Re-Slicing the Happiness Pie: How much of our Well-Being can be Influenced through Intentional Activities?

Last week, I gave a presentation on leading with meaning at the third conference of the DGPPF (German Association for Research on Positive Psychology) at Ruhr-Universität Bochum. The opening keynote was delivered by Prof. Dr. Maike Luhmann who researches, among other issues, the impact of life events on life satisfaction. She shared some very intriguing data on what can change our life satisfaction markedly and for longer periods of time (e.g., unemployment) and what doesn´t (e.g., your favorite soccer team winning a big game). At one point during her presentation she shared a slide that contained a diagram* like this one:

Re-Slicing the Happiness Pie | Positive Psychology

In doing so, she referred to a very recent paper that was authored by Nicholas Brown and Julia Rohrer. Nick Brown has come to a certain amount of fame over the last years by challenging some of the extant research and the underlying assumptions in Positive Psychology, e.g., the so-called “Losada Ratio” that claims there´s an optimal ratio for positive and negative interactions in high-performing teams. He´s also the editor of The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Positive Psychology. With his new paper, he is tackling another idea that Positive Psychology has grown rather fond of.

The diagram depicted above is an updated version of what has come to be known as the “Happiness Pie”, a framework that was popularized in Positive Psychology through the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky, first via a highly-cited research article, and later on, through her book The How of Happiness.

In short, the original concept claims the variance in a population with respect to psychological well-being can be explained by three different factors:

  • a genetically determined happiness set point (accounting for 50%);
  • all of our life circumstances combined (e.g., how much money we make: 10%);
  • intentional activities (as prescribed in Positive Psychology, e.g., keeping a gratitude journal: 40%).

I´m well aware that Sonja Lyubomirsky advises people not to treat this as exact numbers. Her intention is to make people aware of the fact that, by all means, we may have some personal influence on our well-being by cultivating certain habits – and that we are not merely product of our genes and external life circumstances.

Yet, being German, and therefore knowing about the benefits of 30 days of paid vacation, a reliable social security system, and affordable healthcare for basically everyone, I´ve been somewhat skeptical with regard to the low number assigned to external cirumstances in the original model. This is also one of the key arguments Brown and Rohrer make in their paper: The original pie most likely underestimates the role of socio-economic factors – and overestimates the role of intentional actitivities.

The paper describes in detail some of the shortcomings of the original framework. Several arguments are based on a critique of statistical methods, others are grounded in theoretical issues. I will not mention all of them here (please read the paper, it can be downloaded for free) – but these are some of the main points of criticism:

  • Even if the model were correct when looking at a population, it does not necessarily hold true when looking at individuals.
  • The estimates should very likely be different when looking at different populations.
  • Even if 60% of the variance could be explained by our happiness set points and our life circumstances, this does not necessarily imply the remaining 40% can fully be attributed to intentional activities (there should be an error term).
  • The additive nature of the model is most likely wrong. E.g., our genes and our external circumstances will influence what kind of intentional actitivies we (successfully) carry out in the first place.
  • The estimate of 10% for life circumstances most likely is too low as it is based on a rather incomplete list of all possible external factors.

As a self-declared member of “the Positive Psychology movement”, it bothers me to see that another keystone of the discipline (at least with respect to the popularity with the non-academic community) was obviously build on shaky ground. At the same time, I´m aware this is the natural progression of science – and ultimately, this will help to better understand how to help people with achieving well-being in their lives.

*Please note this new happiness pie may in fact be somewhat closer to “the truth” – but at the same time, it suffers from most of the same shortcomings as the old model.

Your Craving for Money may be an Attachment Disorder

Roter_Teddy_smallThis certainly is a strong proposition. It was coined by Prof. Dr. Eva Walther from the University of Trier as part of lecture on “Money & Love” during the first Conference of the German Association for Research in Positive Psychology. Yet, it may grounded in solid research. Here´s the story:

First, there´s some research that both social support and money can act as a buffer for pain – or the anticipation of pain. So, when people expect to experience painful life events, they will draw on social support (= their friends and loved ones) to guard themselves against or alleviate this unpleasant emotion. Yet, while social capital is the more natural (primary) defense mechanism, money is seen as a secondary one that mainly comes into play when the primary one doesn’t work. Here´s a quote from the Zhou/Gao article listed below:

First, anticipation of pain heightens the desire for social support as well as the desire for money. Second, both social support and money reminders alleviate pain, whereas social exclusion and monetary loss result in an upsurge of pain awareness. In our view, social support is the primary defense against pain and the reliance on money may result from the failure of social support to accomplish its pain-buffering goal.

In short, and a bit overgeneralized: When people cannot lean on social support to fulfill their emotional needs, they will turn to money to do the job.

Second, research finds that money-seeking may be linked to having an avoidant attachment orientation (using the Bowlby typology). This finding lends some credibility to the idea that money acts as a substitute for human bonding – as people with an avoidant attachment style may find it harder to attain all the emotional comfort they need in stressful situations.

So, just in case you´re striving for that first million $: It could very well be you´re just looking for a friend…

 

Positive Psychology is gaining ground in Deutschland: New Associations and Conferences

Flag - German SmileyAbout two years ago, I uttered an outcry via Mappalicious: Positive Psychology in Germany – where are you? In the meantime, someone answered, as the movement is gaining some traction in Germany. Here´s an overview of Positive Psychology Associations and conferences taking place this year:

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Positiv-Psychologische Forschung (DGPPF e.V. – English: German Association for Research in Positive Psychology)

The DGPPF is an association of scientists from all academic backgrounds who conduct research on and teach positive psychology. It is an interdisciplinary research and teaching association which seeks to promote and disseminate the science of positive psychology. Over the next years, they plan to host congresses, promote publications, create empirical instruments, collect data, create a journal, and much more.

DGPPF will host a conference at University of Trier from May 19-21, 2016: “State of the Art – Zum Stand der positiv-psychologischen Forschung im deutschsprachigen Raum” (Info)

Deutschsprachiger Dachverband für Positive Psychologie (DACH-PP e.V. – English: The German-speaking Association of Positive Psychology | GAPP)

GAPP’s goal is to bring the concept and methods of Positive Psychology to the attention of a broader public in the German-speaking countries. GAPP supports the practical application of PP in areas such as coaching, psychotherapy, counseling, school, business and politics. GAPP wants to serve as a communication platform for initiatives which are rooted in academic application of positive psychology.

GAPP will host a conference at Freie Universität Berlin from September 17-18, 2016: “Erste Konferenz des DACH-PP – Positive Psychologie für die Praxis” (Info)

The German Chapter of the European Network for Positive Psychology (ENPP)

The European Network for Positive Psychology (ENPP) is a collective of European researchers and practitioners with shared interests in the science and practice of positive psychology. Researchers and practitioners from other disciplines like economics, sociology, philosophy or biology are also invited to participate.

The website www.positive-psychologie.org is currently under construction. In the meantime, you might want to check out the general ENPP Homepage.

ENPP will host the “8th European Conference on Positive Psychology” at Angers (France) from June 28-July 1, 2016. (Info)

Positive Psychologie Tour 2016

Additionally, you might be interested to hear that some of the spearheading figures in Positive Psychology will be coming to Germany and Austria over the summer for several conferences and workshops, among them Martin Seligman, Barbara Fredrickson, Roy Baumeister, Tayyab Rashid, and Kim Cameron. All information can be found here.

 

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