Why I Stopped Writing


Six years ago, I was unhappy. Positive psychology, the ‘science’ of happiness, offered hope that traditional psychology did not.

So I started this blog. I would research a topic and write up my findings, hoping to help both myself and others.

But three years ago, I stopped.

Not because no one was reading what I wrote. Fifteen to thirty thousand people visit each month.

I stopped for two reasons.

Unwarranted Enthusiasm

Growing up, I had what is known as Asian tiger parents. Grades were everything – a letter other than an A a disaster.

I recall getting a C+ on an assignment once. The teacher wanted me to get it signed by my parents, so that they knew of my failing. I was so frightened of what would happen that I forged the required signature. My forgery was discovered, but luckily the teacher didn’t report me.

My initial exposure to positive psychology appealed to me because it made this claim, “People are irrational. People do x, y, and z in the pursuit of happiness and satisfaction, but actually they’re being bamboozled. Instead of relying on old, corrupted neural circuitry, let’s rely on science.”

Looking at my parents, that’s what I saw. They worked 12 hour days, five and a half days a week. But they didn’t seem that happy.

I had worked hard, just like they wanted. I didn’t feel happy.

“Money only logarithmically buys happiness?” I’m sold.

Science is a process of truth seeking. Make a prediction, run an experiment, observe the results.

Sounds good, but while the incentives that guide research in the social sciences do gradually expand our frontiers of understanding, they do so horribly inefficiently.

Having read through hundreds of positive psychology papers, I was at first incredibly excited. All of these wonderful ideas with large effect sizes!

But after learning about epistemology, p-hacking, and the replication crisis, I saw large flaws in most papers. Unreported attrition based selection effects, unjustified subgroup analysis, fifty variables collected, fifty opportunities for a positive result, a dearth of replications, and so on.

Some of the blame lies with the human brain. It’s probably the most complicated thing in the universe and is bad about providing feedback about itself. Lots of room to make mistakes.

But the primary method made to overcome this problem – complex statistical analysis – just opened up more avenues for abuse.

Ironically, Marty Seligman once wanted to do something about the problem.

Marty Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association (APA):1

APA presidents are supposed to have an initiative and… I thought mine could be “evidence-based treatment and prevention.” So I went to my friend, Steve Hyman, the director of [National Institute of Mental Health]. He was thrilled and told me he would chip in $40 million dollars if I could get APA working on evidence-based treatment.

So I told CAPP [which owns the APA] about my plan and about NIMH’s willingness. I felt the room get chillier and chillier. I rattled on. Finally, the chair of CAPP memorably said, “What if the evidence doesn’t come out in our favor?”

…I limped my way to [my friend’s] office for some fatherly advice.

“Marty,” he opined, “you are trying to be a transactional president. But you cannot out-transact these people…”

And so I proposed that Psychology turn its… attention away from pathology and victimology and more toward what makes life worth living: positive emotion, positive character, and positive institutions. I never looked back and this became my mission for the next fifteen years. The endeavor… caught on.

Positive psychology has produced some useful ideas, but I think the world would be a far better place if Seligman had instead focused on increasing the speed at which the field progresses.

There are efforts being made to make things better – open access, pre-registration, and increased replication funding being the most promising. But it’ll be a while before these initiatives make a large difference.

Methodological Uncertainty

How can you tell if doing something increases happiness? Ideally, you run a double blind placebo controlled study. You measure the happiness of all study participants, do the thing to some of them and a control to the others, then measure their happiness again.

If the happiness of the active group goes up more than the control, you’ve got a winner – something with promise, which should be investigated further.

But we care about more than just feeling good.

We strive for more, again and again. Not only because we’re chasing happiness, but because we care. If given the option, I would not sacrifice my goals for becoming a bliss bunny.

We can ask about life satisfaction instead, but that has its own problems.

Ideally, a person has perfect introspective awareness and rationality. Their answer to “On a scale of 1 to 5, how satisfied are you with your life?” is a perfect summation of the degree to which their values are being fulfilled.

Positive psychology is, at its essence, trying to increase the value of that number. So what if some people have poor introspection or are making incorrect calculations, messing up the results a bit? It’s better than nothing. Besides, self-reported life satisfaction correlates with some measures which are objective, like life expectancy.

That’s what I use to say to detractors. I’m no longer sure. My thoughts on the matter are a work in progress – perhaps I’ll write more about it in the future.

What now?

I’ve considered taking the site down. I’m sure that some of the things that I wrote helped people. But I’m also sure that through my naivety and ignorance, I provided false insights – ideas and tools that seem to help, and in the short-term perhaps even do, but in the long-term waste time or cause harm.

On balance, did I do more harm or more good? I don’t know.

I could also take the time to re-write the articles I find lacking. But I no longer have the interest.

In the end, I’m leaving this site up for two reasons.

One, I’ve put hundreds of hours into this site. Taking it down would be like erasing a piece of my history.

Two, some people say they find the things I’ve written useful. Perhaps I should trust them.

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