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The British amateur who debunked the mathematics of happiness | The Observer

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"Just as zero degrees celsius is a special number in thermodynamics," wrote Fredrickson in Positivity, "the 3-to-1 positivity ratio may well be a magic number in human psychology."


A couple of years ago that suspicion began to grow while he sat in a lecture at the University of East London, where he was taking a postgraduate course in applied positive psychology. There was a slide showing a butterfly graph – the branch of mathematical modelling most often associated with chaos theory. On the graph was a tipping point that claimed to identify the precise emotional co-ordinates that divide those people who "flourish" from those who "languish".

According to the graph, it all came down to a specific ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions. If your ratio was greater than 2.9013 positive emotions to 1 negative emotion you were flourishing in life. If your ratio was less than that number you were languishing.

It was as simple as that. The mysteries of love, happiness, fulfilment, success, disappointment, heartache, failure, experience, random luck, environment, culture, gender, genes, and all the other myriad ingredients that make up a human life could be reduced to the figure of 2.9013.

...though I thought Eric Barker had said the number was 5 to 1.

Yes, Eric Barker says 5 to 1:

How many good moments do you need to make up for the bad ones? Research has a ratio for you: 5 to 1.

You don’t need to count every single positive and negative but if they’re nearly equal, your chance of divorce shoots way up.

Via For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed:

As University of Washington researchers reviewed the data, a striking pattern emerged. In stable marriages, there are at least five times more positive interactions than negative ones. When the ratio starts to drop, the marriage is at high risk for divorce. In real life, no couple can keep a running tally of positive and negative displays. There are hundreds of them that happen in any given day. But in a practical sense, the lesson is that a single “I’m sorry” after bad behavior isn’t enough. For every snide comment or negative outburst in a marriage, a person needs to ramp up the positives so the good-to-bad ratio doesn’t fall to a risky level.

(Here’s more about 5 to 1.)

Will ask him if I understood properly.

Perhaps the math for unmarried is different from married?

Naw, that makes no sense. People are people and positivity should be the same...

Perhaps 5 to 1 is a conservative ratio but 3 to 1 is the average ratio?

Sounds good to me.

The main point is that it's definitely more than 1 to 1.

Which is why pessimists have a more challenging feedback loop.

Ahem, uh, upon reading in full, the main point of the Guardian article is that all numerical ratios about happiness are a fraud--Barker's 5-1 and Fredrickson's 2.9013 included.

"'s elementary enough that any mathematician or physicist knows enough. In 10 seconds I could see it was total bullshit."

Which is delightful because it means we can simply decide to be happy with even smaller ratios of positive responses, should we choose to be so...

Yeah, the Frederickson and Losada work has come under scrutiny and, it appears, deservedly so. That's science for you. :) Something that has been repeatedly shown, though, is that frequent little boosts beat infrequent big things when it comes to happiness. So 5 to 1 or 2.9 or whatever might be inaccurate, but emphasizing frequency (fun with friends a few times a week) over intensity (getting that promotion annually) is still a very good idea.

The challenges we face in learning (which is validated by an enduring change in behavior) is not exposing and debunking specific content as false or true, but in overcoming the reflexive, habitual way in which we appropriate certainty from all written opinions offered as factual by others. 

There is less and less fiduciary responsibility in written knowledge as it comes under increasing pressure to be profitable and or entertaining and interesting, whether offered by journalists or the more supposedly pristine agents of truth and knowledge, i.e. academics.  All of us are becoming more bound by economics, or enticed by sloth in the tsunami of global information overload, to make other, less honest choices about what we know and what others package for us to consume.  

From the above article:

"Diederik Stapel, who was dean of faculty at Tilburg University, was caught by his graduate students making up data. It turned out he'd been falsifying his research for the previous 15 years. Brown, who is currently translating Stapel's autobiography, got in touch with him and asked him why he did it.

"The way he describes it," says Brown, "is that the environment was conducive to it. He said, 'I could either do the hard work or put my hand in the jar and take out a biscuit'." 

"Nobody's accusing Fredrickson of making anything up. She just basically invented her own method. Is that worse than inventing your own data?" "When you look at the equation, it doesn't contain any data. It's completely self-referential."

And these underlying behaviors and influences don't self-correct or get curbed by peer review for obvious reasons, 

"This theory is not just big in academia, there's a whole industry of coaching and it intersects with business and business schools. There's a lot of money in it."

All of that said, that frequent little boosts beat infrequent big things, was written about and also popularized in Daniel Gilbert's book, Stumbling on Happiness, which drew the lesson from studies including lottery winners, who purportedly had among the poorest happiness ratios.

The question we, as consumers of other's knowledge, could ask of all these social science discoveries is the foundation of scientific inquiry:

"Can I reproduce the results as advertised?"

Pop knowledge today is at worst total bullshit and at best a distraction with a wavering fingerpoint in the general direction of real learning and self-knowledge--it is not a canon of verified learning and self-knowledge itself.  

Because when it comes to human behaviors around improving our physical and emotional conditions our learning and achievements are in the doing and direct practice of the insight, much less in the reading of hearsay of what someone else took as gospel from someone else who wrote a fiction with believable numbers in it.

But hey, I can dig whatever gets us going down our path.  Peace out!

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