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Barbara Ehrenreich: Why Forced Positive Thinking Is a Total Crock

Positive psychology -- forced optimism -- is actually quite Calvinist, putting happiness to work as a means to an end.

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Only when we returned to his office, away from the mood-elevating Monets, did things take a nasty turn. Going back to his Authentic Happiness Inventory, I remarked that many of the questions seemed a bit arbitrary, leading him to snap, "That's a cheap shot and shows your failure to understand test development. It doesn't matter what the questions are so long as they have predictive value. It could be a question about butterscotch ice cream and whether you like it. The issue is how well it predicts." Well, no. First you come up with a test that seems to measure happiness as generally defined, and then you can look for things that happiness seems to correlate with, such as liking butterscotch ice cream. But you cannot fold the ice cream into the definition of happiness itself. Instead of saying this, I moved on to one of the most irritatingly pseudoscientific assertions in his book, the "happiness equation," which he introduces with the coy promise that it "is the only equation I ask you to consider," as if positive psychology rests on whole thickets of equations from which the reader will mercifully be spared. The equation is:

H = S + C + V

H is "your enduring level of happiness, S is your set range, C is the circumstances of your life, and V represents factors under your voluntary control," such as, for example, whether you engage in "optimism training" to suppress negative or pessimistic thoughts. I understand what he is trying to say: that a person's happiness is determined in some way by his or her innate disposition (S), immediate circumstances (C), like a recent job loss or bereavement, and by the efforts (V) that the person makes to improve his or her outlook. This could be stated unobjectionably as:

H = f(S, C, V)

Or, in words: H is a function of S, C, V, where the exact nature of that function is yet to be determined. But to express it as an equation is to invite ridicule. I asked the question that would occur to any first-year physics student: "What are the units of measurement?" Because if you're going to add these things up, you will have to have the same units for H (happy thoughts per day?) as for V, S, and C. "Well, you'd need some constant in front of each," he said, and when I pressed on, he responded that "C is going to decompose into twenty different things, like religion and marriage," referring to the fact that positive psychologists have found that married and religious people are likely to be happier than single and skeptical people. So how, I ask, do you boil C into a single number? Again, his face twisted into a scowl, and he told me that I didn't understand "beta weighting" and should go home and Google it.

So, just to be sure, I did, finding that "beta weights" are the coefficients of the "predictors" in a regression equation used to find statistical correlations between variables. But Seligman had presented his formula as an ordinary equation, like E = mc2, not as an oversimplified regression analysis, leaving himself open to literal-minded questions like: How do we know H is a simple sum of the variables, rather than some more complicated relationship, possibly involving "second order" effects such as CV, or C times V? But clearly Seligman wanted an equation, because equations add a veneer of science, and he wanted it quickly, so he fell back on simple addition. No doubt equations make a book look weightier and full of mathematical rigor, but this one also makes Seligman look like the Wizard of Oz.