Psychology’s attempt to overcome the so-called “crisis of replication” was not successful. five corpses: the five most popular strategies for increasing happiness. A study that has just been published in a group journal Nature warns that none of them is supported by sufficient scientific data.
Just over a decade ago, the discipline entered a crisis. If the reason for scientific research is the possibility of repeating an experiment and getting the same results, then a series of projects that tried to test this found the opposite: in most cases, the result was completely different.
The problem was not in the discipline itself, but in methodological flexibility: it was common practice to adapt goals as the study progressed, or to use a small number of participants. (in this case, the statistical relevance is lost).
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One of the solutions to get out of the predicament was pre-registration of studies, that is, informing the scientific community about the features of the work (hypothesis, methodology, sample size and characteristics, etc.) and the obligation to follow it.
Hence the new study by Dunigan Faulk and Elizabeth Dunn in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. They took a subject with a lot of research, such as happiness, and analyzed how the published material was methodologically relevant.
They first chose five of the most popular happiness-increasing strategies that have appeared in the media. There were five of them: daily gratitude exercises, meditation or mindfulness, nature walks, physical activity and social contacts.
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From an initial selection of 1,035 relevant studies, they found only 57 that had the characteristics they were looking for: they were pre-registered, they had sufficient statistical power, or both.
In fact, they found only two gratitude studies that met both criteria, two more that assessed social interactions, but none for meditation, physical activity, and being in nature.
Immediate but not long-term effect
In one study of gratitude, 395 American parents were asked to write a thank you note, and another 217 were asked to write about how they spent the previous week.
Those who wrote the thank you letter showed a significant level of positive impact immediately after the letter, but no difference was found during the five days of follow-up.
A second study conducted on students showed similar results: an immediate effect, but over time it disappeared.
In another strategy, exercise, the researchers included twelve studies that, while not pre-registered, were statistically significant. Together, they “suggest that one exercise can improve mood. almost all long-term exercise programs failed to benefit happiness“.
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Overall, the authors of this article observed that the benefits of the strategies were immediate but not sustainable over time.
“The present review,” they conclude, “shows that some of the most commonly recommended strategies for improving happiness are based on a weak evidence base.”
95% of the experiments in three of them—exercise, outdoors, and meditation—do not have the potential to remove sample size biases.
In the analysis of gratitude and sociability, there is somewhat more evidence of their benefit, at least in the short term, but they do not eliminate the suspicion of publication bias, that is, that only positive results are disclosed.
“There is much accumulated evidence of the lack of effectiveness and scientific quality of research on happiness, well-being, and mindfulness, of which this study is only the latest,” the psychologist emphatically asserts. Edgar Cabanasresearcher at the Autonomous University of Madrid and co-author, together with Eva Illous, Happycracy: How science and the happiness industry control our lives.
“These data show that when research meets minimum scientific standards, the results obtained from happiness interventions are null and even negative, meaning they don’t do what they say, and, Sometimes what they do is just the opposite.“.
Cabanas draws attention to positive psychology, a discipline dedicated to the study of happiness, especially affected by this “crisis of reproducibility”. “The science of happiness, including positive psychology, is almost 25 years old from its original inception, so there has been plenty of time to get it right. This is not an excuse”.
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Other experts, on the contrary, are more peaceful. Speaking to the Science Media Centre, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Oxford Geoffrey Bird try not to worry about this subject.
“Pre-registration (of research) does not magically make bad research good, and no (registration) does not make good research bad. Small samples can of course be problematic, but we have procedures in place to combine small studies and evaluate the effectiveness of an intervention.”
Talking about the same environment Bruce Hoodprofessor of developmental psychology at the University of Bristol and author of a forthcoming book on the science of happiness, points out the need for such a review to separate the wheat from the chaff.
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“Unfortunately, despite the large number of studies reviewed, almost all of them were poorly conducted, making them vulnerable to publication. This does not mean that there is no evidence to support these interventions, but as long as we do not have a significant body of well-designed studies, we should treat these recommendations as preliminary, not as firmly established“.
On the other hand, for Edgar Cabanas the question is clear. Happiness is not something that can be trained like a muscle, but it is closely related to the conditions of people’s lives, “including work, salary, family, social inequality or life instability.”
And he warns that while better research into happiness strategies is beginning to take place, they will need to include social, cultural and economic variables and considerations “which are consistently ignored in these studies, which also affects the conclusions drawn from them.”
In other words, if we don’t take everything around us into account when evaluating a person’s happiness, we are likely to miss again.
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