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.

Top 10 Positive Psychology Articles for the first Half of 2016

 Top 10 Positive Psychology ArticlesCherished reader, as it has become a tradition, I’m sharing with you those articles that your fellow readers liked the most over the first half of the year. Maybe, there’s something that you’ve missed and want to read again?

Looking at the selection, it becomes clear that readers were strongly interested (and willing to share) blog posts that contain infographics. I’ll try to keep that in mind when thinking about future directions for Mappalicious.

  1. Great Infographic on Self-Compassion: How not to be Hard on Yourself
  2. Fabulous Infographic: Why People become Unhappy
  3. The Meaning of Life according to different Philosophers [Infographic)
  4. Do you want to find more Meaning in your Work? Here´s where you should look for it – according to Science
  5. Strengths gone astray: The real mental Illnesses?
  6. Explaining Character Strengths to Children: Meet the Dynamos
  7. Surprising Finding | Mental Illness vs. Mental Health: Continuum or Matrix?
  8. Infographic: How to be Wise – as an Entrepreneur (and in Life)
  9. The 3 Layers of Meaningful Work
  10. Meaninglessness at Work: The 7 Deadly Sins [Infographic]

Honorable mentions

These two articles are not blog posts, they are permanent pages on my site. But as people like them so much, they typically show up in the top 10 list every year. For that reason, I’ve taken them out of the regular top 10 but still present them here:

The Ten Keys to Happier Living | Vanessa King

What are the active ingredients for a happier and fulfilling life? Positive psychology, happiness and resilience expert, Vanessa King of Action for Happiness, unlocks the Ten Keys to Happier Living. The areas science shows we can most easily take action – for ourselves and to contribute to a happier world.

Vanessa King is a leading expert on the practical application of the science of happiness, resilience and wellbeing in our everyday lives, communities and in organisations. She’s a Board Member and Lead Positive Psychology and Workplace Expert for Action for Happiness.

The Structure of Psychological Well-Being — before PERMA

Torbogen_Kirche_kleinWhen talking about the “grand design” of psychological wellbeing these days, most people (at least implicitly) refer to Seligman’s PERMA framework, comprised of the building blocks: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. You might also find people who add another letter for vitality, resulting in PERMA-V.

Of course, Seligman’s outline wasn’t the first attempt at developing a “theory of everything” with regard to psychological well-being.

Between 15 to 20 years before the introduction of the PERMA framework, researchers Carol Ryff and Corey Keyes presented a data-driven model that is comprised of 6 dimensions (here’s the link to one of the original papers: The structure of psychological well-being revisited): self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth.

Quite obviously, there’s a lot of overlap between the two frameworks, but also subtle differences.

To me, one very interesting feature of the Ryff/Keyes model is the idea that well-being is a higher-order entity. They were able to show statistically there’s a kind of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”-effect in the data. The idea is that psychological well-being exists as a single factor on the meta-level, where the whole has more meaning than the parts – kind of like looking at a house creates more meaning than looking at bricks, a door, and windows separately.

Here are the six factors of the Ryff/Keyes model in the original words of the researchers:

Self-Acceptance

High scorer: possesses a positive attitude toward the self; acknowledges and accepts multiple aspects ofself, including good and bad qualities; feels positive about past life.

Low scorer: feels dissatisfied with self, is disappointed with what has occurred in past life, is troubled about certain personal qualities, wishes to be different than what he or she is.

Positive Relations With Others

High scorer: has warm, satisfying, trusting relationships with others; is concerned about the welfare of others; capable of strong empathy, affection, and intimacy; understands give and take of human relationships.

Low scorer: has few close, trusting relationships with others; finds it difficult to be warm, open, and concerned about others; is isolated and frustrated in interpersonal relationships; not willing to make compromises to sustain important ties with others. 

Autonomy

High scorer: is self-determining and independent, able to resist social pressures to think and act in certain ways, regulates behavior from within, evaluates self by personal standards.

Low scorer: is concerned about the expectations and evaluations of others, relies on judgments of others to make important decisions, conforms to social pressures to think and act in certain ways.

Environmental Mastery

High scorer: has a sense of mastery and competence in managing the environment, controls complex array of external activities, makes effective use of surrounding opportunities, able to choose or create contexts suitable to personal needs and values.

Low scorer, has difficulty managing everyday affairs, feels unable to change or improve surrounding context, is unaware of surrounding opportunities, lacks sense of control over external world.

Purpose in Life

High scorer: has goals in life and a sense of directedness, feels there is meaning to present and past life, holds beliefs that give life purpose, has aims and objectives for living.

Low scorer: lacks a sense of meaning in life; has few goals or aims, lacks sense of direction; does not see purpose in past life; has no outlooks or beliefs that give life meaning.

Personal Growth

High scorer: has a feeling of continued development, sees self as growing and expanding, is open to new experiences, has sense of realizing his or her potential, sees improvement in self and behavior over time, is changing in ways that reflect more self-knowledge and effectiveness.

Low scorer: has a sense of personal stagnation, lacks sense of improvement or expansion over time, feels bored and uninterested with life, feels unable to develop new attitudes or behaviors.

The Most Important Part of the Good Life | Jamie Gruman 

The good life. We all want it. We all want to know the secret formula for attaining it. But the simplistic, often misleading prescriptions for the good life that are tossed around in the popular media, books, and online, can push the good life further out of our reach. Psychologist, and Founding Chair of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association, Jamie Gruman, explains how a balanced viewpoint helps us properly understand the good life and make it a reality.

In his TEDx talk, Gruman describes the good life as a result of leading a balanced life, specifically, four different kinds of balance: Balance as a) mid-range, b) synthesis, c) tempered view, and d) sensitivity to context.

Share and enjoy!

3 Questions for Emma Seppälä, Author of “The Happiness Track”

Emma_SeppäläEmma Seppälä, Ph.D is Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of the recently published book The Happiness Track. She is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business ReviewPsychology TodayHuffington Post, and Scientific American Mind.

Emma, if you had to describe your book in a short analogy (“We’re the Uber for x…” or something like that): What would it be?

The hack for success without stress.

I’m a manager and reaaaaally busy. If I had time to read only one chapter: Which one would you recommend – and why?

Read the second chapter on how to build your resilience. We believe we need high levels of adrenaline to get things done – so we over-caffeinate, over-schedule ourselves, and wait until the last minute to get things done. The result is not productivity, it’s burnout which is why we’re seeing 50% burnout across industries, 80% of doctor’s visits due to stress, and 75% of the American workforce disengaged. You can’t talk yourself out of stress but there is something you can do at the physiological way that will help you manage your energy, be more productive and emotionally intelligent, and be resilient in the face of the pressure and demands coming your way – cultivating physiological resilience. 

In all these years of studying Positive Psychology: What is the one scientific finding that intrigued you the most?

The finding that has intrigued – and inspired – me the most is that the best kept secret to happiness is to give it away. By uplifting others, supporting them, helping them and living a more compassionate life, not only will you be making everyone else happier, you will be happier, healthier and live a longer life too. It’s win-win!

Thank you very much and best of luck with The Happiness Track!

New Book: 10 Keys to Happier Living (by Action for Happiness)

IMG_8218Last year, I shared with you information on UK-based non-for-profit organization Action for Happiness. Now fellow MAPP alum and AFH board member Vanessa King has authored a book which draws on AFH’s GREAT DREAM acronym: 10 Keys to Happier Living. Congrats, Vanessa!

From the book cover:

In this book, Vanessa King of Action for Happiness has drawn on the latest scientific studies to create a set of evidence-based practical actions that have been shown to increase happiness and wellbeing – at home, at work and in the world around you.

It will help you connect with people, nurture your relationships and find purpose. You’ll get ideas for taking care of your body, making the most of what’s good and finding new ways to stimulate your mind.