June 18, 2014

The Latest in Positive Psychology

New Thinking about Positive Psychology


As many of you know I have the extraordinary opportunity to get together once a year with some of the best thinkers in happiness. The group, called "Project Plus," has included luminaries such as Mathieu Ricard, Ed Diener, Darrin McMahon, John Helliwell, and Aaron Ahuvia. It is an interdisciplinary group drawing on anthropology, philosophy, economics and other disciplines. I am always challenged to expand my thinking when we meet and I thought I would pass on some insights to you. 


If you keep up-- even in passing-- with happiness and positive psychology you are likely aware of a few major research theories and findings. For instance, you probably know about Sonja Lyubomirsky's "pie chart" in which she argues that 50% of the variability in happiness is due to genetic factors while 10% is due to circumstances and the remaining 40% attributable to personal choices. This is a popular theory, based on research, and many fans of positive psychology accept it uncritically. 


Here's the problem: Let's look at another extremely popular finding in positive psychological research. What is the one variable that researchers return to time and again as being among the most important for a person's happiness? The answer: social relationships. People with strong, supportive social relationships tend to be happier than those who don't. How does this widely accepted finding jive with the pie chart? If external circumstances only account for 10% of the variability in happiness are we making too much of our bonds with other people? Should we be focusing on genetic interventions? 


At the heart of these sticky questions is the issue of whether there is better utility in trying to promote happiness by changing our external circumstances (get married, make some money, take a vacation) or by changing our internal circumstances (appreciate small things, accept our limitations, forgive others). 


To date, positive psychology researchers have created a wide range of simple, happiness-promoting interventions. They have found that counting kindnesses, spending money on others, recording gratitude in a journal, savoring experiences and forgiving others all seem to promote happiness. Interestingly, these strategies can be roughly divided into changing one's mind (cultivating gratitude and forgiving others) and changing one's circumstances (building relationships and helping others). 


By looking at positive psychology in this way we might open our eyes to the potential of changing our circumstances. There is, currently, a bias among lay people toward changing thoughts in order to change feelings. There is an intuitive sense that life circumstances are just too out of our control while the contents of our heads are within our dominion. 


I am certainly not arguing against trying to change your mind. I think that acceptance, forgiveness, and savoring are wonderful. I would just caution against the "buck stops here" mentality that says all happiness is simply a choice that happens inside me. 


Once you free yourself from this mindset it opens the door to a really intriguing new question: whose responsibility is happiness? If you think that you are ultimately in charge of your own well-being it can sever the connection you have with others because it implies that they all should equally watch out for themselves. 


My colleagues and I at Project Plus frame happiness in terms of "co-responsibility." Not only should you employ internal strategies to make yourself happier but you ought to work on external circumstances to improve the happiness of others. By doing so you can set the stage for a loop that pays off happiness dividends for everyone. It's what Barb Fredrickson calls an "upward spiral." 



 My challenge for you over the coming weeks is to take a simple action to improve your external life circumstances or those of others. As always, I would absolutely love to hear about what you did and it's effect.



--Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener
The Science of Happiness

 For the first time in two  years I am offering a  Master Class in the Science of Happiness. The course begins in the fall and we will cover recent developments, future trends, and surprisingly fresh takes on familiar topics. We are keeping class size to only 20 people. You can find out more at: 


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 Dr. Robert Biswas Diener and Positive Acorn