Positive psychology is mainly for rich white people

Positive psychology gurus and coaches give lots of advice about how we should lead our lives. Their threat is that if we don’t follow their advice, we will not only be unhappy, we risk sickness and death.

bright sidedWhen Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking  Has Undermined America was published outside of the United States, the book was retitled Smile or Die. The publisher was concerned that non-native English speakers might not understand the play on words in the original title. I think the retitling is actually more apt in capturing the message of positive psychology: buy our advice, buy our books, attend our workshops or die.smile or die

Positive psychology claims to distinguish itself from New Age hucksters and silliness because it is based on solid science, top notch research. These claims have recently fallen on hard times.

First, there was the savaging of Barbara Fredrickson’s absurdly precise positivity ratio. She had claimed in books and workshops that a balance of 2.9013 of positive to negative feelings was necessary to flourish. A team consisting of a psychology graduate student, a psychology professor, and a physicist critically examined the original journal article, Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing , on which these claims were based. They concluded

We find no theoretical or empirical justification for the use of differential equations drawn from fluid dynamics, a subfield of physics, to describe changes in human emotions over time; furthermore, we demonstrate that the purported application of these equations contains numerous fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors.

One of the authors physicist Alan Sokal later remarked

“The main claim made by Fredrickson and Losada is so implausible on its face that some red flags ought to have been raised.”

Then there was the demise of Fredricksons claim to have used genomic analysis to resolve the classic question of whether people should just strive for happiness (hedonic well being) or pursue meaning (eudaimonic well-being) in their lives. Frederickson claimed to find that  “hedonic and eudaimonic well-being engage distinct gene regulatory programs despite their similar effects on total well-being and depressive symptoms” and came down on the side of striving for meaningfulness.

Fredrickson explained to her results to the media

“It’s not the amount of hedonic happiness that’s a problem…It’s that it’s not matched by eudaimonic well-being. It’s great when both are in step. But if you have more hedonic well-being than would be expected, that’s when this [gene] pattern that’s akin to adversity emerged.”

So, the heading of an Atlantic Monthly article:

People who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity.

The basis for the claims had appeared in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). But I showed in a blog post that like the positivity ratio, these claims were based on statistical nonsense. The Short Flourishing Scale supposedly measures distinct concepts of eudaimonic well-being versus hedonic well-being. But scores were so highly correlated (.71)  that two could be considered to be assessing facets of the same characteristic. It is only by voodoo statistics that they could be shown to be related differently to gene expression. Complicated multivariate statistical analyses were used to produce results that were an artifact of the analyses, not the patterns in the original data.

I examined the original reports concerning the scales and the data presented in Fredricksons PNAS paper and I could not understand the basis for her claim that these scales provided valid and reliable assessments of personal characteristics. The supposedly contrasting scales certainly did not have a needed discriminant validity for measuring two distinct concepts. To examine content validity, I looked at the actual items. I found some particularly serious problems with the measure of eudaimonic Well-Being.

The general question is phrased “During the past month how often did you feel…?” And the six response options are “never, once or twice, about once a week, about two or three times a week, almost every day, or every day.” The specific items to be evaluated were

  • that you had something important to contribute to society,
  • that you belonged to a community (like a social group, your school, or your neighborhood)
  • that our society is a good place, or is becoming a better place, for all people
  • that people are basically good
  • that the way our society works made sense to you

The documentation for the scale  cautions:

The original wording for item 6 was “that our society is becoming a better place for people like you.” This item does not work in all cultural contexts.

Indeed.  But I think there are more defects in the construction of this  scale.

Positive psychology has been criticized as overemphasizing the potential of individuals to transcend their circumstances. Not every life context affords the same opportunities for flourishing. The promise that “smile, think positive thoughts, and you will be happy and healthy” underestimates the importance of social context for psychological well-being and health. Look at these items with that criticism in mind.

It would be fascinating to do a cognitive interview assessment of what respondents are actually thinking about when they complete the items. I think there are strong class and minority/majority differences. Certainly, white people in the suburbs have many more opportunities to draw upon than low income minority persons to feel they contributed something to society and much more basis for concluding that our society is a good place and the way it works makes sense.

In its pencil and paper and online self assessments, positive psychology assumes that it is personal characteristics that are being assessed and that they are modifiable with the advice and exercises that the workshops and the books provide. The emphasis on character and character-building is neo-Victorian. Positive psychology assumes that life is a level playing field except for the advantages or disadvantages that people have created for themselves. It is not circumstances that matter,  so much as what we think about them.

Once we acknowledge the contribution of social economic circumstances, it can be readily seen that for many people, it is not personal characteristics driving responses to these items. In the case of the poor and minorities and other disadvantaged people, responses can be driven by overwhelmingly crushing characteristics of their circumstances.

Undoubtedly, rich white persons in the suburbs are more likely to score high on these measures. Positive psychology is applied ideology, not science, in encouraging them to congratulate themselves on the personal achievement the high score represents.  And if they are still unhappy or in ill health, the problem lies with the personal characteristics and their modifiable attitudes.

As for the poor and disadvantaged, the physically ill, they have only themselves to blame. As a wealthy positive psychology entrepreneur recently declared “Your attitude is the reason you are poor.” He went on to cite Barbara Frederickson:

In an article in the Journal of Business Venturing, leading positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson found positive emotions help build essential resources for entrepreneurs. Among those resources, the top three she found were social capital, resilience, and big picture thinking.

“It’s not just one of those things that’s going to matter more than the others,” Fredrickson said. “All three are part of a larger web that creates an upward spiral.”

So what is the solution to poverty and social inequality?  Poor people have to think positive, start smiling and expressing gratitude. What a program for individual and social change– or a shameful fraud. As Barbara Ehrenrich has pointed out in Bright-Sided (or Smile or Die), the downside of this ideology is personal self-blame and national denial. Reviewing Bright-Sided, Thomas Frank remarked:

We’re always being told that looking on the bright side is good for us, but now we see that it’s a great way to brush off poverty, disease, and unemployment, to rationalize an order where all the rewards go to those on top. The people who are sick or jobless—why, they just aren’t thinking positively. They have no one to blame but themselves.


34 thoughts on “Positive psychology is mainly for rich white people”

  1. Thanks, interesting analysis.

    However I don’t understand why you say “white people in the suburbs” — does this mean that Michael Bloomberg doesn’t have many “opportunities to draw upon”?


    1. Now that is a complex question. It is a source of considerable irritation that Oprah promotes all things positive including (ugh!) The Secret. Some of the appeal is to her business sense that has nothing to do with her race that this sells, it has popular appeal. Some comes from the traditional fusing of New Thought and African American religion captured in Father Divine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Father_Divine) and “God wants me to be rich, maybe he wants you to be rich too” street corner preachers. And upsetting as I find Oprah’s embracing of positive thinking, I sometimes cut her some slack because I get the self-rationaling, guilt reducing appeal of thinking that upward mobility is primarily the result of one’s own efforts.


    2. Oprah’s primary market seems to me to be traditional, white, lower-to-middle-middle class women. Not African-American people. Not upper-middle class people. Not poor people.


      1. The quick googling brought up a 2007 article which claims:

        “Eleven percent of all older black women watch Oprah, and 7% of all older white women watch the show everyday.
        “Oprah’s audience is also predominantly white: 5.9 million of whites watch Oprah, compared with 1.4 million blacks.”

        Given that 13% of the US population is black and 17% of Oprah’s audience is, I’d hesitate to characterize her audience as simply being white. But I suspect the class characteristics are the same for her white and black viewers.


  2. Officially, positive psychology is not about (or just about) positive thinking. It’s about allowing yourself to experience things that will lead to positive emotions, and this is “proved” by counting those emotions But there are many things wrong with this, starting with /a/ the fact that counting every single positive thing as 1.00 positive emotions is absurd (I found a dollar in my winter coat pocket = I saw a beautiful sunset = I held my new-born child for the first time) and /b/ no account is taken of time (I forgot the dollar a minute after I spent it, but the sunset was on my honeymoon). Because our proxies for emotions are so implausible (typically, simple questionnaires), we don’t have a clue how people are feeling. We only know how they say that they think they are feeling. Each of those two extra steps introduces an amount of fuzziness that I’m going to assert, without evidence, is a standard deviation either way. (Hey, the people who created these proxies implicitly asserted, equally without evidence, that they introduce no fuzziness whatsoever!)

    In my more cynical moments, I call it “Desperate Housewives psychology”. That would be sexist, except for the capital letters: I really mean this in terms of the TV series of that name. People with wealthy but empty lives don’t need happiness, they need meaning. Of course, the positive psychology marketing people have caught on to that – hence the hyping of “eudaimonic” happiness – but the problem is that true meaning is, by definition, not something that can be sold. Not that this will stop several positive psychology people from writing self-help books based on their individual take on the subject, of course.


  3. “is only by voodoo statistics ” or voodoo corruption in the publishing industry that would publish such garbage. Oppps! We made a mis-step and we neither confirm nor deny a position on this article…

    What a joke. It bothers me that I was rejected by these schools/programs because of GRE scores when they (GRE’s) apparently correlate highly with lying. Guess I’m glad i got a 940 🙂


  4. About twenty years ago, we discovered that global self-reports of well-being (also known as happiness) are reasonably reliable and valid. Previously, philosophers and most psychologists presumed that happiness is hopelessly complex and mysterious. Maybe not so much.

    These findings raised hopes of wonderful new therapy and self-help methods. They also raised hope that gross national happiness might replace gross domestic product as the benchmark for economists.

    Looking back, these hopes were naive. We found out in 1887 that she speed of light is invariant. It took us forty years more to figure out the general theory of relativity, another decade or two for quantum mechanics. Eight decades later, fundamental features of the universe remain mysterious. These things take time.

    I’ve been following Positive Psychology since it’s earliest beginnings. I’m the author of a moderately successful self-help book related to Positive Psychology. At this point, I’m forced to admit, with some disappointment, that Positive Psychology has probably not increased the net happiness of the human race one iota, in spite of many self-help books and blogs, published articles, and so on. I expect that to remain so for many years.


  5. I think that the UK’s biopsychosocial reforms to social insurance are a prime example of these problems. I’ll post some links for anyone interested in further reading.

    Recent Guardian piece on dodgy/inspiring psych evaluation some claimants were made to take: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/may/06/jobseekers-psychometric-test-failure

    Lengthy piece by a disability activist: http://internationalgreensocialist.wordpress.com/illness-as-deviance-work-as-glittering-salvation-and-the-psyching-up-of-the-medical-model-strategies-for-getting-the-sick-back-to-work/

    The Aylward paper being citied by Ministers to justify the construction of a new understanding of disability and the sickness role: http://www.craigliebenson.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Models-final-proofs2.pdf


  6. Thanks James. I made some similar criticisms of Positive Psychology (calling it neo-Victorian as well) here:


    Have you read Neal Stephenson’s book, The Diamond Age, which I think came up with the phrase ‘neo-Victorian’? It’s about a self-help ebook, a sort of primer for good character, which a neo-Victorian builds for his granddaughter. It gets stolen, and ends up in the hands of a street kid, who reads it and manages to take on some of its wisdom. That doesn’t make it sound very interesting – it is! It’s a cyberpunk classic.

    It makes a good point – there is such a thing as ‘life wisdom’ which can be useful to people regardless of their class or social circumstance.

    The wisdom in Positive Psychology mainly comes from ancient Greek philosophy and Buddhism – both of which inspired Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. CBT is the good stuff in Positive Psychology, beneath all the pseudo-science and hype. CBT basically says, how you feel is connected to how you think about things, so we can learn to take responsibility for our thoughts and feelings, and cultivate a resilient attitude in the face of adversity.

    That message can easily become over-individualistic and apolitical – if you’re poor and depressed, that’s all on you, bud. It ignores the socio-economic context of our emotions.

    However, one can easily go too far the other way – our emotions are *entirely* caused by our socio-economic circumstances, and the only cure for depression is a complete social revolution.

    The middle way is to recognise that we have some control over our thoughts and feelings, but that social and economic conditions also play a big role – therefore there’s no call for rich white happy people to be smug about being happy, it may simply be their resilience is as yet untested.


  7. Thank you so much for calling out this flawed study but I think the problem goes far beyond the multivariate statistics.

    In its conception, positive psychology was supposed to be about helping already healthy people optimize their lives as opposed to traditional psychology’s role of helping people in distress return to normalcy. Junk science and woo-woo self-help isn’t going to cut it and this is exactly what Ms. Fredrickson, et al, have produced here.

    My main problem with the study is with the questionnaire. Most of the questions can be construed as eudaimonic happiness and the few (there are only a few to begin with, which is another problem) that might reflect more transient hedonic states are vague. Altogether, the study is a waste of genetic testing. Simply asking these two questions would probably have given better results, though some testing would be needed to be sure:

    How true for your life are these statements (1-7):
    I have plenty enjoyable experiences
    I feel satisfied with my life

    Then there is the fundamental premise, which goes back as far as Aristotle, that there is a essential difference between hedonia and eudaimonia. Where’s the science to demonstrate that these are not simply the same thing to different degrees just as latent heat can be described as cold (melancholia), pleasantly warm (eudaimonia), and hot (hedonia). Neuroscience should be able to provide an answer to this question. So far, I haven’t seen one but my hypothesis is that the mechanisms that regulate one state are the same as those that regulate the other states.

    Then there is the definition of happiness, which is generally all over the map conflating various aspects with the thing itself. Without a clear definition, how can we know what we’re talking about? Here’s how I define happiness:

    Happiness is when your life fulfills your needs.

    My research shows that those needs can be organized into 9 categories that go by the acronym WE PROMISE:
    Wellbeing, Environment, Pleasure, Relationships, Outlook, Meaning, Involvement, Success, and Elasticity.

    There is no question that your personality, experiences, and opportunities all affect your ability to fulfill your needs but they also affect how strongly you feel the specific needs within each category. Positive psychology and most self-help makes the mistake of assuming that there is a single “right” answer for everyone.

    The truth is, we’re all uniquely human. We share the same basic needs but we don’t need them all in the same way.

    If you want happiness, eudaimonic and hedonic, figure out what you can do to make your life fulfill your needs. When you can’t change your life, then you can work to change your mind and reduce that need.

    Wealth, poverty, and skin color have little to do with happiness. The happiest people I ever met lived in some of the most basic of conditions high in the Nepal Himalayas. What did those poor, dark skinned people have? Just what they needed.

    What positive psychology needs is answers over optimism. Where it can deliver that, it’s not just more woo-woo for the rich but a real boon to society.

    Kenneth Benjamin
    Founder and Chief Happiness Officer
    Happiness International


  8. You make some sound judgements on the methods and errors made by Fredickson and make some valid points on the over emphasis on some of the more shallow aspects. However, you continually refer to positive psychology as being about ‘positive thinking’ when academics in this area have long strived to make the point that positive psychology is not about positive thinking at at all.

    You also refer to positive psychology interventions as ‘poor people have to think positive, start smiling and expressing gratitude’. Are you confusing all positive psychology research and interventions on Fredrickson’s positive emotions research? What about resilience training, grit, mindset, mastery, relationship building, engagement, compassion etc.?

    It would be an interesting article if it was a little more balanced but it just focuses on some small parts of positive psychology, throws in a controversial headline and attempts to discredit all of the valid research in the area based on the debunking one one academic’s studies. I think you’d do well writing for the Daily Mail.


    1. Mark, you suggest “resilience training, grit, mindset, mastery, relationship building, engagement, compassion etc.” Whatever is effective here is not new to positive psychology, and whatever new is not effective.

      Where do you find ‘balanced’ discussion of the limits of research within the positive psychology or even acknowledgments of the limitations of research or of the effectiveness of positive psychology interventions? For an academic discussion in the peer review literature, you might start with my article

      Coyne, J.C.; Tennen, H.
      Positive psychology in cancer care: bad science, exaggerated claims, and unproven medicine
      Annals of Behavioral Medicine 2010; 39: 16-26



  9. I very sincerely wish positive psychology (as well as most of the field of academic psychology) would spend some serious time in self-reflection. If sincere (and capable) they would likely find that there is much (very much) in need of doing with respect to conceptual analysis (what we now have is method-driven stipulation about the veracity of the assumed mechanisms of mind) leaving explanatory analysis in the dark of the still extant black box.

    the continued refrain that psychology is a science due to the adoption of scientific method is a sad failure to understand the difference between necessity and sufficiency.

    Reduction of the experience of happiness and contentment (in all its vast experientially given realizations) to likert scale markings is a sad comment on the level of intellectual analysis of one’s target.


  10. A very interesting read and very helpful. I note that you touch on the research in to positive psychology and its biases.
    Johnathan Haidt (2012) makes the very valid point that most psychological research is based upon “WEIRD” people (Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic) and does not represent the bulk of the species. therefore virtually all research is biased toward a particular (minority) population.
    one of your commentators also conflates positive psychology with solution focus practice. nothing could be further from the truth and if the commentator knew anything about SFP they would realise that “positive thinking” is not part of the process when good SFP is practiced. SFP relies on the person to provide their own answers – it is the questions asked by the practitioner that are the springboard for the important answers made by the client.


  11. You raise some valid points, and I love Barb, but there’s a few issues.

    First of all: Of course some kinds of psychology will mostly be for affluent folks like white Westerners. That’s because the barriers to their happiness no longer are the kinds that are physical or resource-based. The Dalai Lama made this same point in Ethics for the New Millennium. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t value there. It doesn’t even mean that poorer people couldn’t benefit from those tools if they could be made cost-effective, as I hope indeed they would be.

    Second: Positive psychology is a massive discipline with decades of research. I see you rebut Fredrickson here, and I agree that my bullshit detector flared up the moment I was told there’s a specific ratio of negative to positive feelings (like, really? how can you quantify a feeling? does that conclusion apply to people in different cultures?), but that doesn’t mean the entire discipline has no resources that couldn’t be applied to people of low SES or people in non-Western countries.

    Third: You make some outright silly arguments. Yeah, of course it can suck to be poor. But there are poor people who are happier than rich people by large margins. They have other kinds of resources, psychological or practical, like a rich community or a sense of purpose. I have a background in sociology so of course SES, race, gender, etc. come into play, but so too do psychological traits.

    Buddhism worked for millennia because it pointed out, to poor and rich alike, that our suffering is often a result of negative thoughts and attitudes. CBT and REBT’s tremendous success rate confirms that. Psychology’s a growing discipline and lots of specific methodologies and claims are likely to be revealed to be false or poorly understood, but it strikes me that having a focus on the positive rather than the negative has tremendous value.


    1. You preach nonsense. “CBT abd REBT’s tremendous success rates”? What planet are you writing from? Poor people happier than the rich by “large margins”? Show me some decent positive psychology research that has not been borrowed and repackaged.


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