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The Science of Happiness: Is It All Bullshit?

Just because a Harvard academic says something is so, doesn't mean it is.
 
 
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A "Daily Show" interview that hit a chord for me was Jon Stewart's conversation with Tal Ben-Shahar, who teaches "positive psychology" at Harvard and has written a self-help book. Early in the interview, a suspicious Stewart declares, "I am a psychology major, so I know a lot of it is bullshit."

Stewart, however, politely gives Ben-Shahar a chance to explain the value of his book and his course on positive psychology. Ben-Shahar is proud that his course is the most popular one at Harvard, to which Stewart gets an audience laugh by suggesting that perhaps the real reason it is so popular is because it is easy. This results in a nervous laugh from Ben-Shahar, who retorts that his exams are "actually quite difficult." Ben-Shahar then explains that there is now a "science of happiness" and offers a study to prove it, but an unimpressed Stewart quips, "How is that science?"

Finally, Stewart is no longer able to restrain his amazement that platitudes are considered profound at Harvard nowadays (the "Six Happiness Tips" on Ben-Shahar's website are about acceptance of negative feelings, positive attitude, meaningful activities, being grateful, simplifying life and physical health). Stewart ends the interview in Groucho Marx fashion by saying, "It's a fascinating subject and one that I can't believe you are getting away with."

Compared with the dangerously dehumanizing stuff in the mental health business, positive psychology is so innocuous that I almost felt sorry for Ben-Shahar. But Stewart's derision was not groundless. Even if a pretend profundity is harmless enough, it is never completely harmless when people surrender their own authority to others based solely on affiliations and advanced degrees. When people allow credentials such as a Harvard Ph.D. to cut off their own critical thinking, they will eventually buy into some truly dangerous bullshit.

Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines bullshit as "nonsense, lies or exaggeration." My recent articles have been about the corrupt partnership between Big Pharma and psychiatry -- resulting in nonsense, lies and exaggerations about mental illness diagnoses, chemical imbalances and psychiatric drugs -- and thus, lately, I have neglected discussing the particular bullshit of my fellow psychologists, some of which is seriously dehumanizing.

While psychologists and psychiatrists have different bullshit, they also have overlapping bullshit, one example being the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ( DSM), the bible of mental illness diagnoses. When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, the DSM-II included homosexuality as a mental illness. The good news is that gay rights activists succeeded in getting homosexuality voted out of the DSM-III. The bad news is that the DSM-III and the current DSM-IV dramatically increased the number of psychiatric diagnoses, including more childhood mental illnesses, one of which is "oppositional defiant disorder." Kids don't get to vote in DSM mental illness elections.

While psychiatry has its own biochemical bullshit, psychology has its low-tech bullshit, some of which is quite dehumanizing. When I was a psychology major, one of the most prominent psychologists in America was the Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner, famous for popularizing "behavior modification" -- the use of positive and negative reinforcements to manipulate rats and people. One Skinner book that many psychology majors were required to read was Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which I remember thinking was a damn scary title.

My first institutional experience of Skinner's behavior modification came while interning on a locked ward in a state psychiatric hospital that had something called a "token economy." I recall one patient there -- I'll call him George -- who was severely depressed. George refused to talk to staff but, for some reason, one day chose me to shoot pool with. When my boss, a clinical psychologist, spotted my interaction with George, he told me that I should give George a token, a cigarette, to reward his "pro-social behavior." I fought it, trying to explain that I was 20 and George was 50, and that this would be humiliating, but the psychologist threatened to kick me off the ward. So with staff watching but not hearing from behind the nurse's station window, I asked George what I should do. Fighting the zombifying effects of his heavy medication, he grinned and said, "We'll win, let me have the cigarette." In full view of staff, George took the cigarette and then placed it into the shirt pocket of another patient. George, unlike B.F. Skinner, was not "beyond freedom and dignity."

In graduate school, psychologists receive training in administering, scoring and evaluating intelligence tests. I immediately noticed that these IQ tests excluded a good part of what I considered intelligence. On the most respected IQ tests, there were no tasks that assessed someone's ability to read between the lines, see truth beyond obfuscation, and detect bullshit. Ernest Hemingway said, "The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector." I had always thought that such a "shockproof shit detector" was a significant aspect of intelligence -- but not according to these IQ tests.

In 1994 Richard Herrnstein, another Harvard psychologist, co-authored The Bell Curve, an influential book celebrating the value of these intelligence tests. Herrnstein wrote, "The identification of IQ with attractive human qualities in general is unfortunate and wrong. ... For example, a person can have a terrific sense of humor without giving you a clue about where he is within thirty points on the IQ scale. ... Many witty people do not have unusually high test scores."

Thus, if we trust this Harvard psychologist, we conclude that Jon Stewart as well as George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Mark Twain could all conceivably have low IQs and be classified as unintelligent.

The quick-witted Stewart showed a first-rate shit detector when he questioned the validity of Ben-Shahar's claim that now, with science, we can ascertain whether common sense about happiness is true. The reality is that the "science of happiness" is a shaky science. For one thing, the independent and dependent variables (such as meaningfulness and happiness) are subjective and not truly quantifiable in the manner that legitimate scientists would take too seriously. I respect the findings of real science, but shaky science provides far less authority than time-honored wisdom.

The current positive psychology craze is by no means the first time that academic psychology has taken basic common sense and elevated it with scientific-sounding jargon to create the illusion that psychologists have something special to offer. When I attended graduate school in clinical psychology, hot topics were "cognitive psychology" and "cognitive therapy," which were considered radical shifts from "behaviorism" (which dogmatically focused only on "observable events"). Cognitive psychology's great contribution? Just because you cannot see people's thoughts, people actually do think, and thoughts affect our emotions. However, 2,500 years earlier, the Buddha taught about the thought-emotion connection in a far more profound way than any academic cognitive psychologist.

Another hot field for a time was "interpersonal psychotherapy," which declared that how people act toward other people creates reactions in other people, which in turn will affect them. I recall one professor trying to make this stuff into a big deal; he wrote on the blackboard the word friendly next to an arrow pointed to another friendly, and then he wrote the word hostile next to an arrow pointed at another hostile. I raised my hand and stated that this reminded me of an episode of "Laverne & Shirley" in which Laverne was being mean and Shirley told her, "Laverne, remember nice gets nice."

It seems ironic to me that my Ph.D. has made it easier to get books and articles published. Generally, a mental health advanced degree in and of itself should actually give its holders less credibility, as it is really nothing more than proof that one has completed a lengthy bullshit indoctrination.

Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving America's Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green, 2007). www.brucelevine.net.

 
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