Nick Brown and Julia Rohrer recently posted a new
preprint titled Re-slicing the ”Happiness Pie:
A Re-examination of the Determinants of Well-being
that comments on an
influential paper by Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005) on the determinants
of well-being. Nick Brown is the amateur who debunked the mathematics of
(together with the legendary Alain Sokal of the “Sokal hoax”). He has
made a name for himself exposing shoddy work in positive psychology. This is another addition to this genre. What is particularly mind-blowing with this one is
not just the sheer lack of intellectual sophistication of the criticized paper,
but the fact that it has produced a whopping 3000 Google Scholar citations.

The central claim of the Lyubomirsky et al. paper is
that roughly 50% of the variance in well-being can be explained in terms of
genetic predispositions and that roughly 10% of it can be explained in terms of
life circumstances, leaving up to 40% to be explained in terms of intentional
activity. This decomposition of the determinants of well-being, which has come
to be known as the happiness pie, has become a cornerstone of the self-help and
coaching movements, as it appears to suggest that all persons have considerable
control over their own well-being.

Problems pointed out by Brown and Rohrer

Brown and Rohrer meticulously pick the happiness pie apart.
Here are some of the errors:

1. An additive model that divides the determinants of
well-being into three disparate portions (or pieces of a pie) is only
meaningful if all the portions are independent of each other. But there
is plenty of evidence of interactions between genes, environment, and
volitional activity.

2. No evidence is presented that the “leftover” variance
after taking genetics and the environment into consideration can be attributed
to volitional activity.

3. Measurement error, which attenuates estimates, has not been taken into consideration. If we adjust for this, there will be less “leftover”

4. When the sources for the numbers 50% and 10% are
re-examined, these numbers appear to be arbitrary, and how they were derived is
not transparent.

5. Particularly the 10% estimate appears based on sloppy
reasoning. Countless environmental factors are not measured in
the survey studies that this estimate is based on (in utero influence is a
dramatic example). Environmental factors are frequently operationalized in terms of demographic variables (which have both genetic and environmental determinants and do certainly not exhaust the full range of relevant life

6. Even if the 50% and 10% figures and the subtraction
logic by which 40% of the variance is leftover for intentional activity were
correct, this would still just be a population average. It would not imply that
each individual has substantial control over his or her well-being.

Moving beyond the Brown and Rohrer paper

The great irony of all this is that there is nothing here—neither in the Lyubomirsky et al. paper nor in the Brown and Rohrer paper—showing that people cannot
change their well-being through intentional activity either. The deeper problem
is that claims about the effects of will-power (and to an even greater degree
claims about free will) do not have anything at all to do with heritability and
environmental influences per se. The proper way to scientifically investigate the
extent to which people can intentionally change their well-being is to:
recruit a large group of persons who are highly motivated to do what it takes to
increase their well-being,
(b) make sure that they have all relevant resources
(or at least measure whether they do), including the best forms of therapy or
training programs, time, money, etc., and make sure that they actually do what
they are supposed to do,
(c) measure changes in their levels of well-being
compared to a control group of persons who do not engage in deliberate efforts
to change their well-being but who are otherwise comparable to the group of
persons who do.

Obviously, this is not easy to do (e.g., how do we make sure
that experiment and control group are comparable?), and even if done well, all
that we could say is that this is what we can achieve with our current state of
knowledge. It is possible that there are effective methods for increasing
well-being that have not yet been discovered or are not widely known.

Heritability coefficients and estimates of
environmental correlates in a general population are in themselves irrelevant
to this question because we do not know whether the persons who participated in
these studies did engage in persistent intentional efforts to change their
well-being or whether they had access to the best strategies for doing this. These pieces of information could possibly have some relevance if we
would know which individuals had the motivation and strategies necessary for
deliberate improvement of well-being and which did not. Even so, intentional
orientations do not emerge randomly out of thin air—they may be related to traits
such as consciousness or openness to change, which have a sizable genetic
component—so it might be tricky to find twins who differ enough in this regard.

At any rate, a case can be made that people do at least have the capacity for
intentionally changing their well-being if they are motivated to make enough
changes to their lives, without resorting to any of the dubious arguments presented by