PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life
May 29, 2018 10:31 AM   Subscribe

In the face of this epidemic of unhappiness, Santos decided to design a course in “positive psychology” — i.e., the field of study that focuses on well-being, as opposed to psychological dysfunction. Such classes have been around for more than a decade, but they typically served as introductions to the field — sort of Happiness 101. Santos’s course aims to do more. “The thing that makes this course different is that we also focus on what I call ‘behavior change’ — the science of how you move your behavior around,” she says. “How do you actually change your habits and use your situation to your advantage?”
The most popular course at Yale teaches how to be happy. [The Cut] took it for you.

a free version of the course is also available.
posted by Grandysaur (31 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is really timely in my life right now. Thank you.
posted by needlegrrl at 11:21 AM on May 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


I don't get the illustrations.
Putting a smiley face on everyone is not what positive psychology is all about. Not sure how you can have an article about college level PP without mentioning Martin Seligman (outside of the quiz link and a book ad), but at least Lyubomirsky gets a credit.
Anyway, I think the article describes PP well, with the well-being focus.
posted by MtDewd at 11:32 AM on May 29, 2018 [6 favorites]


Also timely for me. Thank you! I may just take that free course. I remember reading Stumbling on Happiness years ago, and it was life-changing. I think I need more life changing right now.
posted by greermahoney at 12:08 PM on May 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


“What Is Happiness, Why Aren’t You Happy, and What Can You Do to Change That?”

I mean, if we look at the Worldwide Happiness Report mentioned at the top of the article, an awful lot of the countries ranked above the US have, you know, functional social safety nets, and I kinda suspect the answer to the second question dwells in that fact. The answer to the third question is "pretty much nothing, because capitalism's gonna starve most people to death; you Yalies might do better than most if your student loan burdens aren't too bad, though, so maybe give positive thinking a try and major in something lucrative"
posted by halation at 12:21 PM on May 29, 2018 [24 favorites]


I never thought about it before, but it's such an amusing coincidence that a man surnamed Seligman ended up best known for his work on positive psychology.
posted by inconstant at 12:42 PM on May 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


He's also known for his early pioneering work on learned helplessness, which involved subjecting dogs to a continuous stream of electric shocks they were unable to stop or avoid.

This work formed the core of the US post-9/11 torture program, under torture architects and also psychologists Mitchell and Jensen. The torture architects did consult Seligman, although his direct involvement in the program seems to have been limited.
posted by grobstein at 1:02 PM on May 29, 2018 [12 favorites]


The "Authentic Happiness Inventory" is directly related to Seligman's research.

I can charitably describe his research program, as directed towards the not-extremely-rich world anyway, as "The world sucks, but maybe if we put just the right billboard in the slums of the third world, we can convince the poors that their lives suck a little less. Instead of taking concrete steps in making anything actually suck less, of course."

I'm not being facetious when I say that he often acts like he's angling for the Nobel.
posted by supercres at 1:08 PM on May 29, 2018 [7 favorites]


Happiness research is still an interesting research program!

But nothing I've read has produced an answer to this question: what's "happiness"? What is the phenomenon under study in this science? If we answer operationally, based on what outcomes happiness experiments measure, it's stuff like, averages over survey questions to rate your happiness and life satisfaction, or perhaps averages of self-assessed moods in time-diary studies. We are supposed to think there is some underlying psychological fact, I guess, a personal happiness level, that noisily induces all of these measures, and does so in roughly the same way across different individuals. (Not sure we should believe that!)

But even if this underlying psychological fact is a real thing, should we think that it's what matters in a life? Take the Gilbert factoid that, if I became quadriplegic tomorrow, in 5 years I would be just as happy as I am today. Does that mean it wouldn't matter that I was quadriplegic? Or should we instead take it that, whatever psychologists' "happiness" is, it only touches the surface of what matters?
posted by grobstein at 1:13 PM on May 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


I had to admit that, despite some recent sorrowful events, including a death in the family, my life feels suffused with joy.

this strikes me as pathological in an equal and opposite way to depression, and only moderately more desirable as a condition. I don't mean the author, specifically, at all; they're speaking about the definitions presented by a simplistic test and they don't say anything about their closeness to the dead person. I just mean the mindset pushed by this philosophy and held by anyone who comes by it spontaneously and individually, without being convinced into it by Yale lecturing.

and by pathological I don't mean immoral either, sensation is sensation etc. all I mean by that is when good and longed-for things -- or any things at all -- fail to make you at least temporarily happy, it's usually because you're depressed. when terrible and dreaded things -- or any things at all -- fail to make you at least temporarily unhappy, it's because you're...this. whatever it is, when it exists without reference to the outside world and the sufferings of beloved outside people, it's no more what regular people mean by "happiness" than severe inherited depression is what they mean by "sadness."

that "happiness" endures through agony, betrayal, death -- anything short of whatever war-refugee/crime victim line a test-maker draws to separate normal from abnormal suffering and adversity -- is is not a discovery, or a lesson, it's a philosophy. those who like it can keep it but it's a point of view, not a fact. psychologists didn't determine what makes people happy until they first dictated what happiness was. and that is a trick so easy anyone can do it.

you can certainly mourn without being unhappy for any length of time. adding sincerity makes it harder but it can still be done. but it can't be done for every death, or most deaths, without that capability indicating something more upsetting than simple unhappiness would. you could probably mentally train yourself into such a habit of "happiness" unshakeable by tragedy, but it wouldn't be good for you. and it wouldn't be happiness, either.
posted by queenofbithynia at 1:15 PM on May 29, 2018 [11 favorites]


I'm not being facetious when I say that he often acts like he's angling for the Nobel.

I've been reading a recent book of his, co-authored, and it's got some good stuff in it, but the stuff by him is 100% hype and marketing. It's all, SELIGMAN: This is a revolutionary new paradigm that upends hundreds or thousands of years of thinking about the mind; CO-AUTHORS: Here are some concrete arguments and applications that are actually interesting.
posted by grobstein at 1:15 PM on May 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


The course instructor was on Very Bad Wizards. I'll low down this for you: Exercise, think about something you're grateful for every day, meditate, travel, don't stress your G.P.A.
posted by xammerboy at 1:23 PM on May 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


What's the proposed mechanism for the "gratitude" intervention?

Could it be, like, cognitive dissonance management? Like, all these good things have happened for me, so if I wasn't happy I'd be an ingrate, therefore I must be happy?
posted by grobstein at 1:34 PM on May 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'll low down this for you: Exercise, think about something you're grateful for every day, meditate, travel, don't stress your G.P.A.

Cool.

Now who's going to pay for all of that?
posted by elsietheeel at 1:39 PM on May 29, 2018 [12 favorites]


What's the proposed mechanism for the "gratitude" intervention?

Could it be, like, cognitive dissonance management? Like, all these good things have happened for me, so if I wasn't happy I'd be an ingrate, therefore I must be happy?


Looks like it's an open question, many possibilities, see 5.1 for a suggestion similar to my proposal.

Of course, when you have an effect with no known mechanism, you should maybe be a little cautious about marketing it as a cure-all. . . .
posted by grobstein at 2:00 PM on May 29, 2018


Gratitude mechanism- I have no clear idea how it works, but I have seen it work. This is just one data point, but my wife gets mad at me way less often since she started a gratitude practice.

I think it might be along the lines of 'we pay attention to what we measure.' It's easy to spend the day thinking about the things that suck in your life- someone cut you off in traffic; your boss assigned you something shitty...
If you focus on that and you are asked 'how's your day?', it's probably going to not be positive. If you focus instead on the things that went right, you would probably have a more positive answer.
The good things can get lost among the bad (due to the priority given to negative things by our emotional system), but I think the theory is that if you average at least 3 positive things to 1 negative thing, you are thriving.

We do this thing most evenings at dinner- either 1) what was the best part of your day?, or 2)What are you grateful for right now?
I know for me, it's sometimes hard to answer either one, and sometimes I have to think real hard. And sometimes I just pass.
But if I have to come up with something, it really does put a better spin on your day.
And how can that hurt?

(Of course, all of this presume basic needs are met. Fortunately for me, mine are. Something to mention tonight at dinner)
posted by MtDewd at 2:23 PM on May 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


that "happiness" endures through agony, betrayal, death -- anything short of whatever war-refugee/crime victim line a test-maker draws to separate normal from abnormal suffering and adversity -- is is not a discovery, or a lesson, it's a philosophy

Sounds like Stoicism to me, which makes sense given the CBT roots of this tradition and the links between CBT and Stoic philosophy.

Probably, though, it’s possible to sensibly borrow the Stoic attitude to emotions in situations where those emotions really are mistakes or maladaptive—the “if I don’t come top in every class, I’ll die of shame and terror” response to relatively minor losses and failures—and still keep the full range of human emotions for the situations where they are appropriate. I believe there’s a bit in Seneca where he’s fretting at himself for being so angry at being placed too low at dinner. He probably was right that he would have been better off reserving anger for something more important, even though he was wrong about the ideal response to grief at the death of a friend. If a gratitude journal and taking more walks would have helped him to care less about his status at dinner—and helps Yale students to cope better with the occasional D grade—those seem like good things, within those limited contexts.
posted by Aravis76 at 2:24 PM on May 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


He's also known for his early pioneering work on learned helplessness, which involved subjecting dogs to a continuous stream of electric shocks they were unable to stop or avoid.

I'm pretty sure that objective evil exists and that this is it. Jesus Christ.

Also, sometimes I feel like I'm one of those dogs.
posted by windykites at 3:43 PM on May 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


The good things can get lost among the bad (due to the priority given to negative things by our emotional system), but I think the theory is that if you average at least 3 positive things to 1 negative thing, you are thriving.

Unfortunately, that theory is not well-supported.
posted by escabeche at 7:17 PM on May 29, 2018 [3 favorites]


Funny story though
posted by grobstein at 7:17 PM on May 29, 2018


Previously
posted by grobstein at 7:20 PM on May 29, 2018


Short version: 'If you didn't have a good life, it is your fault.'

Yeah, nah. Fuck off.
posted by Pouteria at 7:54 PM on May 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that objective evil exists and that this is it. Jesus Christ.

Learned helplessness is one of those things I think everyone should be aware of - it explains some of the problems we've had in trying to build fairer societies - so I don't know how much the original intention of the experiment will help here. They were supposed to avoid it.

The idea was to see if foreknowledge improved learning outcomes, and to test it they'd put together a little enclosure with a fence and two electric panels. The dogs were supposed to learn that when the researchers ring a bell, they hop over the fence to the safe side. If they stayed on the unsafe side, they'd get a little shock, and eventually they'd work out to hop over the fence to stay safe.

So what happens if you give the dogs some warning about what's happening, instead of just putting them in an enclosure and shocking them until they get it? Like, if you slightly shock the dog beforehand so they know 'this bell dings and if you stay still the floor will shock you', when they're doing it for real, will they hop over the fence faster?

The answer is: no. Nooooooooo. Priming the dogs actually made things much, much worse: they learned to expect shocks when the bell rang and there was nothing they could do about it, and laid down and took it until the experiment ended.

Learned helplessness is super, super easy to invoke in humans under the right conditions. There's a neat demonstration where you give a room of people an anagram exercise, except for some people it's been doctored so the first two anagrams are different, and impossible. You then ask people to raise their hand when they've finished, and eventually hurry along the group once enough people have gotten it. Even though the third anagram is the same for everyone, the people with the doctored anagrams have already learned helplessness and won't get it because they saw everyone around them doing better with what they thought was the same starting point.

You can draw your own analogies to, say, jobseekers, or people on welfare, or girls who think they're bad at math.
posted by Merus at 8:27 PM on May 29, 2018 [25 favorites]


Yeah, I posted this because i thought it was interesting and would spark some good conversation, and basically simultaneously as I was sharing this article I decided to take the prerequisite questionnaires and all I could think was "woah my answers woulda been way different before I was properly medicated. This sort of class would not have been very helpful for my depression. Maybe a little helpful, because thinking about my emotions and basic awareness have been very helpful, but still. I'm not gonna gratitude journal my way out of self loathing.
posted by Grandysaur at 10:17 PM on May 29, 2018 [3 favorites]


this strikes me as pathological in an equal and opposite way to depression, and only moderately more desirable as a condition. // when terrible and dreaded things -- or any things at all -- fail to make you at least temporarily unhappy, it's because you're...this. whatever it is,
posted by queenofbithynia


I don't expect that they're thinking of anything "this" extreme: I think the idea is more along the lines of emotional resilience, the ability to bounce back easily and quickly from setbacks. I would identify as a "naturally happy" person and most people I know would agree, but the truth is somewhat more complicated. I re-read my older private blog posts and they read like they were from a person in a depressive state, and all my dreams are negative: death, pain, suffering, fear. I just don't have positive dreams.

I would rate myself maximally happy along most lines of questioning. I think happiness isn't necessarily the absence of pain or sorrow, it's about the ability to contextualize it. For example, I am not afraid of loneliness or negative feelings because I know it's at those times that I've historically been most productive and creative. Neither do I really fear pain or stress, or hard work. I don't really fear dealing with difficult people. It's happened more than once that I was talking to a friend about their problems and they said that their problems suddenly seemed trivial once they found out what was going on with me, and they were wondering why I was still somewhat cheerful (got mugged by a gang and lost most of my possessions, or required surgery in the hospital, or had a death in the family)

And like the article says, it's not something that most of us can take credit for. They say 50% is genetics, 10% circumstance, and 40% choice, but I think there's another aspect they're neglecting - the deep reserves / resources you were provided when growing up. If you're grown up in a secure environment with more or less unconditional love and discipline and have a strong sense of identity and self worth, that's something quite difficult to perturb. All resources make a difference: not just emotional, but financial resources are also a contribution to the feeling of resilience instead of fragility - if someone were to hit my car, I'd probably be mostly concerned that no one was injured, because the car itself is easy to replace, something many people won't be able to say. (of course, money doesn't solve everything, but it does help).
posted by xdvesper at 3:45 AM on May 30, 2018 [6 favorites]


This sort of class would not have been very helpful for my depression.

I've read two of Seligman's books (one was great, the other repetitive) and my understanding of positive psychology is that you're right, it won't help with depression or grief or hardship. It's intended for people without any diagnosable condition who are living an okay life but would like to appreciate that life more.

From memory, the research shows that outside of clinical depression, our happiness is made up of three components: disposition or personality (natural inclination to optimism or pessimism), circumstances (money, health, etc) and our actions. We have no control over the first, and little control over the second. So positive psychology focuses on the actions within our reach, and researches which are likely to improve our feelings of well-being. Heaps were tested, and the ones in Lyubomirsky's book and this course were the ones which had some empirical evidence.

I've found the gratitude practice helpful for me, when I followed Lyubomirsky's recommendation of doing it weekly instead of daily. And regular gentle exercise (walking the dogs) has been great too in a way that binging on the gym or fretting over sports never did for me. Forgiveness was another that was useful. I feel like they counteract some of my natural pessimism and anxiety, making me more balanced rather than turning me into some kind of grinning idiot or naive Pollyanna.
posted by harriet vane at 7:07 AM on May 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


Learned helplessness is one of those things I think everyone should be aware of - it explains some of the problems we've had in trying to build fairer societies - so I don't know how much the original intention of the experiment will help here

Yeah, I see what you mean. It's just really tough for me to get behind this type of experimenting on dogs. It seems incredibly cruel, and while those concepts are good to understand, they don't seem urgent or justifiable like testing e.g. cancer medicines. I mean isn't there a way to develop theories about learned helplessness without electro-shocking dogs? At least with the human experiment, the individuals consent, and the experiement can be explained to them after.

Especially since this knowledge about learned helplessness doesn't seem to have done a lot to make our society kinder or more generous; governments use it for torture and advertisers probably use it for marketing but for a therapist to use it to help people those people have to have access to therapy.
posted by windykites at 8:46 AM on May 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


(Let’s overlook, for the moment, the fact that this means you can, indeed, buy happiness — by purchasing time from other, less affluent people.)
Or, let's not.
posted by eotvos at 8:49 AM on May 30, 2018 [6 favorites]


As I recall, Seligman got into happiness research because he was so revolted by the experiments on dogs.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 9:07 AM on May 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


you could probably mentally train yourself into such a habit of "happiness" unshakeable by tragedy, but it wouldn't be good for you

even if it did get the cat box clean.
posted by flabdablet at 9:48 AM on May 30, 2018


Low-key the best idea in this piece, though?

Having a pump-up playlist for your lecture class.
Professor Santos is playing her pre-class get-pumped playlist featuring the Black-Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” And, let’s not forget, all of these students are currently going to Yale. What’s not to be happy about?
posted by grobstein at 12:18 PM on May 30, 2018


He's also known for his early pioneering work on learned helplessness, which involved subjecting dogs to a continuous stream of electric shocks they were unable to stop or avoid.

This work formed the core of the US post-9/11 torture program, under torture architects and also psychologists Mitchell and Jensen. The torture architects did consult Seligman, although his direct involvement in the program seems to have been limited.


So that's why I find being stuck in a "leadership seminar" or "self-development training session" or similar nonsense with a positive psychologist to be akin to torture...

Positive psychology makes me, as a clinically depressed person, feel like a failure and anathema. It also makes me want to deliberately ruin other people's happiness, perhaps in an effort to feel like less of an outcast. What also helps is not being around people who are enthusiastic supporters of positive psychology.

I had big problems with the film Inside Out but one of the things I did like about it was that it showed not just how annoying relentless happiness can be, but that sadness has an actual, valuable place in our emotional repertoire. That it's not something to be shunned at all costs.
posted by Athanassiel at 9:04 PM on May 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


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