The Scientist, the Housewife, and the Guru–Science and Possibility Part 1

The Scientist, the Housewife, and the Guru

My mother-in-law was recently visiting from France and was interested in borrowing a book from my collection of positive psychology texts so she could learn more about the science of happiness.  I brought her to my bookshelves and told her to browse what was there and to let her curiosity be her guide.  After a few minutes she had selected three that she wanted to ask me about:  1. “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, 2. “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin, and 3. “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle.  Which one would I recommend?

It is a difficult choice.  Only one of the books is truly “positive psychology.”  “The How of Happiness” is written by a psychologist and is based on actual research findings on the roots and causes of happiness.  Of the three it is the most “evidence based” and grounded in real science.

“The Happiness Project,” on the other hand, is written by a housewife and former lawyer, who decided to test out different ways to create happiness in her life.  Some of her “experiments” are based on the science of positive psychology, but some come from wisdom handed down from her elders, ancient philosophy, or from sources in popular culture such as Oprah Winfrey.

And the third book, “The Power of Now” is written by a spiritual guru who seems (at least by his own accounts) to have transcended his own ego through a practice of mindfulness and now teaches spiritual enlightenment to others.

Many of the people I know who study or work in positive psychology would say that the first book (by Sonja Lyubomirsky) is the only one worth reading.  After all, it is the only one that has actual scientific research to support its claims.  It is the only one that has theories and methods which have withstood the tests of science.  But science has its limitations.  Some would argue that the science behind positive psychology is still pretty slim.  And even as it evolves, science doesn’t provide us with all we need to know.

Scientific research shows us things that have been tested and found to have results greater than a placebo on a sufficiently large population of subjects.  But it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about what will work for any one individual. Although scientific studies help to discover results that are applicable in the real world, the reality is that the nature of research requires controls to be placed on it, which vary the conditions from what is typically found in a real world setting.    In other words, a study done in a university psychology department that tests the results of some intervention on the happiness of a group of college students participating in exchange for class credit may or may not represent how the intervention will work on a middle-aged mother of two out in the real world.

In “The Happiness Project”, Gretchen Rubin is that mother of two, trying things out, seeing how they work for her, and sharing her experiences with the world.  The things that work for her may or may not work for her readers, but she encourages them to try things out for themselves by doing their own “happiness projects.”  There are lots of things we can learn from the experiences of others, even when they haven’t been the subject of a rigorous scientific study.

Eckhart Tolle and other spiritual leaders like him are probably the most likely to be repudiated by the scientific community.  He may be denounced as a snake oil sales man—a charlatan, promising enlightenment as a way to sell books.  But there is always the possibility that he is an outlier.  Perhaps he truly has found enlightenment in a way that few people have.  As an outlier, the phenomena of his experience and achievements would be discarded in scientific research.  Statistically he would be viewed as an error that could contaminate the rest of the data where the commonalities and trends for how things work across broad populations are sought.

Ellen Langer, a mindfulness researcher, speaks of “the psychology of possibility,” saying, “if I can make one dog yodel, then we can say that yodeling is possible in dogs.”  Normal scientific research does not uncover these kinds of possibilities.  And so if Eckhart Tolle might be one of the few people who claims to have found the secret to true happiness, maybe it is worth reading his book, and seeing if what he has to say rings true for you.

Science is important.  Theories should be tested.  Research should be done.  Evidence should be gathered.  But this is not the only pathway to learning.  Learning comes from sharing stories, from legends and myths, and from individual experimentation and inquisitiveness.  Which one of these books would I recommend?  They are all good.  Which one is most meaningful to you?

References and recommended reading:

Langer, E. J. (2009). Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. New York: Ballantine Books.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.

Rubin, G. (2009). The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. New York: Harper.

Tolle, E. (1999). The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Vancouver: Namaste Publishing.

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4 Responses to The Scientist, the Housewife, and the Guru–Science and Possibility Part 1

  1. Lisa S. June 22, 2010 at 10:49 am #

    I’m sure all three are great books, and in true Pos Psych fashion, I have read #1, own #2 but not read it, and have never even opened a copy of #3. However, that said, I do get a bit tired of the Pos Psych insistence on scientific valid tested empirical data-driven results that are the “only ones that matter”.

    One of the best talks I remember from Marty (Seligman) in our MAPP lectures was about the work he did with Consumer Reports. I may be making up and forgetting some details here, but the essence was that they wanted testing done on things that could not be tested in a lab. In a laboratory setting, you can adjust one variable at a time. You can control for a lot of conditions. You only work with a very specific population. You can do random assignment. It’s a sterile testing environment where almost all of the conditions are accounted for.

    However, this is not how life works. In real life, variables are changing all of the time – frequently without our control, influence or conscious awareness. The conditions may be uncontrollable and random. We encounter all walks of life, and there is no “random assignment”. It is a living laboratory, where we may not be able to go back and replicate the findings the next day. Yet, that is where the proverbial rubber hits the road.

    I am willing to bet that there are plenty of laboratory findings (and not just in the field of psychology) that lost traction when implemented in real life. Why would Pos Psych be any different?

    I applaud Gretchen Rubin for her book (although I haven’t yet read it) because it’s a worthy experiment in of itself. Not everything she tried is “positive psychology” and lab-tested, but even Pos Psych has its roots in unempirical theory – how many lab tests did Aristotle run?

    Let’s continue to share stories – practitioners and experimentalists should work together, sharing information and ideas. This is also, I believe, a great gift that positive psychology can share with the world: collaboration and breaking down traditional walls and silos. Recommend all three books. Why preselect?

    (steps off soapbox…)

  2. Dan Bowling June 23, 2010 at 8:07 pm #

    Great blog. Again. I have read the first two books, and instinctively dismiss the third, but as Lisa and you suggest, maybe we should be more open to “whatever works.” We default to the hard core science, but that science (positive psychology) is very new, and is being tested in pretty delicate environments (when you “give something away,” you never know if it is worth anything). I am finding this out as I try to apply it in the for-profit world (to mixed results), so maybe we shouldn’t be so dismissive of other approaches.

  3. oz October 15, 2010 at 7:21 pm #

    Jeremy – I own and have read all three books.

    Personally believe that you should read all the books with a fundamental question in mind “does it work – if so why?”. For example Tolle’s work although shrouded in spirituality is fundamentally about mindfulness.

    Gretchen’s book would be better described as how a neurotic well off ex lawyer decided to get off her butt and do something

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