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Big Data Should Measure Value Fit

I gave a presentation at South by Southwest earlier this month.  I appreciate the many people who voted for my idea, who attended my talk, and who gave me feedback via twitter or face to face afterwards. It was a great experience.

It was a great experience, not for the people I met or for the thrill of speaking , both of which were nice, but more so because it forced me to think deeply about what I wanted to say.  A famous writer once said that “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”.  My thoughts are still evolving (one person, who was positive about the talk, commented to me after that she could see my thoughts evolve on stage), and if I did the presentation over, I would frame it differently, but what I believe I arrived at, is this: Big data should measure value fit.  Or perhaps more generally, the proliferation of data should be used to measure the intangible things that we say are important to us.

Here is more or less what I ended up saying in narrated powerpoint:

The Moral Psychology and Big Data Singularity – Ravi Iyer SXSWi

I was happy with my talk, but I will try to simplify things a bit the next time I do it.  Rather than present more cool findings from psychology, which are endless but ultimately forgotten, I would have focused more clearly on the point I started with: that we need to bridge the gap between the things we say we care about and the things that we measure.

Just as countries are starting to question whether measuring gross domestic product is a good measurement of that which is worthwhile, companies should start to question whether measuring profits/monthly unique visitors/return on investment/facebook likes/valuation, is measuring that which is worthwhile.  A recurring theme at South by Southwest was a focus on the importance of values and happiness as evidenced by talks with names like “Go Forth and make Awesomeness:  Core Values & Action” or “Why Happiness is the new Currency?”.  But while companies talk about values and happiness as outcomes, they don’t measure them, perhaps because they feel like they can’t measure the intangible.  Moral psychology and positive psychology, which deal with the quantification of values and happiness related constructs, can provide this methodology so that big data can eventually be used to measure the right things.

Once you start to think in this way, you can see this need everywhere. On cue, a friend recently sent me this article from the New York Times, that illustrates the points I make.  It’s by a courageous Goldman Sachs employee who quit because of he felt, in the terms of this post, that Goldman was measuring success the wrong way.

How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.

What are three quick ways to become a leader? a) Execute on the firm’s “axes,” which is Goldman-speak for persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit. b) “Hunt Elephants.” In English: get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them. c) Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym.

Today, many of these leaders display a Goldman Sachs culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.

I am sure that Goldman Sachs has sophisticated algorithms to use their giant data sets to predict financial markets and make as much money as possible.  I doubt they’ve ever considered measuring the values of their employees. Sometimes what you measure is a reflection of your values.

- Ravi Iyer

ps. I am not short on projects, but if you would like help taking the data you have and using it to measure intangible/psychological things, feel free to email me.

The Experiential Economy

I recently wrote/created (though the graphic design is not mine) the below infographic for Good Magazine in an issue dedicated to societal trends.  The idea here is that the material economy (which produces physical goods like cars and electronics) is being replaced by the experiential economy (which produces experiences like food and vacations).  The psychological data is based on a paper we recently had accepted by the Journal of Positive Psychology (along with Ryan Howell and Paulina Pchelin at San Francisco State University) and my dissertation research, all of which focused on the longer term characteristics of people who tend to buy experiences (e.g. dinner at a restaurant) rather than material goods (e.g. clothing).

The take home message is that, convergent with lab research using experimental manipulations, people who report having a preference for experiential purchasing report being happier relative to people who report having a preference for material goods.

The reasons for this have been detailed by other researchers who report that people adapt to experiences less quickly, meaning that good experiences last longer.  As well, people who buy experiences are less apt to compare their purchases to others, with the inevitable disappointment that exists when someone out there gets a better deal.  For example, I recently bought a Prius and still find myself visiting to see if I got the best deal, an exercise which has no utility whatsoever.  On the other hand, my recent hike  to Machu Picchu remains an unequivocally positive memory.

I’d like to thank the editor at Good Magazine for asking me to frame things in terms of the direction of the economy as that led me to this Forbes Magazine article, which has data on how Americans spend their discretionary income.  Spending generally has gone down due to the recession, but from the perspective of experiential vs. material purchasing, it’s clear that experiential purchases (e.g. dining out) are becoming a greater percentage of discretionary spending compared to material purchases (e.g. jewelry).  Anecdotally, I’ve noticed startups that seem to be trying to capitalize on the preference for experiences and my credit card won’t just reward me with stuff, but with experiences.

Perhaps if economists want to consider ways to jump start the American economy, they should consider the trend toward experiences, which are intrinsically difficult to outsource.  The world doesn’t need increasingly more stuff, but there is an experiential deficit out there.  Just think of all the elderly who lack humane care, the homeless for whom personal attention is needed, or the way that Zappos has thrived by making customer service a positive experience.  In economic terms, if experiences really do create more value for consumers, then the economy should necessarily shift in that direction and I’m hopeful that thinking of “the experiential economy” explicitly will be generative for business leaders, policy makers, economists, and perhaps most importantly, for consumers.

- Ravi Iyer

Oregon’s Medicaid Experiment vs. Motivated Reasoning

Recently, an unprecedented study was done in Oregon where (due to budgetary, not research reasons) a lottery was held to randomly decide which applicants for Medicaid would actually receive the opportunity to receive Medicaid.  There has never been an opportunity to randomly assign people to have access to a program like Medicaid, and so this represents a unique opportunity to learn something about the effects of Medicaid, especially considering the large sample size.  The results were recently published and while there are multiple news reports about the article, none had the depth (or graphs) to satisfy me, hence this post as an excuse to dig deeper.

There is a psychological point to be made here too, about partisan motivated reasoning.  The results of the study are intuitive to most people who are not so ideological.  Of course increased access to health care leads to greater psychological and physical well-being for the insured as well as greater cost to society.  I have to admit that as a liberal, I’m tempted by arguments that the benefits of preventative medicine and reduced use of expensive emergency rooms means that increased health care for the poor will be essentially cost neutral.  While Obama touts improving health care access as a deficit reducing measure and liberal pundits minimize costs, the reality is likely that insuring everyone will cost significant money.  At the same time, arguments that state that medicaid doesn’t improve poor people’s health or that minimize the effect, seem psychologically motivated as well.  Indeed, the fairest summary of the results of the study would be this fairly obvious sounding ABC News headline which reads, “Medicaid makes poor healthier and states poorer”. To add something to the numerous articles out there, I made the following graphs to summarize results:

People who received medicaid (in red) felt happier (“very happy” or “pretty happy” as opposed to “not too happy”), healthier, and less depressed (using this measure) than the control group (in blue).

Oregon Medicaid Experiment - Health Depression Happiness

People who received medicaid (in red) used more preventative services than control group (in blue) (yearly results for just women).

Oregon Medicaid Experiment - Mammograms Pap Smears

People who received medicaid (in red) used more medical services overall than control group (in blue), costing taxpayers more money, without any decrease in ER visits (yearly numbers, extrapolated from 6 month numbers in article – costs used per event in article, based on previous studies, are in parentheses).

Oregon Medicaid Experiment - Health Care Usage

Partisans will surely see it through partisan eyes, as one man’s enormous gain in outcomes is another man’s modest increase.  The National Review had a fairly detailed critique, but I can’t help but feel that statements like “supporters must show not only that expanding coverage improves health but also that it does so at a lower cost to taxpayers than alternative policies” ring hollow unless advocates are forcefully pushing for those policies on the grounds of improving the health of the poor.  It has the same feel as liberal arguments that taxing the wealthy will actually stimulate the economy.  Both groups don’t like to make tradeoffs, even obvious ones, but the reality is that expanding health coverage will both cost money and improve health.

Is it an unaffordable amount of money or a trivial amount?  The other neat thing about the study is that it actually translated health usage into actual dollars spent per year.  The control group still spent money on health care, which was presumably taken care of through existing services, charities, or emergency rooms.  The marginal cost of insuring the poor could be seen to be the difference between the experimental and control groups or the total cost of the experimental group.  Under medicaid, the government would pay all those costs, but there may be savings on what government is already spending on emergency room visits to public hospitals and other like societal costs.  In comparison, I found these links for the yearly cost of educating a child or incarcerating a prisoner in Oregon.

Oregon Medicaid Experiment Costs per Year in Context

Yearly Cost

Of course, the above graph is perhaps misleading as there are far more school children than prisoners, so perhaps multiplying the total cost of care by the 213,000 medicaid eligible uninsured individuals or by the almost 650,000 total uninsured (numbers from, and comparing it to the overall Oregon budget might put the cost of expanding coverage dramatically in context.  Below are yearly Oregon state budget items compared to extrapolated medicaid costs.  Note that the cost of insuring all uninsured is likely lower due to many uninsured being young working adults.  However, there is likely overhead and administrative costs to the program that are not taken into account as well, so perhaps this balances out.

Oregon Medicaid Experiment Costs in Budget Context

Oregon Yearly Budget Items in Comparison to Potential Expanded Health Care Cost

I learned something from this exercise.  My liberal intuition was that expanding coverage to all the uninsured would not be that large a cost for a state.  In reality, it looks like expanding Medicaid in Oregon would be roughly equivalent to the entire budget of the Oregon University system or at least the community college system, depending on whether you count the entire cost of medicaid health care or just the marginal cost of increased usage.  Either way, it is a significant cost.  At the same time, providing health coverage to all the uninsured is not fiscally impossible.  It costs a fraction of the overall state budget and would cost a fraction of the Oregon health and human services budget.  Behind all the reactions to such studies is the attempt by both liberals and conservatives use motivated reasoning  to avoid a hard choice between a costly government program and failing to provide health care for our nation’s poor.  There is a cost, in terms of money or well-being, to either position.

- Ravi Iyer

Tony Hsieh, liberals, and libertarians prefer buying experiences to materialism – A Review of Delivering Happiness

I recently finished Tony Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness, which is partially a business book, detailing his remarkable story where he has won (selling Link Exchange to Microsoft in his 20s for $265 million) and lost (selling almost everything to turn Zappos around) fortunes.  Zappos, an online shoe seller, has gone on to become the model for online retailers and was acquired by Amazon for almost a billion dollars.

However, Tony Hsieh’s book is clearly about something more than business.  I recently saw him speak at the Miliken Institute in Los Angeles and the last 10 minutes of his talk could have been from a class we teach at USC, the Science of Happiness.  In fact, I think the introduction to that series of slides was entitled the Science of Happiness and Delivering Happiness has a healthy dose of psychological research on happiness in it.  His basic thesis is that if he makes his employees happy, they will in turn be able to authentically make customers happy, which will allow Zappos’ brand, which is all about “WOW”-ing consumers (and suppliers actually).  For example, Zappos surprise upgrades shipping for customers and tries to pay for dinner when dining with suppliers, who normally have to woo their clients.  Zappos actively seeks to hire and fire employees based on their 10 core values, in order to maintain a happy harmonious workforce that can deliver happiness.

Hsieh gives a very succinct view of happiness/positive psychology research in his talks in a far more interesting manner than most psychologists, but there is one bit of new research that I bet he would be interested in.  Specifically, more and more research is showing that people who buy experiences are happier than people who buy objects.  In the book itself, Hsieh explicitly talks about his preference for experiences over objects.

From p.76 & p.106 respectively -

“ever since selling linkexchange, I’d committed to living by the philosophy that experiences were much more important to me than material things.  Most people assumed that I would have gone out and bought a fancy and expensive car, but I was content with my Acura Integra.”

(re: visiting Africa when it might not be financially the best decision) – “For me, summiting the tallest mountain of a continent was one of those things that I wanted to check off my list of things to do at some point in my life.  It went with my life philosophy of valuing experiences over things.”

In collaboration with Ryan Howell and Paulina Pchelin at San Francisco State, we’ve been developing a measure of experiential buying.  In validating that measure, we’ve found that happiness->less materialistic values->experiential buying->more happiness.  Conversely, neuroticism->more materialistic values->less experiential buying->less happiness.  The simple correlational pattern indicated that those who were more approach oriented were more experiential, while those who are more avoidance oriented are more materialistic in terms of the purchasing styles.

I’ve since extended this model in looking at the relationship between values and experiential buying.  Consider the below graph and notice that liberals (in blue) prefer experiences over possessions compared to conservatives (in red), who value experiences and possessions more equally.  Libertarians also prefer experiences to possessions.

Liberals and Libertarians prefer to buy Experiences vs. Objects

In further analysis, these differences were mediated fully by differences in values between liberals and conservatives.  Specifically, liberals valued experiences due to their valuation of stimulation (using the Schwartz Values Scale), while conservatives’ relative preference for material objects was mediated by endorsement of power.  I subsequently experimentally manipulated values by having participants recall a low or high power situation (based on the idea that people of low power will seek power and work by Dacher Keltner that high power->stimulation).  Sure enough, having people recall low power situations leads to more materialistic buying, while recalling high power situations leads to more experiential buying (preliminary graph below).

These results mirror what Tony Hsieh talks about concerning his values.  He is a more approach than avoidant oriented, per this quote from p.103:

My plan was to take almost everything that I had left in my name and liquidate it in a fire sale.  I would bet the farm and put all the proceeds into Zappos.

And he thought of his possessions as a means toward stimulation, rather than power or security.  From p.115…

selling the party loft symbolized the end of an era for me. It was hard not to feel wistful and nostalgic.  The loft had created so many experiences and memories for so many people.

Of course, it’s easier to think about stimulation rather than power, when you’ve made millions in your 20s.  But perhaps it explains some of the Zappos culture which includes approach/stimulation oriented statements like “Embrace and Drive Change”, “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness”, “Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded”, and “Pursue Growth and Learning”.  One of Zappos’ core values (“Be Humble”) seems almost the opposite of power.  Perhaps the key to Zappos’ success is that its culture is conducive to selling shoes as experiences, rather than possessions.

- Ravi Iyer

Maximizing is better (for your happiness) in the moral rather than material domain.

Whenever I bring up the concept of maximizing (“never settling for less than the best”), the discussion inevitably evolves into thinking about what domains a given person maximizes in.  For example, I definitely don’t maximize in terms of my clothing choices, but am more of a maximizer in my career choice.  Actually, even within my career choice, I maximize for some characteristics (sense of purpose, geography, autonomy) more than others (stability, income).

Still, even as this distinction has been pointed out in Barry Schwartz’s original book and in subsequent papers, I am not aware of anyone who has attempted to measure maximizing in specific domains (please comment/email me if you know of such research, as I’m guessing that it’s out there).  Here is a quote from a recent paper:

Although content-free items have several advantages, specific examples may be needed to measure domain specific maximizing tendency, i.e., individual maximizing tendency within particular domains such as consumer purchase. Future research needs to address whether there are systematic variations between individuals’ global maximizing tendency and their propensity for maximizing within given decision making domains, based on for example the degree of involvement.

To answer this question, I modified the original maximizer-satisficer scale and gave the resulting questionnaire to both a sample at and to a sample of USC students.  Below are the reliability coefficients, which won’t mean a lot to many people who read this, but are useful in determining if it really is possible to measure domain specific maximizing, simply by taking the original scale’s questions and tweaking them to be specific to a domain (e.g. instead of “I never settle for 2nd best”, change the question to “In picking a place to live, one should never settle for 2nd best”).  More interesting are the domain specific correlations with the satisfaction with life scale, a measure of “happiness”.

The reliabilities are fair, meaning that the domain specific scales measure the constructs decently, but not extremely well.  Better measures usually have reliabilities around .8.  Still, the domain specific measures are comparable to the original scale’s reliabilities and the test-retest reliability (asking people the same question a month later) also is similar.  I think the fair reliabilities are a result of the fact that maximizing (Nenkov et. al) has since been shown to have multiple dimensions: the search for alternatives, having high standards, and having difficulty making decisions (see this paper).

Beyond reliabilities, I think the best argument for domain specific maximizing is the pragmatic reliability, meaning whether maximizing in different domains predicts different outcomes.  From the correlations above, you can see that maximizing in the material/physical domain (shopping, work, a place to live) has negative consequences for life satisfaction, while maximizing in the moral and political decision making domains does not (bold values are significant, click on the graph to zoom in).  This is consistent across both samples.  In addition, I asked the USC students how much they liked where they live, and the “place to live” subscale had the highest negative relationship (-.33, p<.001) to liking where they lived, followed by shopping (r=-.22) and work (r=-.22).  Maximizing in relationships, political decision making and moral decision making were unrelated.  At the very least, I think this is good evidence that maximizing is at least different in moral/political decision making versus in consumer decision making.  Incidentally, maximizing had a long history in moral philosophy, before it became popular in psychology to think of it in terms of consumption.

One issue with my original scale construction is that I did it before Nenkov’s paper that deconstructed maximizing came out, so I did not evenly pick items across subscales.  To make sure that the findings above aren’t just because of item selection, I ran some analyses for specific matched items that existed in all domain specific scales.

Again, bold values are significant and we see negative correlations only for alternative search questions only in the material domain.  This replicates Nenkov’s finding in that having high standards does not relate to lower life satisfaction, but always searching for alternatives, no matter how satisfied one is, does relate to lower life satisfaction.  However, it appears that this is true only in the material domain (shopping, career, a place to live) and not in moral and political decision making.

Lastly, the case of maximizing in relationships is interesting.  The above data isn’t conclusive, but it converges with another pattern I’ve seen when comparing USC students to our sample.  Specifically, relationships appear to play a greater role in happiness in the general population rather than in our student samples.  Perhaps loneliness is a bigger issue in the real world than it is within the college campus environment.  Or perhaps paying attention to alternatives in relationships is less adaptive as you get older.

- Ravi Iyer

Armando Galarraga demonstrates the relationship between happiness and forgiveness

Watching baseball can be a frivolous pursuit and a distraction from psychology research, but last night something happened which demonstrated a psychological finding far more effectively than any study or paper.

Armando Galarraga, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, was very close to pitching a perfect game. For non-baseball fans, its a very rare occurrence, comparable to other rare unpredictable events that take some amount of skill and luck, like bowling 300 or climbing Mount Everest and seeing the perfect sunset. Its something you can work hard for, but even the best of pitchers may not achieve the feat.

On the very last batter that Galarraga had to get out, a close play occurred at first base, and the umpire incorrectly ruled the batter safe. TV replays have confirmed that the batter was actually out, and the umpire agrees he made a mistake. Still, Galarraga has been deprived of his perfect game.

Perfect games happen and personally, I dont normally care that much. But the reaction of Galarraga will make me a fan of his for life. Does anyone remember Roberto Alomar spitting at an umpire because of a relatively inconsequential strike call? Some have called Galarraga the anti-Alomar for his forgiving reaction. Watch how Galarraga smiles after the play or watch his reaction in the below video, talking about it later.

Galarraga’s remarkably calm and forgiving reaction has led to a series of articles talking about him, probably a lot more than if he had completed his perfect game. He plans to shake hands publicly with Jim Joyce, the umpire who missed the call, and present him with the lineup card in the next game, in a public show of forgiveness in front of thousands of fans who might otherwise be irate at Joyce the entire next game.

Personally, I learned something from Galaragga’s reaction that I’ll take with me the next time I am wronged. Its something subtle and true about the power of forgiveness…something that I always know, but often dont have the strength or awareness to practice. Galaragga is not just reducing the amount of animosity in the world, but he is also ensuring his own happiness.

Studies confirm the relationship between being a forgiving person and being a happier person (Maltby, Day, Barber, 2005). Below is a graph of our data showing the relationship between forgiveness of others (using the Heartland Forgiveness Scale – “I continue to punish a person who has done something that I think is wrong.”) and satisfaction with life (“The conditions of my life are excellent.”). As in the Maltby et. al study, forgiving people are indeed happier.


It may not have been a perfect game….but it was as close to a perfect reaction as we generally see and I’m hopeful this story will be remembered far more than if an actual perfect game had occurred. It’s a stark contrast to the ugliness we often see in most news and politics. As Galarraga put it himself, everything happens for a reason.

- Ravi Iyer

United States Gross Domestic Product vs. Gross National Happiness

I recently read this blog post by Justin Wolfers defending the use of United States gross domestic product rather than measures of subjective well being (e.g. gross national happiness) to measure how well our country is doing.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with this debate, you can see this below video or this link to the Sarkozy Commission Report which prompted the French president to similarly question whether the French are using the right indicators to measure societal progress in their country.


Personally, I think this ends up being a subjective rather than an objective question and I think it’s likely that people who are productivity oriented will never be convinced to use happiness measures primarily and that those who are care oriented will never be convinced to use GDP.  I’m currently working on a paper detailing why I think that this question of the ‘right indicators’ is a subjective rather than an objective question that depends on one’s goals, warmth or competence.

Using more objective criteria, Wolfer’s argument is that perhaps gross domestic product and measures of subjective well being are so highly correlated that there is no need to use new measures of psychological well being.  If they are so highly correlated, maybe there is no need to measure both.  I disagree for 2 reasons:

1.  The correlations he uses are with log transformed values of income and most people care about actual dollar values rather than log transformed values.  Consider this excerpt from the paper referenced:

Most early studies considered the relationship between the level of absolute income and the level of happiness, and thus often found a curvilinear relationship.In some cases the lack of evidence of a clear linear relationship between GDP per capita and happiness led to theories of a satiation point, beyond which more income would not increase happiness. A more natural starting point might be to represent well-being as a function of the logarithm of income rather than absolute income. And indeed, recent research has shown that within countries “the supposed attenuation at higher income levels of the happiness-income relation does not occur when happiness is regressed on log income, rather than absolute income kamagra oral jelly price in india.” However, if happiness is linearly related to log income in the within-country cross section,then cross-country studies should also examine the relationship between average levels of subjective well-being and average levels of log income.

This is a very good academic point about satiation points, and it may be true that doubling the income of someone who makes a million dollars a year produces the same increase in happiness that doubling the income of someone who makes $20,000 a year.  But for the same million dollars that it takes to double a rich person’s salary, we can create the same amount of subjective well being in 50 people who make $20,000 per year (50*20,000=1 million).  That fact is lost in a log transformed graph.  Real world allocation decisions are made with actual dollars, not log transformed dollars, which removes the skew that represents the United States’ actual distribution of wealth.  (ps. feel free to correct me if anyone reading this knows more about log transformation than I and I’ll edit this)


2.  Life Satisfaction, Happiness, and Smiling/Laughing are different things and the fault may be in the measurement of subjective well being failing to tap what Kennedy was talking about in his speech.  If I ask you how satisfied you are with your life, a large part of your answer may have to do with your current economic circumstances.  Wolfers and Stevenson do a good job in their paper of examining questions about life satisfaction and happiness separately and conclude reasonably that the measures are similar if we throw out outliers.  However, when we look at a question like “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?”, the correlation goes down to .27 from .82 (which was the correlation between log GDP/capita and life satisfaction).  


Try answering this question-> “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days-would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”  What did you base your answer on?  Was it somewhat about your economic circumstances or work goals?  

Now ask yourself if you smiled or laughed a lot lately.  What was your answer based on? 

If you are like me, these questions tap very different parts of my life.  My thoughts naturally go to my progress with goals in question 1, whereas when asked about smiling/laughing, I tend to think of my day-to-day experiences.  There is a big difference between remembered happiness and experienced happiness.  General global assessments may indeed be related to economic well being, but perhaps the fault lies in the blunt ways we measure happiness where we don’t really know whether the person is talking about being satisfied, joyous, lacking anxiety, feeling engaged, etc…  When asked about things which tap these more discrete constructs, GDP doesn’t seem to capture them very well at all.   According to the Gallup World Poll data reported by Wolfers, having learned something interesting was uncorrelated with log GDP.  Feeling love is correlated .14.  Smiling/laughing, with a correlation of .27 with log GDP/capita, leaves a lot of unexplained variance that ought to be considered in policy making. 

To be fair, Wolfers himself acknowledges that “we can do a lot better” in measuring well being in previous posts and his defense of GDP is more to play devil’s advocate as he states that he agrees with criticisms of the over-use of United States Gross Domestic Product to measure our country’s progress.  I learned a lot in writing this post and will be following his well written blog and research closely in the hopes that it spurs more thought elaboration.



What the positive psychology approach can learn from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided

As a liberal social psychologist who has helped create a science of positive psychology course at the University of Southern California, I could not help but be interested in Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Bright-Sided, which states how the positive psychology approach (in academia, business, health, and economics) has undermined America.  First, I would think we would have a lot in common given her unabashedly liberal bent and my generally liberal orientation.  The fact that an intelligent liberal person would be so upset by one of my primary chosen areas of research, and that enough others agree with her that a book got published, bears noting.  As well, one area that I’ve always been interested in researching is the idea of expanding our moral imagination.  Along the lines of Robert Wright’s idea that confrontational zero-sum situations lead to more misery in the world, it seems important that I practice what I hope to eventually preach and attempt to actually learn something from her book, rather than dismiss it.  For those of you who haven’t read the book, here is an entertaining interview that summarizes many points.



There are some definite points to agree upon in her interview and the book.  She was clearly negatively impacted by those who somewhat forcefully put forth the opinion that she should adopt the positive psychology approach given her cancer diagnosis.  ”The failure to think positively can weigh on a cancer patient like a second disease,” she writes (p.43).  Some people believe that there is a connection between having a positive attitude and cancer outcomes and Ehrenreich goes on to dispute this.  A review of the literature on health and happiness is beyond the scope of this post and really should be beyond the scope of her book, let alone the few pages she devotes to serious study of it.  She is a journalist not a scholar and she touches on only a brief part of this immense literature, with a lack of depth that would never work in a scholarly setting.  Her book does not have the kind of literature review that really can get at complexities and she seems to have relied on “a list of articles…compiled for me by Seligman” rather than doing her own in-depth research.  She ignores a large literature on stress as having no relationship to happiness research and intermixes research on the effects of feeling happy on cancer vs. other health outcomes.  People who study cancer and positive illusions agree that “there is no evidence that positive illusions can cure cancer,” but that is not the only health-happiness relationship worth studying.  Ehrenreich herself writes on p. 162 “The evidence that positive emotions can protect against coronary heart disease seems sturdier, although I am not in a position to evaluate it.”  It certainly is more complex than “being positive”=”being healthy”.  But the health-happiness relationship is also not as simplistically non-existent as she represents in her media interviews, and she is possibly doing harm to others by representing the research as simplistically (the very charge she levels at others).

That being said, positive psychologists and those they inspire likely were doing harm to her and others like her.  On page 42 of her book (my hardcover edition), she writes that “without question there is a problem when positive thinking fails and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment.  Then the patient can only blame herself.”  This is an important point that advocates of positivity should note.  It may work for some people, but it doesn’t work for everyone and if someone wants to be grumpy because they have cancer, they should feel supported in those feelings, not attacked.  As Ehrenreich puts it, “She took it personally.”  A more complex reading of the psychology literature would lead Ehrenreich and positive psychologists to the conclusion that acceptance of feelings (e.g. meditation) is important.  Perhaps some of the error lies in the idea that “positive psychology” is a separate discipline from psychology when in reality, there are no clear distinctions.

The fact that Ehrenreich is able to caricature positive psychology as “be positive” is unfortunate. It would be easy to place the blame on Ehrenreich for failing to dig much deeper than the works cited by Martin Seligman, who has his own detractors in academia.  But it is certainly true that positive psychology would do well to examine the ways that it can get it’s findings out without being so easy to caricature.  How was Ehrenreich so easily able to dismiss the robust research on stress and health?  Perhaps because positive psychology overly focuses on activated emotions such as joy rather than deactivated emotions such as contentment?  Or perhaps positive psychology needs to incorporate previous research on stress and not pretend that it is a completely new discipline?

Ehrenreich seems to have a particular concern about synthetic happiness vs. real happiness, feeling as she states in her interview with Stewart, “I never believe delusion is ok.”  In the personal realm, I have to side with positive psychologists as the evidence is overwhelming that circumstances matter less than we think in terms of our own happiness.  Human beings get used to things and those that don’t are who we call clinically depressed.  Dan Gilbert puts in best in this video:

 However, even if synthetic happiness is the same as real happiness, there are kernels of wisdom in Ehrenreich’s criticism.  Believing that one can synthesize money is different from changing one’s perspective toward money (e.g. being grateful for the comforts we have) and some new age interpretations of positivity are a bit ahead of the curve of what can be called science.  It is true that people are attracted to happy people, wanting to be around them in business environments, which likely leads to a link between happiness and wealth.  Ehrenreich acknowledges this, but calls this a bias that needs to be corrected.  That seems more like an opinion, as I think it’s reasonable for many to prefer the company of happy people, both in dating and in the workplace.  However, I can see how those who are naturally less positive might feel discriminated against or even feel like something is wrong with them as a result.

Positive psychology and spirituality is not for everybody.  Ehrenreich admits to being an atheist in her book (p.17 – “atheists pray in their foxholes”).  I, on the other hand, often attend a new age church where the preacher was actually in The Secret.  Still, I have always been uncomfortable with the idea that people use spiritual principles to manifest wealth, as many at my church believe, and instead choose to interpret wealth as meaning the inner wealth that we all have.  Getting off the treadmill which says we constantly need more money is the key to wealth, not having more stuff.  That’s my opinion, but  I don’t feel particularly upset that others around me might feel something different.  If you watch Stewart’s interview, you’ll notice that he tries to frame positivity similarly saying that if it works for other people, why does Ehrenreich have a problem with it?  Ehrenreich doesn’t give an inch.  The anger she feels for her cancer experience is palpable (and legible in her book).  Isn’t it just as wrong to try to force everyone to be ‘realistic’ (put in quotes as one person’s realism is another person’s delusion) as it is to force everyone to be positive?  I often write about moral confabulation in this blog and I would hypothesize that Ehrenreich’s moral outrage about positivity is somewhat more about her personal feelings than her research.  I say that not to dismiss her book, which gives voice to a very real sentiment shared by many, but rather to point out a very real hazard of the phenomenon of studying happiness.  Specifically, it can wound people when forced upon them and cause a great deal of psychological reactance.  Advocates of the science of studying happiness and the positive psychology approach to health maintenance would benefit from reading her book and learning about her perspective.  It’s not the only perspective, but it’s an important one to listen to.

Gratitude Video from Conan O’Brien and Louis CK

People who study happiness can be annoying in their pollyannish prescriptions to just look on the bright side of life.  Just ask Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.  So it’s always refreshing to see someone put basic research findings (being grateful is important) into more common sense language as in the below video.


Louis CK “Everything’s amazing, nobody’s happy” – Watch more Sports Videos at Vodpod.

Facebook Launches Gross National Happiness Index

Facebook just launched a gross national happiness index which uses analysis of words used in Facebook posts to measure the country’s mood. I’m sure those who study the taxonomy of emotion would love to see more complex measures included. However, this is a potentially wonderful tool and the fact that Facebook is willing to publish this data means that someday they could end up allowing the research community to examine their data. The possibilities are endless.

Some interesting trends from their limited graph….

Thanksgiving (2 years running) is the most positive day of the year…social pressure to be thankful?  Does it mean people are happier or not?

Why is the day after Father’s day the least positive day (they have separate indexes for positivity and negativity)?

Why is the 4th of July the least negative day?

Click here to view the index