Down on happiness

Are you blue? Good for you. Happy people are not as nice as sad people, according to a study reported in the New York Times Magazine.

Warning: A commenter reports that the researcher says his study had nothing to do with happiness. Most research shows happy people are darned nice. And why shouldn’t they be?

About Joanne


  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Come on, JJ. Steal it for us.

  2. Actually, you can go here

    to read the article.

    Dr. Seligman was not amused:

    From: [email protected]
    Subject: [DEVELOPMENTS] Misreporting Science in the New York Times
    Date: June 21, 2004 6:40:38 PM PDT
    To: [email protected]

    On June 20th of this year, the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times carried, as its opening story, an article entitled “Against Happiness,” by one Jim Holt. It warned that “Well-being might be bad for you,” basing its thesis on an article that appeared in Psychological Science in May 2004.

    The argument went like this: in the Psychological Science article, Mr. Holt told readers, “Researchers found that angry people are more likely to make negative evaluations when judging members of other social groups….But the same seems to be true of happy people, the researchers noted. The happier you are, the more liable you are to make bigoted judgments—like deciding that someone is guilty of a crime simply because he’s a member of a minority group.” The article goes on to use this as a fulcrum for condemning well-being and happiness as having undesirable consequences for society.

    I was puzzled since I know the literature on the positive consequences of happiness (including increased altruism, leadership, physical health, success, lack of depression, etc.) pretty well. So I re-read the original Psychological Science. I could not find a whisper of the data that Holt centers his article around therein. 

    The Psychological Science article looks at the consequences of sadness, anger, and neutrality (not of happiness) on “bigoted” social judgments. Have a look: DeSteno, David, Dasgupta, Nilanjana, Bartlett, Monica Y. & Cajdric, Aida (2004) Prejudice From Thin Air. Psychological Science  15 (5), 319-324. There is not one word about happiness.

    But I was worried that somehow I had missed something. So I emailed the first author. Here is Dr. DeSteno’s reply:

    “Dr. Seligman is exactly correct.  The article cited below does not contain any statements about happiness.  Rather, our work focuses on the ability of the emotion anger to evoke automatic prejudices.

    I believe Mr. Holt may have been referring to work by Galen Bodenhausen that is cited in a recent NYT Science Times article (from the end of April) that focused on the work of my lab.  Dr. Bodenhausen discussed his work in that article which details the influence of happiness on the use of stereotypes; happiness has been shown to make individuals rely on stereotyped beliefs when making certain judgments under certain conditions.  This is a very different finding from ours in which we demonstrate that anger can bias the automatic appraisal mechanisms of the brain and produce a new prejudice.

    What I find most peculiar about this event is that I was contacted a week ago by someone from the NYT fact checking department who told me of the description of my research findings.  I, of course, noted the error to him and gave him a correct summary of our research findings.  He asked for a phone number where I could be reached as he felt certain that the author would want to speak with me regarding this point.  No one subsequently contacted me.”

  3. Wow. I don’t want to get ahead of my facts, but it looks as though the Times hasn’t completely licked that credibility problem.

  4. Jim Holt says:

    I quote from the DeSteno et al. article in Psychological Science (p.319): “For example, anger and happiness are known to enhance heuristic processing of social infomation that, in turn, exacerbates stereotypic judgments of outgroups (Bodenhausen, Sheppard, & Kramer, 1994; Tiedens & Linton, 2001).”

  5. I work at the American Psychological Society and I’ve been getting a bunch of requests for the article to which Holt was alluding, and it’s been frustrating to tell everyone that no, we didn’t publish it.