Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Grups Award #3


Aaah, The Grups Award. For its illustrious history click here. It's given to ideas and articles that at first glance might seem insightful, but in reality are simple overgeneralizations. Today's Gruppy goes to New York Magazine for this article about happiness. It is filled with generalizations that are drawn from studies that may or may not be rigorous -- the first thing mentioned, which the author uses to tell us that New York City is an unhappy place, is an online test called the Authentic Happiness Inventory. Now, I'm no big city statistician, but because it's self-selecting, this has all the authority of an AOL "Is Brangelina pregnant? Yes/No/Maybe" poll. The doctor even says so: "But please appreciate—and this is a formal disclaimer—that these are not representative respondents." But the article still spends like the first four paragraphs on it, then mentions it a few more times.

It's a lazy, tangent-filled wreck of an article. It dips into the author's personal life before flying through some summaries of studies, before making a few more generalizations and "big picture insights." Then it makes it New York-centric, with some snark, before reversing its position and doing everything all over again. It is, in one convenient location, all the things that bother me about New York Magazine. So, it's winning a Grups award. Here's my running commentary on the article. Feel free to go page by page, and shout these things out, Mystery Science Theater style.

p. 1

- A self-selected group of people logged on and took a test. There is no significance to this test, as the group was self-selected, and, as admitted very small in some locations.

- What is this test, anyway?

- Stop talking about this test.

- The number of people who sign up for a class at Harvard is also not significant. Maybe it's an easy A.
- Wait, how can it be a recent phenomenon if that Smiles guy wrote a book in 1849?
- Has "positive psychology" existed under other names?
- Oh, wait, as self-help books?
- Describing the interest as "explosive" conveniently allows one not to cite a single real number.
- Name-checking Malcolm Gladwell does not make you Malcolm Gladwell. And he kind of has nothing to do with this.
- How is studying happiness a "boomer phenomenon" if all those Harvard kids are interested in it?
- Aaah, putting the pieces together. Self-help=dot com; George W.=positivity. I hate this magazine sometimes.


p. 2

- I still haven't don't know what the Authentic Happiness Inventory is or how it works, but it and its inventor, have been mentioned several times.
- "To wade into the literature on happiness is to wade into a world of control groups and volunteers, questionnaires and ratings scales, cases of the fortunate and cases of the medically extreme." I think you mean: "To wade into the literature on anything related to any trend in any social science is to..."

- A bunch of statistics and studies that aren't synthesized in any way. Or: "I did my homework."

- Wait, a lot of these studies are from before 1998? Umm, why are you still pretending this is a brand new field?

p. 3

- Some generalizations that may or may not be based on rigorous studies.
- "Because our imaginations are limited, we can be disappointed by the things we covet most." I don't think limited is the right adjective there. I don't think limitations have much to do with "being incorrect" in this situation. Wouldn't a limited imagination be more likely to lead you to things that would make you happy? Instead of dreaming about a house made of gold, you'd dream about the new CD you were going to buy.

- "Like most New Yorkers I know, I can’t imagine living in most other places in the world." This statement is a fakey generalization. "No, look, I was only talking about the ones that I know."

p. 4
- "Yet New York, as surprisingly neighborly a city as it is, is still predicated on a certain principle of atomization." I need numbers on this. I need you to demonstrate that New Yorkers have fewer friends and less social interaction than non-NYers.
- "Then there’s the question of the hedonic treadmill, such a demonic little term, so vivid, so apt. Isn’t that what New York, the city of 24-hour gyms, is?" Mixing figurative and actual treadmills is not cool.
- "More charitably put, one could say that New York is a city of aspirants, the destination people come to to realize dreams." Have you considered the notion that if - if! -NYers are less happy than the rest of the country (something you haven't proven), then maybe NYers would be even less happy in the places they came from. Maybe NYers are people who are, say, made unhappy by their families? You're pretending like the same set of inputs makes people happy in exactly the same ways, which is the most consistently annoying thing about this article.
- Based on a comment by Barry Schwartz, you're imagining that NY creates unhappy weirdos, instead of the other way around. Meh. I need more than a comment by Barry Schwartz.

- What's the jam story have to do with anything? I remember reading about food studies that suggested that one simply can't keep more than 7 or 8 tastes specifically in mind. Simple confusion is not the same as being paralyzed by choice ("Wait, did I like Jam 19 or Jam 16?"). Or unhappiness.

- "Yet most of us insist that New York is the only place we’d be happy, just as parents insist their children are their greatest sources of joy." Dammit, you have to back that "most" up. A lot.

p. 5
- And now, you contradict everything you wrote. Y'know I used to do that in college when I realized I only had three pages of a five page paper.

- Writer, please stop implying psychology focusing on pathology was/is a bad/incomplete thing. Do you criticize surgeons for not removing the appendixes of physically healthy people? Making sure that schizophrenics don't go crazy and kill people is more important (I think) than making sure a guy who's already happy gets nominally happier. In fact, that psychologists can focus on this, shows how far the pathology side of things has come, no?
- This guy's peddling self help books? Umm, didn't you say this was different from self help?


p. 6
- "(In fact, happiness researchers frequently use the equation H = S + C + V, or happiness equals our genetic set point plus our circumstances plus what we voluntarily change—a tad too reminiscent, for my taste, of a certain “Far Side” cartoon: “Einstein discovers time actually is money.”)" That's nothing like that Far Side cartoon. Umm. What the fuck?
- The English Patient? Where are you going with this?
- "Some of us are Hanas, some of us are Kips." BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Seriously. Did you just tell me there are two types of people in this world? You did. You didn't say, "There are two types of people in this world," but that's really what you said.


p. 7

- Stop writing about yourself.

- "Like every religion, movement, and interesting idea, positive psychology has its own creation myth." Someone needs to have all of her generalizations taken away from her.


p. 8

- "There’s an untold distance between knowing happiness and knowing about it." Umm...yes? You can put just about any thought/idea in that sentence. Poverty. Hunger. Sunlight. Hunting. Fishing. William Shakespeare. Peanut Butter.
- "And sometimes, to our blinking incomprehension, that distance can only be measured in the space between this life and the next." Oooh. [inhales] Oooh.

- "Until extremely recently, happiness wasn’t even a value, much less an inalienable right. Instead, it was something one got to experience only in death, after leading a virtuous, and often self-denying, life." What? 1) It isn't a "value" now, either. 2) It isn't an inalienable right (cough*pursuitof*cough). Are you really suggesting people weren't happy before 1998? Or 1776? Or...what?

p. 9

- I knew you'd get to the depressed = realist study! It's mentioned in that "Lincoln was depressed" book.
- Ah, and we end on a snarky note, naturally. "A psychoanalyst might even call him conflicted."

- Blech.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Grups Awards are such a great concept...it's always so satisfying to see someone tearing up a self-indulgent article that is thoroughly convinced of its own smartness, especially when the haughty tone masks gaping holes in their reasoning. Though I wouldn't necessarily have picked up on all that you mentioned in your page-by-page breakdown, I got a similar sense of indignation when I read the article, and found myself laughing and nodding at your concordance. It's always so much fun to watch when people are pushed off their high horses into a puddle of their own muck. I am awaiting the next Grups Award.