Happiness is everywhere these days - if not always in our hearts and minds, then at least in our media. Not a week goes by that I don't hear about the benefits of meditation, the wisdom of counting my blessings, or the possibilities for coaching. It sounds so promising, yet it can be hard to know where to begin.
It reminds me of the health section at my local bookstore. There are texts on carb-free or carb-full diets, low-impact yoga or high-intensity cardio, and everything in between - all promising a longer, healthier life. Many are written by journalists or entrepreneurs, some by M.D.'s, and a handful by those who only play doctors on TV. I know that at least some of them might be helpful, but how can I distinguish the scientists from the charlatans?
Such is the state of the happiness industry today. There are more "expert" blogs, courses, and books than I can ever recall. (Full disclosure: Including my own.) Walk into your local bookstore, and you are bound to find well-being books under not only self-help and spirituality, but also psychology, business, health, and even on the best-sellers table.
Much of this surge in interest in happiness comes from the emergence of scientific approaches to understanding well-being. Researchers under the broad umbrella of "positive psychology" have been prolifically pumping out studies on love, hope, gratitude, kindness, grit, awe, and a host of related ideas. Individual findings have been fascinating, but collectively it can be hard to comprehend. In such a murky marketplace, how can consumers decide where to invest their time, attention, and money?
Below I offer four rules of thumb to keep in mind when reviewing a book, blog, course, product or program claiming it is based on the so-called science of happiness:
1. Beware the yellow smiley-face.
There is nothing wrong with that pervasive yellow icon per se, but there is more to well-being than putting on a happy face. Yes, research has shown the benefits of positive emotions and optimism. But it has also shown that some people can be better served by being what Julie Norem calls "defensive pessimists." We also know that trying to be happy might be counter-productive at times, and a meaningful life might be even better than a happy one.
There are some schools of thought that promote persistent positivity as the answer to life's ills, but they typically don't have strong roots in empirical evidence. A sound scientific approach to well-being will consider when, how, and for whom positive thinking might be helpful - and when it might not.
2. Turn down guarantees.
After more than five years studying and teaching positive psychology, I wish I had even one idea I could share that would guarantee you more well-being. There are "positive interventions" like keeping a gratitude journal, using your strengths, or crafting your job that seem to work for lots of people, but the data just isn't there yet to say they have been proven to be effective. In the social sciences, the evidence may never be that conclusive. Research can point us in the right direction, but it is often more like a compass than a GPS.
Accordingly, the best researchers and practitioners are masters of what Adam Grant calls "tentative talk." Instead of pumping up their ideas or their work, they use appropriate qualifiers like "might," "likely," or "sometimes." They acknowledge limitations of the research, tell you when they are making an educated guess, and say those three powerful words when needed: "I don't know."
3. Ask for sources.
If you want to rile up a first-year psychology student, all you need to say is, "APA Style." Like learning the rules of grammar, mastering citation techniques is a rite of passage for graduate students. Whether in formal academic style or linked like they are in this article, sources help readers dig deeper, ask better questions, and ultimately come to their own conclusions about an area of research.
In fact, a reference list can sometimes be more helpful than a resume. It can be useful to know that I have a master's degree or that others have earned their Ph.D.s, but it is not our credentials that should earn your trust. It is the relevant knowledge and skills we might be able to bring to bear on whatever question you are wrestling with. Regardless of background, a good scientific writer, coach, consultant, or advisor will be able to tell you not just where and when he or she studied, but even more importantly, which studies are most relevant to the topic at hand.
4. Treat yourself as an "n of 1."
Most of the research reported in the news these days is nomothetic in nature, meaning it tries to understand general rules or principles that will hold true across a range of people. Starting with a sample of n individuals (from a few dozen to a few thousand), researchers test whether whatever construct or intervention they are studying will generally work for most people most of the time. That can be a helpful starting point, but our lives are usually better understood idiographically, or individually. What works for the group might or might not work for any one of us, and what works for you might or might not work for me. What we can do, then, is treat ourselves as a population of one. When we encounter a new idea, intervention, or individual promising the potential to improve our lives, we can treat them as hypotheses to be tested through our own experience.
The fast-growing science of happiness and well-being offers hope for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the good life, but it is important to remember that it is a field in its infancy. In territory ruled for millennia by religion and philosophy, science is just beginning to catch up. By becoming more informed and more discerning consumers of research, we might be able to help not only ourselves, but perhaps all of those engaged with life's big questions.
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