Monday, January 7, 2013

Thoughts from my Dad: Happiness

It's time for me to once again give control of my blog to my Dad. In this installment of "Thoughts from my Dad" we discuss the meaning of happiness and whether or not it is scientifically quantifiable.

Thoughts from my Dad:
Serendipity means a "happy accident" or "pleasant surprise"; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it. And so it is and this is what happened to me today…. Prior to reading your blog I was listening to Bob Marley - Don't worry be Happy on Pandora. 
After Reading your post on TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4, 2012 entitled Physician interaction may affect pain during medical procedure. I could only think of a professor in my graduate studies that stated “Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do or say just as long as you do or say something.”   At that time I didn’t challenge what he nor did I even check the research to verify his claims.    In the professors defense, I think he was letting me know that I did not have to have years of experience or a vast amount of knowledge to work with others just a good frame work and understanding of the different theories  and when and how to implement those with specific clients.  However, you certainly would not want to “prescribe the problem” to and individual that is suicidal.
It’s been about ten years later and your article spurred interest in wanting to know how much empathy is part of the cure.
This is what I have found:  
Therapeutic change is around 40% due to client and extra therapeutic variables, 30% due to relationship factors, 15% due to expectancy and hope factors, and 15% due to the techniques and models of individual approaches. [1]
Other studies and research that I gleaned, studied and compared seem to support the above meta-analysis…..
So it does look like it really doesn’t matter what I do, when what I do as a therapist typically accounts for 15% of the therapeutic change.  
This is Serendipity
While reviewing the data and finding additional articles to support the above I came across this study by Lyubomirsky and her colleagues analyzed studies on identical twins and other research and came to the conclusion that happiness is 50% genetic, 40% intentional and 10% circumstantial. [2]
I couldn’t help but notice the similarity in the statistics regarding a person’s pursuit of happiness….
So what are the 40% intentional activities?  They are those in which we act, think about, and respond to the world. In other words, the same life circumstance has the potential to cause different amounts of happiness in people depending on how they react to it. There are certain ways of thinking and behaving that cause people to respond to events with more negative emotions, and likewise, there are ways of thinking and behaving that cause people to respond with more positive emotion…..Humm this sounds like the post I wrote concerning the Secret..?
Further digging I found research supporting the idea that money can take you only so far. According to a study by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, Americans earning $50,000 a year are a lot happier than those making an annual salary of $10,000, but Americans pulling in $5 million a year aren’t much happier than those making $100,000.
Now there is my little blog I wrote,
I checked it Quote for quote…I hope others learn it note for note
Like good little students
Don’t worry…
Prescribing the problem is a type of paradoxical intervention.
 [1] Lambert, M.J. and A.E. Bergin (1994) 'The Effectiveness of Psychotherapy', in Bergin and Garfield (1994), pp. 143-89.
[2] Lyubomirsky's The How of Happiness 

My response to my Dad: 
You cited Sonja Lyubomurski, who claims that happiness is 50% genetic and 10% circumstantial, leaving 40% to "intentional change". To you this means that The Secret is a valid idea - our thoughts can change our reality. One problem I have with Lyubomurski's claims is that most of her data is just self-reported. In other words, people are asked "are you happy" and their response is recorded. Self-reporting is possibly the worst metric for any real, scientifically valid data. Lyubomurski, of course, defends her use of self-reporting. She basically says that if we want to know if people are happy we should ask them if they are happy. That sounds obvious, but self-reporting tells you nothing about someone's actual happiness. It only tells you how they choose to respond when asked if they are happy. But OK. Fine. Let's assume that self-reported data means something (again, it doesn't). Can we please take a look at the line of logic you used to get from the twins study you cited to claiming the validity of nonsense like The Secret. 1 - People were asked about their happiness. 2 - Researchers analyzed their responses and found that 50% of the variation was due to genetic difference, 40% due to intentional change, and 10% to other circumstances.3 - You interpret this to mean that we can control 40% of our happiness.4 - You assume that control means having happy thoughts.5 - You conclude that 40% of our life can be controlled by happy thoughts.6 - Therefore sending positive vibes into the universe will return to us the things we desire (a la The Secret) Well, it looks like you are one of the quacks that I was talking about. You know, the ones that misinterpret and exaggerate research claims?  To me, the only thing that Sonja's research shows is that people self-report happiness at variable rates. The variation in those rates correlates mostly with genetics (50%) and circumstances (10%), but even those numbers have a large amount of error (40 percentage points between the two). I don't think that research says anything of the actual happiness a person experiences and it definitely doesn't show that we can control 40% of our happiness by our thoughts. If that research teaches us anything it's what factors influence people to self-report happiness.  Happiness is subjective and Lyubomurski herself admits that this is true. How, then, can you take a subjective measurement (how happy somebody says they are) and apply it to an objective reference frame (what they do to be happy)? You can't. Since each person has a different reference for what happiness is it is impossible to apply any meaningful statistics. Therefore, we can't say anything meaningful based on any self-reported happiness studies. This isn't to say that I'm a pessimist. Of course having a positive attitude is a good thing, but a positive attitude by itself does nothing. Action, dedication, and the variability of the universe (luck) are the only things that make something happen.

My Dad's final thoughts:

Son, there is so much to discuss…I know you think the secret is more cloak-and-dagger…so I for this response I will keep the Secret a secret.

Happiness is subjective…. most may not know what happiness is….and most can tell you when they are not.

Your statement: #3 - You interpret this to mean that we can control 40% of our happiness. Yes that is what I am saying(Lyubomurski states in her study) that 40% of things that happen are intentional or Adjective: Done on purpose; deliberate. Synonyms: deliberate - willful - purposeful – intended….yea so I threw in the Secret just for reaction…

Your statement: 4 - You assume that control means having happy thoughts. Control means choice if you can choose your thoughts you are able to control or choose happy thoughts

Your statement: 5 - You conclude that 40% of our life can be controlled by happy thoughts. See # 3 40% of what makes up happiness according to Lyubomurski is 40% intentional….

What I found interesting…(and I think you missed a subtle but important point ) is the correlation between Therapeutic change for a client and intentional activities or those activities in which we chose how to act, think about, or respond to the world.

Somehow I knew my article would cause a reaction with you, but I thought for sure it would be the idea that we have a “happy gene” ……

So further research does support that  Lyubomurski may be a little high in suggesting that 50% of happiness can be explained as genetic.  One such research is from the University of South Florida, Columbia University and the National Institutes of Health found that a type of the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene was connected to higher levels of self-reported happiness in women. What is even more surprising is low expression of MAOA has been related to some negative outcomes like alcoholism, aggressiveness and antisocial behavior.