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Ear to the Ground

Debunking the Mathematics of Happiness

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Posted on Jan 26, 2014

JD Hancock (CC BY 2.0)

A British grad student in his early 50s attacked the American psychology establishment’s worship of positive thinking pseudoscience and won.

The Guardian reports:

[Nick Brown] 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.

It seemed incredible to Brown, as though it had been made up. But the number was no invention. Instead it was the product of research that had been published, after peer review, in no less authoritative a journal than American Psychologist – the pre-eminent publication in the world of psychology that is delivered to every member of the American Psychological Association. Co-authored by Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada and entitled Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing, the paper was subsequently cited more than 350 times in other academic journals. And aside from one partially critical paper, no one had seriously questioned its validity.

Fredrickson is a distinguished psychologist, a professor at the University of North Carolina, a winner of several notable psychology awards and bestselling author of a number of psychology books, including Positivity, which took her and Losada’s academic research and recast it for a mass audience – the subtitle ran “Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life”.

“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.”

Read the rest of the story here.

Alexander Reed Kelly.

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