Will following positive psychology advice make you happier and healthier?

smile or dieSmile or Die the European retitling of Barbara Ehrenreich’s realist, anti-positive-psychology book Bright Sided:How Positive Thinking Is Undermining Americacaptures the threat of some positive psychology marketers’ advice: if you do not buy what we sell, you will face serious consequences to your health.

Barbara Fredrickson, along with co-authors including Steven Cole, make the threat that if we simply pursue pleasure in our lives rather than meaning, there will be dire consequences for our immune system by way of the effects on genomic expression.

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.

A group consisting of Nick Brown, Doug McDonald, Manoj Samanta, Harris Friedman and myself obtained and reanalyzed the data on which Fredrickson et al based their claim. We concluded:

Not only is Fredrickson et al.’s article conceptually deficient, but more crucially statistical analyses are fatally flawed, to the point that their claimed results are in fact essentially meaningless.

objecrtive approach to moralIn workshops, books, and lucrative talks to corporate gatherings, Fredrickson promises that practicing the loving-kindness meditation that she markets will send you on an upward spiral of physical and mental health that ends who knows where.

My co-authors – this time, Nick Brown, Harris Friedman and James Heathers– and I examined her paper and obtained her data. Re-analyses found no evidence that loving-kindness meditation improved physical health. The proxy measure for physical health in this study – cardiac vagal tone – is not actually reliably related to objective measures of physical health and probably wouldn’t be accepted in other contexts. And it was not affected by loving-kindness meditation anyway.

Katrinaloverimages http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/katerinalover/images/30154750/title/dont-worry-happy-photo

The simplest interpretation of Fredrickson’s interrelated and perhaps overlapping studies of loving-kindness meditation is that lots of people drop out from follow-up and any apparent effect of the meditation is actually due to unexplained deterioration in the control group. And though data concerning the participants’ practice of mediation were collected, none were presented concerning whether participants assigned to mediation actually practiced it or how it affected physical and mental health outcomes. Why were the data collected if they were not going to be reported? They could be used to address the crucial question of whether actually practicing meditation affects health and well-being.

Another queen of positive psychology advice, Sonia Lyubomirsky, proclaims in a highly cited paper:

The field of positive psychology is young, yet much has already been accomplished that practitioners can effectively integrate into their daily practices. As our metaanalysis confirms, positive psychology interventions can materially improve the wellbeing of many.

I showed these claims are based on a faulty meta-analysis of methodologically-poor studies. In addition to Lyubomirsky’s highly-cited meta-analysis, I examined a more recent and better meta-analysis by Bolier and colleagues. It showed that the smaller and poorer-quality a study of positive psychology interventions is, the stronger the effect size. With the more recent studies included in Bolier’s meta-analysis, I concluded:

The existing literature does not provide robust support for the efficacy of positive psychology interventions for depressive symptoms. The absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of an absence of an effect. However, more definitive conclusions await better quality studies with adequate sample sizes and suitable control of possible risk of bias. Widespread dissemination of positive psychology interventions, particularly with glowing endorsements and strong claims of changing lives, is premature in the absence of evidence they are effective.

I’m quite confident that this conclusion holds for effects on positive affect and general well-being as well.

Actually, when Lyubomirsky attempted to demonstrate the efficacy she claims for positive psychology interventions, she obtained null results but relegated her findings to a book chapter that was not peer reviewed. Yet, her marketing of the claim that positive psychology interventions improve well-being continues undaunted and gets echoed in the most recent papers coming out of the positive psychology community, such as:

Robust evidence exists that positive psychology interventions are effective in enhancing well-being and ameliorating depression.

Advice gurus claim that practicing positive psychology interventions will lead to health and well-being without a good scientific basis. But another literature attempts to identify small changes in everyday and laboratory behavior that can have lasting benefits. These studies are not explicitly evaluating interventions, but the claim is that they identify small behaviors with potentially big implications for well-being and happiness.

Let’s start with an example from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ):

Walk this way: Acting happy can make it so

Research shows people can improve their mood with small changes in behavior

Elizabeth Dunn, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, provides an orientation:

There are these little doses of social interactions that are available in our day” that can brighten our mood and create a sense of belonging. “I don’t think people recognize this.”

depressed postureThe article starts with a discussion of work by Johannes Michalak from the Department of Psychology and Psychotherapy at Witten Herdecke University, Germany. In one study, 30 depressed psychiatric inpatients were randomized to instructions to sit in either a slumped (n =15) or an upright (n =15) position and then completed a memory test. The idea is that an emotion like depression is embodied. Adopting a slumped posture should increase a depressive negative bias in recall. The abstract of the original article reports:

Upright-sitting patients showing unbiased recall of positive and negative words but slumped patients showing recall biased towards more negative words.

Michalak conducted another study in which the gait of 39 college students was manipulated with biofeedback so as to simulate either being depressed or nondepressed as they walked on a treadmill. During the period on the treadmill, the experimenter read 40 words to them and they were tested for recall. The abstract of the original study reports:

The difference between recalled positive and recalled negative words was much lower in participants who adopted a depressed walking style as compared to participants who walked as if they were happy.

As would be with expected with such small sample sizes, results were weak. Analyses were unnecessarily complicated. It’s not clear that effects would persist if more basic statistics were  presented. For instance, did patients assigned to the “depressive” slump condition in the first study recall fewer positive and more negative words, or both, or neither? Certainly in the second study with college students, there were no differences in recall of positive words and only small differences in recall of negative words. Claims in the abstract were based on the construction of a more complicated composite positive variable.

Michalak is following a familiar strategy in the positive psychology literature – indeed, one that is more widely followed in psychology: If you cannot obtain positive findings in straightforward, simple analyses, then (1) adopt flexible rules of analyses, such as selective introduction of covariates and making up new composite variables; (2) don’t report the simple statistics and analyses in tables where readers could check them; and (3) spin your results in the abstract because that is what most readers will rely on in deciding what your study found

Michalak claims that these studies point to manipulation of the embodiment of depression as a means of treating depression:

There is a mutual influence between mood and body and movement…There might be specific types of movements that are specific characteristics of depression and this feeds the lower mood. So it’s a vicious cycle.

Presumably, with this as a premise, depressed patients could obtain a clinically-significant improvement in mood if they sat up straight and walked faster. Maybe, but this is at best speculative and premature. Michalak does not directly test the take-away message the author of the WSJ article wants to give: Even if you are not depressed, you can improve you mood by sitting up straight and adopt what Michalak calls a “happy walking style.”

To be fair to Michalak, he may be pumping up the strength and significance of his findings and promoting himself a bit. But unlike the rest of the authors discussed in the WSJ article, he is not yet prematurely turning some scientific papers of modest significance and strength of findings into press releases, TED talks and positive psychology products like books and workshops.

But let’s turn to the work of Nicholas Epley that is next described in the article. Epley is a Professor of Behavioral Science, University of Chicago Booth School of Business and author of Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want. Epley does not have a TED talk, but got mentioned in the Business Blog of the Financial Times as not needing one. And he’s available through the Washington Speakers Bureau, whose website proclaims it is “connecting you with the world’s greatest minds”.

According to the WSJ article:

“I used to sit in quiet solitude on the train,” Dr. Epley said. “I don’t anymore. I know now from our data that learning something interesting about the person sitting next to me would be more fun than pretty much anything else I’d be doing then,” he said.

This is a reference to his article

Epley, N., & Schroeder, J. (2014). Mistakenly seeking solitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(5), 1980.

talking to strangersThe study actually involves trains, buses, and taxis and giving different participants instructions to either connect with strangers, remain disconnected, or commute as normal.

In the train experiment, a composite measure was substituted for a simpler measure of whether these various strategies made participants happier:

To obtain an overall measure of positivity, we first calculated positive mood (happy minus sad), then standardized positive mood and pleasantness, and then averaged those two measures into a single index.

Epley study one
Error bars represent the standard error around the mean of each condition.

A one-way analysis of variance indicated a significant difference among the three conditions (p< .05) explaining a modest 6% of participants’ variation in the composite measure of mood. However, consulting Figure 1 in the article suggests the effect was in the difference between instructions to remain disconnected versus the other two conditions, not between connecting with strangers versus commuting as normal. See an excerpt of Figure 1 to the left.

Results were somewhat stronger when the experiment was replicated on buses, (p = .02), with 10% of the variance in participant mood explained by the condition to which participants were assigned. See figure to the right.Epley bus experiment 2

When the experiment involved talking to a taxi driver, significant results were obtained (p <.01). But this time, pairwise differences between conditions were tested and there was no significant difference between the connecting and the control condition, only between the control condition and the condition in which participants were instructed not to talk to the taxi driver.

This may not be rocket science, but it is apparently worthy of press releases, media coverage, and positive psychology products. The results are overall weak and may even disappear in straightforward analyses with simple measures of happiness. The most robust interpretation I could construct was if someone asks you to refrain from talking to others on the train or bus or even a taxi driver, you probably should ignore them. I offer this advice for free, and have no intention of presenting it in a TED talk with unattributed anecdotes.

Re-enter Elizabeth Dunn, Associate Professor of Psychology at University of British Columbia. Dr. Dunn is the author of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, has presented a  TED talk. She is available as a speaker through the Lavin Agency, which according to its website, is “making the world a smarter place.” The WSJ article reports on:

Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2013). Is efficiency overrated? Minimal social interactions lead to belonging and positive affect. Social Psychological and Personality Science,

Participants were instructed to either avoid any unnecessary conversation with a barista at Starbuck’s and simply be efficient in getting their coffee or:

“have a genuine interaction with the cashier—smile, make eye contact to establish a connection, and have a brief conversation.”

The journal article reports that participants instructed to make a “genuine connection” had more positive affect and less negative affect than those instructed to avoid unnecessary conversation. Unfortunately, unlike the Epley experiment, we are not given any comparison with a control condition, which would’ve clarified whether the effect was primarily due to instructing participants to have a “genuine connection” or to avoid conversation.

Then there are Professor Dunn’s student Jordi Quoidbach’s chocolate experiments, which have been promoted not only in this WSJ article, but in Dunn’s op-ed in the New York Times, “Don’t indulge. Be happy.”

The first of the studies was:

Quoidbach, J., Dunn, E. W., Petrides, K. V., & Mikolajczak, M. (2010). Money Giveth, Money Taketh Away: The Dual Effect of Wealth on Happiness. Psychological Science.

stack-50-euro-bills-isolated-white-19404122The study involved priming participants with a reminder of wealth – a photo of a large stack of Euro bills – or a similar photo that was blurred beyond recognition in the control condition. The 40 participants were then instructed to eat a piece of chocolate and complete a follow-up questionnaire.

As seen in the other studies, simple analyses were suppressed in favor of a more complex analysis. Namely, preliminary examination of the data revealed that female participants savored chocolate more than males. So, rather than simple t-test, analyses of covariance were conducted with gender and prior attitude towards chocolate as control variables. Note that they were only 20 participants per group to begin with, and so results of these multivariate analyses are quite dubious. Participants primed with the money photo spent less time eating the piece of chocolate and were rated by observers as enjoying it less.

Studies involving priming participants with seemingly irrelevant, but suggestive stimuli such as this one are now held in low regard and some feel they have contributed to the crisis of confidence in social psychology. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman suggests the lack of replicability of social priming research is “a train wreck looming” for social psychology. Results are often too good to be true and cannot be replicated. Jordi Quoidbach and her colleagues cite studies by Vohs(1,2) as supporting the validity of the manipulation, however, the two primary studies by Vohs could not be independently replicated.

Overall, this is an underpowered-study with results that probably depended on flexible analyses rather than simple ones. We would probably ignore it, except it appeared in the prestigious journal Psychological Science and has been hyped in the media and positive psychology products.

The second chocolate study was:

Quoidbach, J., & Dunn, E. W. (2013). Give It Up: A Strategy for Combating Hedonic Adaptation. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(5), 563-568.

chocolateThe study involved asking 64 participants to eat two pieces of chocolate into lab sessions separated by a week. Analyses were based on the 55 who showed up for the second session. Participants had been randomized to one of three conditions: restricted access (n = 16) in which participants were told not to buy any chocolate until the next lab session; abundant access (n = 18) in which participants were given two pounds of chocolate and told to eat as much as they comfortably could before the next lab session; and a control condition in which no explicit instructions (n = 21) were given. In the second lab session, all participants were given a second piece of chocolate.

Once again we have a small study in which the authors deny readers an opportunity to examine simple statistical tests of what should be a simple hypothesis: that restricted versus free access has an effect on enjoyment of a piece of chocolate. Instead of a simple one-way analysis of variance, the authors looked at their data and decided to do the (unnecessarily) more complex analysis of covariance. Nonetheless, we can still see that in pairwise comparisons between groups, there are differences between the restricted access and the abundant access and control group. Yet there were no differences between the abundant access instructions and having no instructions for what to do in the week between sessions.

The authors did not provide readers with appropriate analyses of group differences in changes in overall positive affect between the two sessions. Nonetheless, within-group t-tests revealed a decline in overall positive affect only for the abundance condition.

So, another small study in which positive results probably depended on tricky flexible analyses. We would not be discussing this if it were not in a relatively prestigious journal, discussed in the WSJ, and written about by one of the authors in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. I invite your comparison of my analysis to the hyped presentation and exaggerated significance for the study claimed in the op-ed.

This blog post ends quite differently than I originally intended. I wanted to take some highly-promoted findings in the positive psychology literature about the effects of small things on overall well-being. I looked to a WSJl article reporting findings from basically prestigious journals with recognizably big name promoters  of positive psychology.

I had expected that positive psychology people out promoting their work and selling their products could surely come up with some unambiguous findings. I could then discuss how we could decide whether to attempt to translate those findings into strategies in our everyday lives and whether we could expect them to be sustained with any lasting impact on our well-being. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that far. Findings turned out to be not particularly positive despite being presented as such. That became an interesting story in itself, even if I will still have to search for robust findings from the positive psychology literature in order to discuss the likelihood that following “scientific” positive psychology advice will make us happier overall.

Despite heavily-marketed claims to the contrary, positive psychology interventions do not consistently improve mental or physical health and well-being. The myth that these interventions are efficacious is perpetuated by a mutually-admiring, self-promotional collective that protects its claims from independent peer review and scrutiny.

As with the positive psychology intervention literature, it is a quick leap from the authors submitting a manuscript to a peer-reviewed journal to making claims in the media, including op-ed pieces in the New York Times, and then releasing products like workshops and books that are lavishly praised by other members of the positive psychology community.

It is apparently too much to expect that positive psychology advice givers will take time out from their self-promotion to replicate what are essentially pilot studies before hitting the road and writing op eds again. And too much to expect that the Association of Psychological Science journals Psychological Science and Social Psychological and Personality Science will insist on transparent reporting of adequately powered studies as a condition for publication.

The incentives for scientifically sound positive psychology advice just aren’t there.

Special thanks to the Skeptical Cat, who is smarter, more independent,  and less easily led than the Skeptical Dog.skeptical sleuth cat 8 30 14-1


4 thoughts on “Will following positive psychology advice make you happier and healthier?”

  1. It would so much more honest of these positive psychology researchers to rebrand themselves as motivational speakers and leave the science behind. The repercussions of misleading and preliminary studies are annoying (especially among the mompreneur cohort).


  2. Uhg, here it is again, PP. I’ve commented here before, and each time there’s discussion of positive psych I note my serious doubts about efficacy. My own experience comes from the job search market that seems to have claimed positive psych as its own. However, like any good science minded person, if given solid evidence I will reconsider my position. Still waiting.

    That said, it is disheartening that any branch of psychology would seemingly go to such lengths to demonstrate significant results (three points about Michalak). I graduated recently, and I thought my adviser was just joking when he said that any result could be found if you wanted it bad enough. He was referring to researcher bias and statistical analyses. He warned us to be cautious. In fact, simpler tests were the mainstay of most graduate research. Phrases like “train wreck” and “crisis of confidence” may be warranted, and should positive psychologists continue down the current track, it has the potential to impact many other branches of psychology. Let’s not forget that psychology has struggled with not being a “real” science” and exaggerated research reporting doesn’t help to improve that image.


  3. The author seems to have good points about the methodology, reporting, and statistics used in the specific instances where he critiques papers on those points. I’m all for more data-sharing, pre-commitment to reporting your dependent variables with funded research (I can’t believe science still doesn’t do that), and transparency in methods and data. Perhaps some findings in positive psych really are a load of bunk as he says. I haven’t actually done serious positive psych research myself (and I don’t really have the qualifications to critique stats in published papers), so for the sake of argument, I’ll take his word that the Lyubomoirsky meta-analysis was crap, too. To be able to evaluate these conclusions myself, someday, is my drive in trying to learn more about stats.

    However, the author’s analysis is remarkably one-sided. He’s basically claiming that there’s *nothing* that’s proven to enhance positive affect, health outcomes, and general well-being! Where’s the nuance? Surely there are some robust results that he should be acknowledging. I find it hard to believe that all the studies researching meditation, gratitude, social support, the effect of exercise on mood (let alone the ones showing similar efficacy of exercise and CBT on depression), etc. are all specious. That’s ridiculous as far as I understand the science. In my mind, all of those things qualify as positive psychology.

    I think he’s defining positive psychology very narrowly and picking on some of the worst examples. They should be picked on and he may be right, but to say that “following positive psychology advice” won’t make me happier (the implied conclusion) is, ironically, not at all supported by the available evidence. In my mind, any study that is aimed at increasing people’s happiness and health (or treating their mental illnesses) through behavioral means is positive psychology. And my suspicion is that if you define things in that way, the papers he critiques here would be a small bad slice of the big pie of well-run studies that find good results.

    Overall, he probably has a point that in many cases, preliminary findings are being sold as solidly-proven health interventions just because they worked in one small study somewhere. I think it’s people’s thirst for science to tell them how to improve their lives combined with some promising early work that has led to this (essentially) deception. I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to positive psych – there’s press releases and media buzz for all sorts of small, one-off studies that may or may not hold up to replication and further scrutiny. In any case, I’m glad I read this and it’ll remind me to keep my skeptical hat on and look for robust findings before I go changing my life in radical ways, especially if they involve costs. In the meantime, I really don’t see the harm in talking to your cabbies, smiling as you stride down the street, and enjoying pleasures (like chocolate) in life instead of gorging on them.

    Yes, the evidence might not be all that it’s sold to be, but when it comes to interventions to increase well-being, I think people are pretty good judges of how things work in their own lives, and they may very well be working. If nothing else, all the hype probably gives them a nice warm, fuzzy placebo effect!


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