Smile or Die (or at least continue being poor and unhealth)

James Coyne, of the PLoS Blog, argues here that positive psychology, then, is for rich white people because they have fewer constraints on their happiness–they can choose it—but even in these conditions, it’s not very good science. Coyne shows that not only is most of the research supporting positive psychology using statistical chicanery to make it’s claims, it either ignores or misunderstands the relationships between socioeconomic status and well-being in ways that blame the poor for not thinking positively.

“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.”

Positive psychology is not only used to blame people for their poverty, but also their health. During her battle with cancer, Boingboing’s Xeni Jardin has been critiquing positive psychology’s tyranny over cancer patients, who are relentlessly told that they need to be happy to get better. This leaves patients feeling like they are not allowed to be sad, to grieve and hurt because people around them are literally telling them that their bad attitude will kill them—despite a dearth of evidence establishing such a causal relationship.

Along the same lines, Kaiser Permanente’s “Thrive” campaign includes a billboard that I’ve been passing on the 5-North that reads “Optimism=Healthy: Worry less, get less sick.” Though it is true that there is a correlation between allostatic load (physiological measures of bodily stress) and illness, we know very little about the relationship between the mental activity of worrying and getting sick.

Beware of data that blames people’s attitude for their fate.  You won’t die if you don’t smile. You aren’t poor because you’re unhappy. The science just isn’t there.



3 thoughts on “Smile or Die (or at least continue being poor and unhealth)

  1. It is true, people feel uncomfortable when they are around those who are grieving or are sad, especially for any length of time. I’ve even seen others get mad at the one who is going through such difficulty. Being sad may not make you sick or poor, but conversely, being poor or sick does tend to make one sad. Grief and deep sadness are hardly a thing to respond to with anger, and will actually only make the problem worse. Think again about just allowing a person to feel however it is they feel. Maybe some time with someone who cares is all they really need.

    • Good points, I don’t think we should just ignore people who need support. But as I have said in a few places, efforts to support people who are sad often get “miscarried” when the intended helpers take on the responsibility of trying to take the sadness away from another person. The sad person then becomes an obstacle to their achieving a goal of making someone feel happy.

      Adequate support requires a balance of involvement in distancing, and knowing not to take responsibility for another’s feelings.

      Back in the days right used to clinical workshops about depression, I would always caution people that they should allow people their sadness and if they try too hard to steal away from them, there will be at least two miserable people.

      The dissertation that I did 30 years ago showed that depressed people often depress others, who reject them, getting both parties caught up in a vicious cycle.

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