study that measures it crudely and does not try to define it. I doubt that it can be defined or measured exactly; but a little more precision would be both helpful and interesting.

Incidentally, the search for precision can bridge the humanities and the sciences; while they will always have different methodologies (and even different questions), they have a common quest for the right words.

Time and Happiness Again

What do people want: more money or more time? Who is happier: those who want money, or those who want time? Do these questions mean the same things to different people? Do they mean the same thing to the same person at different times? Do we know what we’re doing when we rate our own happiness?

A few weeks ago I commented on a study by Hal E. Hershfield, Cassie Mogilner, and Uri Barnea, “People Who Choose Time Over Money Are Happier” (Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 7, no. 7 [2016], 697-706; see also the authors’ NYT article). I saw possible problems with it but did not have time to read it closely. My criticism was a bit caustic and uninformed; I ended up disliking and deleting the post. I regret the tone but not the critical impulse.

Now looking at the actual study again, I find it both stronger and weaker than I previously thought.

It is stronger in its versatility. The authors considered many possibilities; they were continually revising and refining their hypotheses and tests.

But that’s also a problem. The paper’s seven studies go in somewhat different directions; in my reading, they don’t point together to a conclusion.

Here they are:

Study 1a: 1,301 participants (1,226 in the final sample) were recruited through Mechanical Turk and asked about their preference for time or money. They were also asked to rate their happiness and life satisfaction. The order of these questions was balanced among the participants (I missed this point the first time around).

More people chose money than time, but those who chose time reported greater happiness than those who chose money. The difference does not seem great to me, regardless of statistical significance (M = 4.65, SD = 1.32 vs. M = 4.18, SD = 1.38), but I may be wrong here.

Study 1b: The authors do not describe this in detail, but they claim to have replicated the results of 1a while controlling for materialism. Participants (N = 1,021) were again recruited through Mechanical Turk.

Study 2: This time, 535 participants were recruited in the train station of a major East Coast city and offered a Granola bar to complete the survey. 429 actually did complete it. They reported substantially higher income than the participants in 1a and 1b; also, a majority (55%) chose time over money, unlike the MTurk participants, who tended to choose money over time. (Did the train station setting affect this in any way, I wonder?) Those who chose time were again happier, by their own rating, than those who chose money (M = 5.28, SD = 0.93 vs. M = 4.91, SD = 1.10).

Study 3a: This time, the researchers sought to find out why people preferred what they did.  So they recruited participants through  MTurk, asked them which they preferred (time or money), asked them to explain why, and then asked  them to rate their happiness. This time, the order of the questions was fixed.  They saw a split between using the resource to cover needs and using it to cover wants, as well as a split between using the resource for others and using it for  oneself. Something curious appears here: participants indicated whether they wanted more time in their days or in their lives. While the desire for more time (generally) correlated with happiness, the desire for more time in one’s day did not, nor did the desire for more time in one’s life. I wonder what this means.

Study 3b: This time, 1,000 participants were recruited through Qualtrics for a nationally representative sample. 943 ended up participating. As in most of the previous studies, the majority indicated a preference for more money over more time, but those who chose time rated themselves as happier. In addition, the ones who indicated that they  would spend the resource on wants were happier , by their own rating, than those who said they would spend it on needs; those who said they would spend it on others were happier than those who said they would spend it on themselves. There were some additional findings. (One interesting detail: The Qualtrics participants were on average 15-2o years older than the MTurk and train station participants; also, a much lower percentage were employed.)

Study 4a: This was the first of two manipulation checks. Participants were recruited through MTurk and assigned randomly to one of three conditions: a “wanting time” condition, in which they were instructed to write about why they wanted more time, a “wanting money” condition (likewise with a writing task), and a control condition, for which they had to write down 10 facts. Then they were asked to rate their happiness. Finally, they were to indicate which they would rather have, more time or more money.

Those in the “want time” condition (randomly assigned) tended to indicate a preference for more time;  those in the “want money” condition, for more money. The difference in happiness was marginal across the groups, but those in the “want time” condition were slightly happier by their own rating than those in the “want money” condition.

Study 4b: This was the last of the studies and the second manipulation check. This time, participants (again recruited through MTurk) were assigned randomly to a happy condition (instructed to write about why they were happy), an unhappy condition (instructed to write about why they were unhappy), and a control condition (without a writing task). They were then asked to rate their happiness. Finally, they were asked questions about their resource preference. Those in the happy condition reported greater happiness (and a greater preference for time) than those in the unhappy condition.

There are some details I have left out for brevity’s sake:  for instance, the researchers included some questions about subjective and objective income and controlled for these.  But this is the gist.

Now for some thoughts:

First of all, these seem like pre-study experiments rather than complete studies, in that they deal with different populations, questions, and methodologies. It is good that the researchers were refining their questions and analyses along the way, but in the process they may have come up with explanations that they did not rigorously test. For instance, the relation between an emphasis on wants (rather than needs) and happiness seems hypothetical, even if it makes intuitive sense. There’s a flipside: people can drive themselves into a tizzy by thinking about things they want but don’t have.

Second—and this concerns me more—studies 4a and 4b suggest that participants’ preferences and happiness ratings can be manipulated by something as simple as a writing task. It’s possible that most people want more money and more time; what they think they want at a given moment may have a lot to do with what’s going on around them.

Also, I suspect that the MTurk participants, especially those completing surveys for the money, might be a financially stressed bunch. That could influence the findings considerably.

In addition, money and time are not easily separable. That is my greatest qualm. I wonder how many participants thought: “Well, I’d like to have both, but I think the money would allow me to buy more time, so I’ll choose money.”

Who, then, would choose time? Maybe people who have something important in their lives. People may desire money for all sorts of things—leisure, power, luxury, relief from debt, etc.—but those who wish for more time probably have something in the works that they enjoy or value. That in itself could explain why they rate their happiness a little higher than the others do.

But then, how accurate is my assessment of my happiness? How accurate is it ever? It can fluctuate throughout the day;  moreover, it can grow (or shrink) in retrospect. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit (Virgil, Aeneid); in the translation of Robert Fagles, “A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.”