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Peer review: Happiness research booming field though no one knows what happiness is?

Remember “New social sciences scandal: Oft-cited paper is complete rubbish—again? ” Interestingly, Will Wilkinson at the Daily Beast has picked up on this story:

I take comfort in the fact that the main bit of “top-notch research” behind Fredrickson’s theory of the 3–1 positivity “tipping point” has just been resoundingly trashed in a new paper published in American Psychologist by Nicholas Brown, a psychology grad student; Harris Friedman, a psychology professor at the University of Florida; and Alan Sokal, the New York University physicist famous for pranking an academic-literature journal with an elaborately nonsensical paper on “postmodern” physics.

In a 2005 paper published in American Psychologist, Fredrickson, now a professor of social psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and her co-author, Marcial Losada, a Chilean psychologist and business consultant, used a mathematical technique drawn from a branch of physics called fluid dynamics to establish that positivity obeys the “tipping point” logic of a “nonlinear dynamic system.”

Their idea was that one must achieve a very precise takeoff velocity before a positive frame of mind, or positive emotional tone in a relationship or cooperative project, begins to deliver serious benefits. Below the critical threshold of positivity, we remain grounded. But once we get up to speed, we climb upon a chipper wind and flourishingly soar. If you’re only twice as positive as negative, you get next to nothing. Three times as positive as negative? The world’s your oyster.

Naturally, one wishes it were true. Those of us who have seen six decades of life and more have buried enough people who were triple positive (and more) that they would beat cancer …

Wilkinson perceptively notes,

Finally, most work in the psychological and social sciences suffers from a lack of conceptual rigor. It’s a bit sloppy around the edges, and in the middle, too. For example, “happiness research” is a booming field, but the titans of the subdiscipline disagree sharply about what happiness actually is. No experiment or regression will settle it. It’s a philosophical question. Nevertheless, they work like the dickens to measure it, whatever it is—life satisfaction, “flourishing,” pleasure minus pain—and to correlate it to other, more easily quantified things with as much statistical rigor as deemed necessary to appear authoritative. It’s as if the precision of the statistical analysis is supposed somehow to compensate for, or help us forget, the imprecision of thought at the foundation of the enterprise.

Actually, many people are happy without resounding successes in life; many are unhappy despite them. It’s inherently difficult to apply objective measures to a necessarily subjective situation.

See also: A new theory of consciousness: Attention schema: “Graziano’s “attention schema” theory is interesting, as many theories of consciousness are, but it doesn’t get us anywhere with what may prove an unanswerable question: What would an objective presentation of subjectivity look like?”

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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One Response to Peer review: Happiness research booming field though no one knows what happiness is?

  1. And here I thought happiness was a warm puppy.

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