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Category Archives: Positive Psychology

Why does Scottish Country Dancing (SCD) make you happy?

Michael Argyle, who I think is one of the unrecognised founders of the positive psychology movement, always used to maintain that as well as being married, having a religion, and various other things, taking part in Scottish Country Dancing made people more likely to be happy. Argyle liked to play the part of the English Eccentric, and he enjoyed Scottish country dancing, and he knew people would think it ridiculous and eccentric to propose it as a route to happiness.
But, actually, if you look at modern guidance about things that tend to promote well-being, as in the headings below, SCD does fit a lot of the criteria. I think Michael Argyle knew this, and that’s why he used to mention it – but I think it just made him happy, and he didn’t see why it shouldn’t work for others.
For Argyle, it was SCD, but many types of traditional social dancing fit this pattern, and have probably evolved for just this reason, just as many traditional board games are optimised to support flow.

Moderate levels of exercise With the option of making it more or less strenuous to fit your needs, without upsetting the rest of the group.

Mindfulness/alertness/awareness You have to concentrate on the patterns of the dance, fitting in with the music, matching your movements to your partner’s – and you swop partners as you go through most dances, so you have to be aware and responsive to a number of people. You also have to keep track of where you are on the dance floor, and where others are – there should be a coherent pattern of movement within each set, and several sets often dance together in a space which is a bit too small, so you have to avoid collisions with people from other sets.

Sociality Needs a number of people, and likely to be an organised occasion which puts pressure on you to go and be sociable, whether you feel like it or not. The structure of many dances ensures you look at and touch a number of other people. So if you came with a partner, you can’t ignore everyone else. If you don’t have a partner, whoever you start the dance with only has to put up with you for a small proportion of the dance, so people are fairly likely to agree to dance together, even if the prospective partner doesn’t look promising. On top of that, the dance structure requires certain numbers of couples, so there is social pressure on the unchoosing and unchosen to pair up and join in to make the dance possible.

Cooperativeness Obvious, to make the dance work, but also skilled dancers are motivated to help/tolerate/support unskilled dancers (especially ones who are uncertain about the figures) to enable the dance to proceed, and to make the experience satisfying for themselves.

Varying/developing skill levels, so encouraging flow Can be done by novices (simple patterns, support from others, you don’t have to get the steps right as long as you get the main movements right) but capable of developing a long way in precision, delicacy, vigour, etc. Experienced dancers will choose more complex dances and more subtle tunes.


Are the ideas of positive psychology an example of the fundamental attribution error?

Two short pieces in The Guardian on 22 Feb, by David Harper, reader in clinical psychology at the University of East London,

The sad truth about the Action for Happiness movement
Being happy isn’t only down to the individual

and Peter Stratton, professor of family therapy at Leeds University (

Wellbeing is not about the individual – it’s about relationships
We won’t cure anxiety and depression by ignoring people’s social connections

Both raise doubts about simple-minded ideas from positive psychology. Harper, criticising Lord Lyard’s Action for Happiness initiative ( suggests that there are problems with the idea that action for happiness should focus on the individual:

…the approach is based on two flawed assumptions: that the source of unhappiness lies inside people’s heads – in how they see the world, and that the solution lies in change at the level of the individual.

Surely being put in positions of threat, powerlessness, deprivation* is likely to cause unhappiness, he argues, which some people might be able to overcome, but it’s unreasonable to blame those who are made unhappy by such things as being lacking in ‘resilience’ and ‘well-being’.

A person’s ability to make changes in their lives depends not only on the individual but on their social context – whether they have supportive relationships, a reasonable income and so on. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to attribute a person’s behaviour to individual factors such as intelligence or moral strength, rather than their social context such as poverty or child abuse. This is such a common research finding that psychologists have a term for it: the fundamental attribution error.

Harper points out the well-known case made by Wilkinson & Pickett in The Spirit Level ( that “mental health problems are highest in those countries with the greatest gaps between rich and poor, and lowest in countries with smaller differences”. This doesn’t really contrast with the other well-known findings that national ‘happiness’ scores aren’t much related to national GDP (for instance Inglehart & Klingemann,2000) – at least beyond a GDP per capita of about $13,000 in 1995 – and that US happiness didn’t increase noticeably between 1950 and 2000, although average buying power tripled over the period (Myers, 2000)†. One of the parallels of recent growth in wealth in both the UK and the USA is a considerable increase in inequality: could maybe possible positive effects of increase in income beyond $13,000 have been cancelled out by increase in inequality.

Harper suggests that:

To increase happiness we need firm action on inequality, rather than this vague Action for Happiness.

Stratton is also criticising the individualistic focus of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, the NHS treatment of choice for depression. If there’s

 a recognition that our problems of “social recession” are rooted in society’s undermining of our core human need for confirming and mutually supportive relationships….

[….] the things that matter are security, connectedness to others, authenticity and autonomy, and feeling competent. Can you imagine anyone achieving these without drawing strength and resources from family and other relationships? Can you draw from relationships without putting into them? Why, then, are we clinging to the notion that individually focused “cures” are what will turn us into a society of “happier” people?

Stratton quotes Madeleine Bunting in a 20 February Guardian article (February 20, 2012: not available online) Britain is at last waking up to the politics of wellbeing that our focus on the individual has left us with “an unpleasant cocktail of celebrity, cool, acquisitiveness and depression”.

Perhaps that means we should be thinking more about well-being as a collective social process: ‘positive sociology’ rather than ‘positive psychology’. This starts to sound dangerously like the ‘social engineering’ we’re all encouraged to be wary of ‡.

*For an extreme example, see the story posted by Marie Colvin from Syria this week – shortly before being killed herself in Homs: –and then wonder whether the stuff I’m talking about here really matters much.

† My well-being and happiness has definitely improved since I started working part-time and lost £20,000 or so in income, but I have the social support of the NTU choir (next performances 15 &16 April, Albert Hall, Nottingham and Birmingham Town Hall: tickets available from – and I still have enough money to go to see Toumani Diabaté when he comes to the UK, so I’m in a privileged position.

‡ I’ve always been puzzled by the fear of social engineering. You wouldn’t cheer up airline passengers by saying ‘thank goodness, Boeing has avoided the temptation to apply aeronautical engineering to this 787 Dreamliner: I feel much safer now’ or decide that your new phone is rubbish because Nokia persist in building circuits which follow the principles of electronic engineering. If there is such a thing as society (and Thatcher was wrong), what’s wrong with trying to work out ways to make it go well? And aren’t cities, road numbering, schools (state and private), elections, and the rules of etiquette all forms of social engineering, anyway?

Inglehart, Ronald & Klingemann, Hans-Deiter (2000) Genes, Culture, Democracy and Happiness  in Ed Diener & Eunkook M. Suh (eds) Culture and Subjective Well-Being Cambridge:  The MIT Press. Available at

Myers, David (2000) The Funds, Friends, and Faith of Happy People American Psychologist, 55 (1), 56-67

Meditation and brain scans: for once I like a neuroscience story

Parallel posts on this story on Medical News Today and PsyPost, both (a bit) rewritten from a press release from Yale, I guess (I can’t find the original, but I can find lots of other postings in almost the same words from other news outlets):

For once, this looks like a bit of brain scan research which does help to explain what’s going on, in matching up brain activity with what we know phenomenologically about meditation states, rather than saying ‘some bit of the brain or other lights up, so that’s real proof that it happens’.
Could be, of course, that I just like to see sensible positive stuff about meditation, and the results fit with my own understandings, so I’m a bit prejudiced.

A new brain imaging study led by researchers at Yale University shows how people who regularly practise meditation are able to switch off areas of the brain linked to daydreaming, anxiety, schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders. The brains of experienced meditators appear to show less activity in an area known as the “default mode network”, which is linked to largely self-centred thinking. The researchers suggest through monitoring and suppressing or “tuning out” the “me” thoughts, meditators develop a new default mode, which is more present-centred.

Still, I can’t resist some moans. Here’s  evidence of how these stories closely paraphrase (as journalism, that’s OK; in academically assessed work, this kind of thing counts as plagiarism) and seldom say any more than the original press release. Poor editing, too, with grammatical errors introduced into the MNT version, and not corrected in the PsyPost quote (OK, sticking with a verbatim quote even when it isn’t quite syntactically correct is permissible, but MNT’s version is just a mess*)

On Medical News Today:  “Meditation can help deal with a variety of health problems, from quitting smoking, to coping with cancer, and even prevention psoriasis, one of the researchers said in a statement.”

On PsyPost: “Meditation has been shown to help in variety of health problems, such as helping people quit smoking, cope with cancer, and even prevent psoriasis,” Brewer said.

More important than the grammar is the ‘cure for cancer’ hint, which could just be there to help with the newsworthiness. I know the researcher (Judson Brewer, director of the clinic – see details below) actually says ‘cope with cancer’, which could be fair enough, but can’t you just see this ending up as a headline which says “Meditation Cures Cancer, Psoriasis and Smoking, and Can Cure the ‘Me, Me, Me generation’, Too’?  Guess which newspaper I’m thinking of – and I deny that this is a mendacious smear driven by my hatred of the media.†

Also, the PsyPost posting is illustrated with one of those side-view-of-a-brain-with-two-coloured-blobs-on images which is no use to anyone, but is supposed to make it look like proper science.
Interesting story though, so thanks, MNT and PsyPost.

Here’s the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic’s (the source of the research) homepage, which has access to some interesting-looking stuff: magazine articles and a video of a lecture (in a box on lower right):

The full reference is on the clinic’s ‘publications’ page:

Brewer, J. A., P. D. Worhunsky, J. R. Gray, YY Tang, J. Weber, H. Kober. (2011) “Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (in press).

*And yes, I know any sensible, non-anal person wouldn’t care about this.


Reasons to be grateful: you can boost your amygdala for a better life

There are quite a lot of references and links at the end

The Guardian had alternative headlines for this:
On paper: Happy people caught in a ‘cycle of positivity’, scientists find
Online: Brain scans of happy people help explain their ‘rose-tinted’ outlook has a clear, concise writeup of this (

Brain scans of volunteers who scored high on a standard test for happiness showed activity in regions that reinforced their happy dispositions and set them up for a “cycle of positivity”, scientists said. The positive outlook on life was not a reflection of naivety or ignorance of the world`s threats and dangers, they said, but an enhanced response to positive events and the opportunities surrounding them.
Psychologists Wil Cunningham and Tabitha Kirkland at Ohio State University uncovered the effect while scanning the brains of 38 volunteers as they looked at a series of pictures designed to evoke positive, negative or neutral feelings.
The negative images included an unhappy person sitting in a chair and someone being threatened with a gun, while positive images included a basket of kittens and a bunch of flowers. Among the neutral images were patterns and household objects*.
The scientists focused on part of the brain called the amygdala, an almond-shaped region used in early processing of information about the world around us and emotional reactions to it.
The scans showed that all the volunteers` brains reacted the same way to negative and neutral images, with negative pictures causing more arousal in the amygdala than neutral ones.
But the most striking result was in the happiest volunteers, who had scored five and above on a seven-point happiness test. When they saw positive images, the activity in their amygdalas rose much higher than it did in the less happy people.
The findings were reported at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington DC.

I’ve lifted that from without any guilt: it’s probably based very closely on a press release from the Society for Neuroscience. Lots of other news outlets posted the same story in pretty much the same words.

OK, so our attitude to life and our wellbeing are driven by our patterns of amygdala responsiveness, right? Well, maybe, but this reminded me of a well-known finding in positive psychology research: Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough’s 2003 ‘Gratitude’ research (reference at the end) They found, as described in the abstract (shortened here):

The effect of a grateful outlook on psychological and physical well-being was examined. Participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 experimental conditions (hassles, gratitude listing, and either neutral life events or social comparison) [they kept diaries in which they noted things in different categories – hassles, gratitude, etc –  according to their experimental group]; they then kept weekly or daily records of their moods, coping behaviors, health behaviors, physical symptoms, and overall life appraisals. […] The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being across several, though not all, of the outcome measures across the 3 studies, relative to the comparison groups. The effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.

So, reflecting on ‘blessings’ or ‘things to be grateful for’ (positive things, though rather more experientially meaningful than a basket of kittens) increases wellbeing – and having an amygdala which responds strongly to positive things (well, kittens and flowers) is associated with higher reported levels of happiness – could there be some link here?

In the following argument, I admit that I’m confusing C&K’s ‘positive things’ with E&M’s ‘things to be grateful for’, which may not be justified, but I’m hoping they’re close enough to provide the basis for some speculation.
Note that Emmon’s & McCullough’s study is experimental, so we have some idea of causation, while Cunningham & Kirkland’s is observational, which is why I said ‘is associated with’ in the last paragraph. The usual assumption, when you read about ‘this brain activity is associated with that behaviour’ is that the relationship is deterministic, and, in this case, happy people are happy because they have happy brains, and certainly the way these stories appear in the press generally suggests that. But it looks here as though the relationship could be the other way round: could embarking on a gratitude programme be the thing that boosts your positive amygdala response? And might that lead to a positive cycle between gratitude/happiness and a happy amygdala? Or, of course, it’s possible that the amygdala is pretty trivial here: yes, it responds more strongly in gratitude-loaded people, but that strong response isn’t driving anything, it’s just dependent on other, more important things, such as a conscious focus on things to be grateful for.
What I’d like to see (here’s a possible PhD project, kids – or maybe 3rd year project if you’re at a rich university with easy access to fMRI: are there any of those?) is a study tracking amygdala response à la W&K in people who are going through an E&M-style ‘gratefulness’ programme. You might predict that the decision to practice gratefulness would boost the positive amygdala response: a reverse of brain-led determinism. It might be that W&K are onto this already; they have papers in press with words like ‘tuning’, time’ and ‘trajectory’ in the titles.
We’ve got one famous example of this kind of thing already: the study on the hippocampuses of London taxi drivers (Maguire, Woollett & Spiers, 2006).

Some sources:
Cunningham’s and Kirkland’s home pages, which give details of other research and published papers:

There’s a ref below to a chapter by Emmons & Shelton, discussing gratefulness much more widely, but also containing some details of the experimental research, in Snyder & Lopez’ (2002) Handbook of Positive Psychology.

Emmons, R A., Shelton , C. M. (2002) Gratitude and the science of positive psychology. In: Handbook of Positive Psychology. Snyder, C. R.; Lopez, Shane J.; New York , NY , US : Oxford University Press. 459-471.
Available at

Emmons Robert A., McCullough Michael E. (2003) Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2) 377–389
Available at:

Maguire EA, Woollett K, Spiers HJ. (2006) London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis Hippocampus 16(12),1091-101.  gives you the abstract, which is pretty clear, thorough and helpful, and – as usual – shows that the actual findings are more complex than the myth. Some parts of the hippocampus shrank in the taxi drivers, and “we found that the ability to acquire new visuo-spatial information was worse in taxi drivers than in bus drivers”. Did you know that? Me neither.

*How weedy is this? Miserable-looking person? Basket of kittens? I could think of much more negative and positive stimuli than this. Maybe this is a response to (perfectly proper) ethical concerns – you can’t show people anything which might be so negative that they’re moved to tears: that would be experimental abuse – and so you shouldn’t use anything really positive either – that would be out of proportion to the negative stimulus. This may be being too fussy: everyday there’s something in the newspaper which makes me feel terribly sad. On the other hand, if you can get observable differences with trivial stimuli like this, it looks likely to be a powerful and significant (in both senses) effect.

Don’t feel bitter about failing that exam: it’ll ruin your health

If, in following up stuff on Positive Psychology, you’ve looked at books like Seligman’s Authentic Happiness, you’ll have got the idea that there’s research that suggests that focussing on things to feel good about will improve your overall well-being. That’s one of those psychological ideas which are obvious common-sense – except that the reverse would seem like obvious common-sense too: “You mean, just reflecting each night on things to be grateful about is going to improve your life? Sounds like a recipe for being a loser.”
Here’s Seligman’s Authentic Happiness website:

Well, here’s some research which suggests the reverse applies, too:
“Constant bitterness can make a person ill, according to Concordia University researchers who have examined the relationship between failure, bitterness and quality of life.”  

The press release about this is at

It refers to a chapter by Carsten Wrosch and Jesse Renaud in a book: Embitterment: Societal, psychological, and clinical perspectives (Springer 2011).
“Unlike regret, which is about self-blame and a case of “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” acrimony points the finger elsewhere – laying the blame for failure on external causes. “When harboured for a long time,” says Wrosch, “bitterness may forecast patterns of biological dysregulation (a physiological impairment that can affect metabolism, immune response or organ function) and physical disease.”  “

Yes, but what if the blame for failure really does lie in external causes, and what needs to be done is to “take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them” (we’re always quoting Shakespeare)? Wouldn’t bitterness be a positive motivation? Maybe it’s a matter of being bitter and powerless, so there’s no realistic chance of opposing and ending. Sort of like how run-of-the-mill lecturers might feel about senior management (and I’m not going to comment on the events of August).

If you read further down the press release, there’s a suggestion that bitterness should be recognised as a mental disorder:
“Michael Linden, head of the psychiatric clinic at Free University of Berlin in 2003 [argued] that bitterness is actually a medical disorder and should be categorized as post-traumatic embitterment disorder (PTED). He estimates that between one and two per cent of the population is embittered and by giving the condition a proper name, people with PTED will receive the therapeutic attention they deserve.” 
…that looks like something worth discussing under the heading of Ways of Being Mad.

Anyway, kids, don’t be bitter: bitterness is bad.
I guess any good Buddhist could have told you that. Or as Lao Tsu wrote so long ago (Tao Te Ching, 79):

After a bitter quarrel, some resentment must remain.
What can one do about it?
Therefore the sage keeps his half of the bargain
But does not exact his due.

A man of Virtue performs his part,
But a man without Virtue requires others to fulfil their obligations.
The Tao of heaven is impartial.
It stays with good men all the time.

Martin Seligman on BBC2 Newsnight

Martin Seligman is in the UK promoting his book ‘Flourish’ (well, he might be doing other things, as well).
Fairly gentle interview with Paxman on BBC2 Newsnight, where he made reasonable (ie fairly practical, fairly not happy-clappy) points.
Paxman cited his well-being mnemonic: the acronym PERMA:

1. Positive Emotions
2. Engagement (or flow)
3. Relationships/social connections
4. Meaning (and purpose)
5. Accomplishment

My son (visiting) said “Doesn’t everyone know that already?” Maybe that just shows how well we brought him up – or maybe it shows how obvious lots of Positive Psychology is. I said: “Well, fifty years ago, most psychologists wouldn’t have thought that was obvious.” – and then I thought  ‘but maybe fifty years ago, many non-psychologists would have though it was obvious.’

Psychology laboriously uncovering what sensible, thoughtful people (like my son) already know – again?

I was impressed by Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness: it actually gives research evidence supporting the principles he suggests (and although the title might make you wince, it isn’t really about ‘happiness’).

His research lab has a web site at A lot of it is based around various scales and tests that I don’t find very exciting, but you can pick up the basic ideas without doing the tests.

Here’s a video of Seligman talking about positive psychology from elsewhere. I can’t find a clip from Newsnight. here are several good videos of Seligman on YouTube. His talk to the TED conference is a good start. He’s also on youtube=

The Science of Happiness

Oliver Burkeman‘s regular column in The Guardian on Saturdays: ‘This Column Will Change Your Life’, which is sort-of psychology, was about the ‘science of happiness‘ a month or so ago.

He criticises unrepresentative samples in positive psychology research, using a fun acronym that I hadn’t come across before: White, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic countries – WEIRD – fair enough.
But he claims that there is also a philosophical problem: “even the best scientific studies can’t fully penetrate the experience of being you. [..] it does mean that to talk about happiness, science must translate what you mean when you say ‘I feel happy’ into something more objective: your responses to a questionnaire, say.”
Yeah; so? Isn’t that true of almost all psychology research (apart from that which depends on showing that the ‘happiness centre’ in your brain lights up when you see a basket of puppies – and I’ve already written that I think that kind of evidence is a bit spurious)? I think that applies to all of experience, and so to a great deal of psychology.
Have you tried discussing with your friends what ‘yellow’ means? How can you have any idea what someone else’s experience of colour is? Colour looks like colour: how do you communicate your (literal) world view? This is probably the reason why people with anomalous colour vision (the respondents formally known as ‘colourblind’) are often not aware of it. How can you tell that your world of colour is different from other people’s?
Well, of course, you can. If you persist in calling something ‘blue’ when other people think it’s ‘green’, and you don’t see the numbers in the Ishihara test, then your colour vision is objectively different from most other people’s. The fact that you still can’t access their experience to really know what that difference is may be philosophically interesting, but not much to do with whether you should be accepted for civil airline pilot training.
I think colour vision is an interesting case for these discussions, because there are problems and answers at all kinds of objective/subjective levels, from the language and thought stuff to the great problem of Yellow. Why do red and green make yellow? Completely unexpected, and maybe not answerable by psychological investigation, but once you know about the differential sensitivity of the photoreceptors in the eye, it makes perfect sense. One case where my ‘recording from neurones doesn’t tell us much about human experience’ argument falls over.
Just a small SoT point (though you’ll have recognised that all the preceding is part of psychology’s philosophical questions): towards the end of the article, Burkeman says this ‘highlights the possibility of strategies for happiness which are neither science nor pseudoscience‘, and mentions psychoanalysis, where ‘its focus on the unique properties of the client-analyst relationship might place it beyond meaningful experiment’. Yes: well… wouldn’t that apply to the ‘unique properties’of the ‘kid and his dog’ relationship – or is Burkeman saying something more useful than that? Please comment if you can see the point of his point here. My point about it is, you will have guessed, that we’re still reading about psychoanalysis on Saturday mornings, even after all these years.

Happiness round the world and Maslow’s hierarchy

An international study of the various aspects/levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, by Louis Day & Ed Deiner (2011) suggests that, around the world, satisfying material needs is associated with rating life as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but the ‘higher level’ (in M’s system) needs were related to enjoying life and positive and negative feelings. Reminds me of Herzberg’s two-component system of ‘hygiene needs’ and ‘motivators’.
Day & Deiner found that positive effects could result from satisfaction of either set of needs – so not as hierarchical a system as M suggested.
Equlaity is important, too:

An important finding, Diener said, is that the research indicated that people have higher life evaluations when others in society also have their needs fulfilled.
“Thus life satisfaction is not just an individual affair, but depends substantially also on the quality of life of one’s fellow citizens,” he said.

Maybe this fits with Wilkinson & Pickett’s (hotly contested) ideas about the damaging effects of inequality in societies, described in The Spirit Level (

A little about D&E’s methodology:

The researchers turned to the Gallup World Poll, which conducted surveys in 155 countries from 2005 to 2010, and included questions about money, food, shelter, safety, social support, feeling respected, being self-directed, having a sense of mastery, and the experience of positive or negative emotions.

Quotes above from Medical News Today story about the research at

Ed Deiner’s website is at, and you can get him to send you copies of many of his papers from there (though I don’t think the one mentioned here is up there yet). A useful service: thanks, Ed.

Tay, Louis & Diener, Ed (2011) Needs and subjective well-being around the world  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology  no pagination specified. doi:10.1037/a0023779