101 apocalyptic revelations you didn’t expect from happiness research – and the counter-revelations that keep the game going.  

You didn’t know? Oh I think you did.photo credit: Steve Gundersen Flickr creativecommons          

Surprise, surprise!

If you want to make a living as a knowledge broker – whether you’re a researcher, a teacher, an author or a coach – you must persuade people that you know stuff they don’t. But if happiness is your theme, this is pretty challenging because most people already know a thing or two about happiness. So you either have to get early access to counterintuitive new knowledge, or at least pretend that you’ve done so. Or you could repackage old information in surprising new ways. Or else you must be so charismatic and charming that people will listen to you know matter how mundane and clichéd your stories may be.

Happiness scholars and self-help authors: you’re too late! All the surprises and mysteries have been taken. Like any boomtown development in public interest scholarship, happiness research has thrived on novelty but is at risk of going bust as soon as people feel there are no secrets or surprises left to discover. So what content patterns can we discern in the supposedly revelatory discourse of happiness research?

Specifically regarding happiness research, I suspect you actually do know most of the ‘revelations’, ‘suprises’, and ‘secrets’ already. Have you ever bought a self-help book or read about a piece of happiness research and thought ‘wow, how did they keep that happiness secret so well hidden?’

Apocalyptic revelations

Here’s something you probably didn’t know unless you happen to be either a classics scholar or a theologian: ‘apocalyptic’ is from the ancient Greek apokalypsis, which meant ‘unveiling’ or ‘revelation’. In this original sense, something is ‘apocalyptic’ if it genuinely tells you something you didn’t know.

As you already know, one of the most common clickbait phrases is the promise of a list of ‘things you didn’t know’. Similarly, authors of self-help books seem to be compelled to employ a revelatory rhetoric that associates the term ‘happiness’ with terms like ‘secret’ or ‘mystery.’ Amazon lists over 300 books titled ‘Secret [or Secrets] of Happiness’).

Academic happiness researchers deploy a slightly milder version of revelatory rhetoric. There are many hundreds of academic books and articles on happiness using terms like ‘paradoxical’ and ‘surprising’ in their titles. You don’t get ahead, and you certainly don’t get noticed, by saying ‘Trust me, I’m from the University of the Bleeding Obvious, and my research has confirmed loads of stuff you already knew.’ Check out the revelatory discourse in some of these titles by leading happiness scholars:

The Surprising Science of Happiness (Dan Gilbert)

Ageing Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life (George Vaillant)

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness (Martin Seligman)

Positivity: Groundbreaking Research… (Barbara Frederickson)

Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries (Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener)

The Paradox of Happiness (Ziyad Marar)

The Progress Paradox (Gregg Easterbrook)

Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires (Carol Graham)

Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (Tal Ben-Shahar)

The Happiness Equation: The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset (Nick Powdthavee)

The Surprising Happiness of Atheists (Adrian Liston)

Unlike the apocalyptic visions in John’s ‘Revelations’ in the Bible, however, happiness writing generally lacks dramatic visions of horsemen, angels, and earthquakes. It offers us Apocalypse 2.0 – often worryingly tame and predictable, but heralding an age in which it may be possible for the first time for most humans to live happily. In other words, it’s hardly surprising that exercise, and appreciation, and friendliness are good for happiness, but when you think about our current era it’s mind-bogglingly amazing that within a few decades we’ve doubled human life expectancy, trebled the world’s population, and enabled the majority of humanity to live generally happy, autonomous, creative, nonviolent, and secure lives for the first time in the history of the world. What’s also surprising is that so few people believe and relish these achievements.

Public ignorance

If you work on crime statistics or international development – areas about which public perceptions are notoriously wide of the mark [see Ipsos Mori’s wonderful Perils of Perception site ], then it’s quite easy to show people their astonishing levels of ignorance. But producing plausible new knowledge isn’t easy when your research topic is happiness. On the one hand, most people see happiness as more important than anything else, and they have strong personal beliefs and experiences about it.

So if you can persuade people they’ve been labouring under a serious misapprehension about some aspect of happiness, you’re onto a winner. And if your finding points the way to a viable change in behaviour, all the better. Such advice is the bread and butter of the massive global self-help industry, but it’s rarely based on research evidence. On the downside, most things that are worth saying about happiness are highly uncertain, contingent and debatable. So people are bound to ask awkward questions about whether your findings are valid, whether they offer new knowledge, or whether they are actionable.

So when happiness researchers present their findings, or when journalists or bloggers summarise what they believe are the interesting points from happiness research, what kinds of surprise have they found so far? To run a very simple check on these questions, I’ve been doing a few web searches (not yet very systematic) looking for patterns in examples of happiness research findings that people (academics and nonacademics) have described as ‘surprising’ or ‘unexpected’ or ‘unanticipated’. One surprise (to me, anyway) from this quick-and-dirty investigation was that lots of the things that ‘surprise’ some people don’t surprise me at all. Or, conversely, I’m surprised at other people’s surprise. But if you pay attention, a lot of the ‘surprises’ are actually generated mutually by an ongoing tennis match of revelation and contradictory counter-revelation, of which here are a few prominent examples:

Money doesn’t buy happiness

No correlation between government welfare spending and happiness

A wandering mind is an unhappy mind

A ‘time is scarce’ mindset makes you happier

Religiosity is good for happiness

Unequal countries are unhappier

Make up your mind to be happy and you’ll become happier

Happiness comes from enthusiastic anticipation

Real happiness means aiming for ‘fulfilment’, trying to be the best you can be










Money correlates significantly with happiness

Generous welfare states make citizens happier

Daydreaming is good for happiness

Feeling rushed is a major cause of unhappiness

Atheists are happier than religious people

No correlation between financial inequality and happiness

Thinking about happiness makes you sad

Surprising pleasures are better than expected ones

Satisficing is a much more likely to make you happy than maximizing

Although the default association of ‘surprising finding’ is that research has contradicted common knowledge or expectations, not all surprises are of the ‘contrary to expectations, people get happier as they grow older’ variety. There are a variety of ways in which people can be ‘surprised’ by research. The findings can be surprising without actually contradict common beliefs. For example, lots of people seem to find it surprising that increases in monetary wealth or in GDP don’t neatly match trends in self-reported life satisfaction, yet overall the research findings clearly confirm a strong positive association between wealth and happiness.

Two of the most common expressions of surprise concern findings about wealth and happiness. It might seem blindingly obvious that a)wealth generally correlates positively with self-reported happiness and b) the happiness benefits of pursuing and securing wealth show diminishing returns above a level of moderate wealth. Nonetheless, both of these findings seem to raise eyebrows.

Novelty-peddling and the replication crisis

Some day, some enterprising number-cruncher will do a content analysis and prove that the degree to which revelatory terms are used to present research findings correlates inversely with the degree to which people are actually surprised by the findings. When that happens, I won’t be at all surprised if the researcher presents this as a counterintuitive finding. At that point, someone else may step up offering to replicate the study, but no-one will be interested in the replication, because it was only the original ‘surprise’ that was interesting.

The recent ‘replication crisis’ has been particularly keenly felt in social psychology and perhaps especially in ‘positive psychology’ given the temptations of lucrative self-help businesses. Surprising findings are interesting. Disconfirmations or contradictions of those surprises can sometimes be interesting, provided that they serve some potentially useful purpose. But confirmations of findings are generally deemed uninteresting except to a few stalwart scientists who know that an unreplicated finding is likely to untrustworthy until replicated.

If the reporting of happiness research is generally ‘apocalyptic’ in this old sense meaning ‘revelatory’, psychological research is currently at an ‘apocalyptic’ moment in the more modern sense of ‘end of the world as we know it’. For the past five years, all the ‘positivistic’ exponents of the discipline (i.e. those that try to produce factual and falsifiable evidence about the world, of whom some are also ‘positive psychologists’ specialising in the study of human flourishing) have faced the excruciating challenges of the ongoing ‘replication crisis’.

In brief, it has been shown that lots of supposedly robust empirical research claims on which psychologists have built their reputations and their education systems haven’t been subjected to rigorous checks or offered up for replication studies. In other words, it’s not just all that Freudian and Jungian crap that we should be sceptical about, it’s that we should become much more sceptical about those lovely and often persuasive anecdotes about power poses changing women’s lives, pencils between teeth making people happier, and linguistic cues making people behave like old people.

Relatedly, it has also been shown that of all the sciences, psychology is also the most prone to publication biases favoring novel findings. Put these two revelations together, and you arrive at the strong likelihood that a very significant proportion of the discipline’s knowledge claims are not based on good science. They’re not necessarily entirely wrong, and only rarely are they based on outright fraudulence. But the knowledge that psychologists, including happiness researchers, offer, doesn’t generally consist of reliable facts about psychological states and their causes.

Surprises can make us happy, or unhappy.

Quite apart from these questions about which happiness research findings are surprising and why, it is also interesting to consider research on surprise as an aspect of the good life, or as a cause of happiness. Being curious and exploratory creatures, all but the most conservative and timid humans like a modicum of surprise or unfamiliarity in our lives. ‘The brain likes surprises’ as one recent scientific article puts it.

Depending on our character and our current situation, we may benefit from a major surprise, or we may prefer only very mild surprises. Some people like going on adventures, others don’t. Some like going on meticulously planned explorations, others prefer to set off and let serendipity take its course. Some people like experimental music and weird novels, others prefer utterly predictable middle-of-the-road musical genres, and stories that follow predictable structures with predictably satisfactory endings. But just about everyone would become bored if all of life slavishly followed predictable patterns.

So part of the duty of researchers, even if they haven’t found really surprising things about the world, is at least to present their research output in moderately stimulating and entertaining ways. Even the most obvious research findings can be presented in creative ways that allow people to talk, think, and see things in novel ways.

And there you have it. Researchers are just as guilty as journalists, self-help gurus, and youthspeakers at abusing the language of amazement, at selling clichés as novelties, and at pretending that some pretty drab truisms are awe-inspiringly original. Like Coke, whose marketers recently used a ‘happiness machine’ which delivered surprise novelties, they know that people enjoy surprises as long as they’re not actually all that shocking. But then, you already knew that, didn’t you?

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