Some ranting about positive psychology and the self-help industry

There is a very appealing concept sold by the positive living industry: the critical positivity ratio, or the Losada line. First published in 2005 by the psychologists Marcial Losada and Barbara Fredrickson, their paper uses nonlinear dynamical modelling to show that people need a ratio of just three positive interactions to one negative one to live happier, healthier lives.

It's a brilliant idea, combining mathematical legitimacy and common sense into one weird old tip for being happier.

What a shame, then, that it's also complete bollocks. The critical positivity ratio was debunked by Nick Brown, a graduate student in applied positive psychology, Alan Sokal, a physicist most famous for trolling the journal Social Text by writing complete shit and getting it published, and the psychologist Harris Friedman. There were severe flaws in the theory - for example, in several of Losada's analyses the data used did not meet the basic criteria for using differential equations (continuous variables that evolve smoothly and deterministically over time). The data sets used were in fact taken from studies for some other purpose and analysed post hoc (not a problem on its own, but should have been clearly declared) and one data set doesn't achieve significance! Losada's differential equations used parameters lifted directly from Lorenz's simplified, arbitrary models without explanation, and the pretty butterfly-like figures were taken not from the data but were simulations. Even if the critical positivity ratio is taken seriously, there should be several windows for flourishing and not just one - that is to say, Fredrickson and Losada did not fully understand the implication of modelling their data using nonlinear dynamics.

To sum up, two psychologists used maths they didn't really understand and messed around with their data to produce a theory that is effectively nonsense. Fredrickson responded to the critique, though Sokal was not happy; Losada was too busy running his consulting business to reply. Yeah. Really prioritising science above making money there. Such ethics. Wow. The paper was partially retracted.

All this happened back in 2013. And yet in 2015, we still have articles pushing the critical positivity ratio as though it were fact and not utter discredited lies. To be honest, given that people still defend Andrew Wakefield this is hardly surprising, but it still makes me angry and upset.

The formal study of the mind is very young, but very, very important. Psychobabble like this messes with people's heads, their souls, their entire being. Just as snake oil for physical ailments at best does nothing and at worst makes you sick, psychobabble does nothing good for you at best and at worst compounds your neuroses. Those who spread outdated nonsense like the critical positivity ratio are playing reckless games with other people's minds.

"Well, it can't be that bad..." you might say. After all, it's only some books, some articles, some words. It's nothing too damaging, surely?

As of 2014, the self-help industry - so that includes books, DVDs, life coaching and the rest - was worth $10 billion in the US alone. 80% of people who read self-help books are repeat buyers, which in itself is a worrying sign: if most self-help books actually worked the first time round, people wouldn't need to buy more. It sells people happiness, the promise of a better job, a better relationship, a better life.

At this point someone might ask "well, what's wrong with that?". And there's nothing wrong with self-improvement. The problem is that the self-help industry tries to sell you the secret to success in £9 worth of paperback and then blames you if it doesn't work.

It should be pretty obvious that you can't get the secret to happiness in £9 of paperback. If you could, there would be no need for $10 billion of industry dedicated to getting you hooked on self-help. Most people are confused and muddling through. The happy few who have any sort of idea of what they're doing are either mind-bogglingly lucky or have had to struggle for any happiness they've achieved.

I'm not one of the mind-bogglingly lucky people who gets everything handed to them on a plate, so my struggle involved having to pick reasons to live, learning to adapt to shitty maladaptive brain chemistry, trying to hack my brain into working better (because you can do this), and learning that my brain actually works in an utterly illogical way. (I do physics. If I were to design a thought process, it would not be half as complicated and dysfunctional as what really goes on inside my head.) Oh, and that I can hack my brain so that it has nicer, more logical thought processes.

Other people cannot do this for you, although they can help you do it for yourself. It is your responsibility and it is something that has to be lived. That automatically rules out most self-help.

The other major problem I have with the self-help industry and most "positive thinking" stuff is that it's very centred on individual attitudes. To be fair, changing the way you think about things can also help change the way you process stimuli - but most self-help apportions all responsibility to the individual and none to external factors. This is plainly ridiculous. For example, if I am discriminated against, no amount of positive thinking on my part is going to stop the discrimination. If I am made homeless, no amount of positive thinking on my part is going to get me a job or a house. If I cannot walk, no amount of positive thinking on my part is going to turn a flight of stairs into a ramp or a lift. If I want to actually change things, rather than living with them as they are - and I believe things can be changed for the better - no amount of smiling at my situation will change the external reality. (Of course, this implies that there exists some vaguely objective reality Out There and that's opening a whole other can of worms...)

...Oh, yes, and did I mention that some authors of self-help books have no formal mental health credentials? Did I mention that not that many authors base their books on published research? There are some who would say that this is fine because the important thing is to help the individual. I'm not one of them; this is less because I'm a brutal tyrant who doesn't recognise individual variation and more because evidence-based treatment tends to, you know, work better than that thing that worked for your friend's girlfriend's cousin's roommate. (Also, account for your individual needs because individual variation still exists.)

Okay, anecdotal evidence time: I personally don't take well to most self-help stuff for what are ultimately deep-seated and very irrational reasons. I think it's something to do with the advertising - some people might think "Oh, this looks like it can really help me become successful!" but because I'm bitter and angry, I think "Oh, this looks like wanky clickbait". I don't like stuff that seems insincere or unwilling to address negative emotions like sadness or fear, which is why I have problems with "inspirational" stories about how some tragedy was actually a blessing in disguise.

The book that helped me most wasn't even a self-help book; it was a book about cognitive biases that my mum got me. I'm no stranger to reading to make myself feel happier; I read and read and read to understand more about myself and others, to feel more grounded, to assure myself that someone somewhere felt the same confusion and emptiness that I did. I made myself a library to fill my heart. It worked, sort of. The reason that book in particular helped me is because it explained to me that I wasn't thinking rationally. This gave me the power to challenge my intrusive thoughts, because they were based on what was most emotionally available to me and not on me impartially observing the outside world. Importantly, I didn't feel like I was being judged or being pressured into feeling happily, and even more importantly, it was backed up by decades of evidence and had two academic papers in the appendices. I felt like if I asked questions (and I did - I asked a lot), I was going to get more answers than just being told that I was being overly negative.

That's just my story, though. That's just anecdotal evidence. Actual peer-reviewed evidence shows that self-help books can be effective, and that's why it's even more important to get the psychology right.

"But you keep talking about how self-help books don't work!" you cry.

Yes. That's because I genuinely thought they didn't work, since they haven't worked for me, and made the stupid mistake of generalising my experience.

I also left out three important caveats. Firstly, self-help books are not a cure-all - even in the best-case scenarios people will still be left with lasting symptoms. Secondly, self-help books are more effective for people with milder conditions; for example, someone who is otherwise sane but has mild public speaking anxiety will benefit more from a self-help book than someone with severe depression. Finally, self-help books are more effective when combined with help from a therapist.

So, where do we go from here? I'm not a psychologist. I'm a broke mental patient hustling for any kind of gainful employment, so I'm almost totally unqualified to speak about this. Then again, the internet is full of people running their mouths - one more idiot can't hurt.

Since self-help books are effective, that makes it even more important to get the psychology right. However, their effectiveness is limited. People should be made aware of the three main caveats; the books aren't cure-alls and it's irresponsible to market them as if they are. Journalists need to do their fucking job and check facts before publishing something that's already been debunked. Psychologists need to do their fucking job and focus on getting the science right before turning a profit off bad maths.