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:
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.