The Unhappy Truth About Positive Psychology

The Unhappy Truth About Positive Psychology.

This is a wonderful read to kick off the New Year, if you’re into reflecting on arbitrary milestones.

Flourishing involves how we live more than what we feel: engaging life whole-heartedly – which includes responding to adversity to the best of our ability – and treating other people honorably. We thrive when we realize the best within ourselves, while enriching the lives of other people.

Or just keep up with the mindless self-antagonism and the band-aid of useless motivational aphorisms.

Fuzzy Science

[If you haven’t already, read Part I and Part II of this series before diving in here.]

It’s All So Fuzzy

Let’s take the question of muscle and what makes it grow. We can answer this question fairly well with some simple observations. Namely, you can go to any gym and you’ll notice that the people with well-developed muscles all tend to lift weights. That’s an anecdotal observation, but fortunately various research studies, both observational studies watching athletes and more direct interventions in the lab, have validated this “no kidding” conclusion.

We’ve got a lot of data that tells us yes, lifting weights makes your muscles grow. That’s an objective fact, in as much as we can ever define objective facts about exercise. If you want to get bigger, you pick up a barbell, or a dumbbell, or at least go to a cable station. You wouldn’t want to start running 10 miles a day. Extremes like this are easy to pick out — and they often tell us nothing interesting.

We turn to science in hopes of more detail. Case in point: it’s more or less true that all the people with big muscles lift weights, so we have that, but notice that little Jimmy also lifts weights and he doesn’t have big muscles. There’s obviously a relationship between “big muscles” and “lifts weights”, but the opposite — that all people who lift weights get big muscles — doesn’t hold true. We’re missing something.
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Two Minds and a Flame War

I’m fascinated by the human mind. The mind, such as there is a thing we can refer to with that word, is where all the interesting things about humankind go on. It’s also poorly understood, even by the legions of bright people who have studied and reflected upon it for thousands of years.

Vagueness aside, you’ll notice that we’ve got a Pretty Good intuitive grasp of thoughts and sensations, such that we can communicate reasonably well most of the time. The fact that you can read my words and (hopefully) understand what I want to convey attests to that. Sometimes, Pretty Good is good enough.

Knowing how people operate is a crucial skill in any instance that involves other people. Case in point, fitness training and nutrition. These fields are applied science, and on paper at least we should be able to craft perfect workout programs and diets — at least, you’d think that according to much of the internet.

Often, though — likely more than not — these perfection-seeking schemes fail. Why can’t people just do what we know is right? Why do all these pig-headed people disagree with my perfectly-designed workout? Why do people not eat according to these scientifically-derived principles that ensure success?
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Assorted Links on Cognition and Neuroscience

Links of interest:

The Belief Engine by James Alcock — A nice look at the confabulation powers of the brain which lead to bias and irrationality.

Inducing Disbelief in Free Will Alters Brain Correlates of Preconscious Motor Preparation — Your belief in free will influences voluntary control over movement. More evidence that abstract beliefs and psychological framing have a real impact.

How to Keep Catastrophic Thoughts from Killing You by Joe Robinson — More on overriding the built-in stress response with psychotherapy methods. This has obvious applications for “overtraining”.

Brains manufacture beliefs and beliefs generate physiological responses.

The Language of Failure [Neuropsych]

In the 1930s, linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf argued that language shapes thought. Language, wrote Sapir, can be considered “the mold of thought.” Languages doesn’t simply latch on to pre-existing concepts. The words themselves define the concepts available to us and provide the raw building material for our thoughts. There can be no thoughts without the words to define them.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as this argument became known, itself went on to influence social theories and, perhaps most famously, the ‘newspeak’ in George Orwell’s 1984.

I’m no linguist and I won’t try to argue over the correctness of linguistic relativity. What I find interesting is the premise that words can influence our thoughts, if not outright shaping them.
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Does it help me? [Stop Nitpicking]

The first chapter of Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath (link to my review) tells the story of Jerry Sternin, who came to Vietnam in the 1999 with a big mission and a small budget. Sternin had the task of fighting child malnutrition in poor villages, without government support and only limited resources of his own.

Most of us can relate to feelings of despair that come up in overwhelming situations. The goal seems impossible and the trip hopeless, so why bother at all? It’s easy to just give up.

Sternin took a different path. He went out to the villages and looked for cases where the children weren’t starving, and then copied that solution. Within a year, while the problem wasn’t solved, there were measurable, and almost unbelievable, improvements. Because Sternin focused on what was working, rather than everything that was wrong and in his way, he got results.

The Heath brothers used Sternin’s story as an example of finding the bright spots. When you’re looking for a solution, you don’t focus on all the facts that, no matter how correct, don’t help you solve the problem. You look at what is working and you copy it.

The human mind has a built-in negativity bias. We’re wired to focus excessively on the downsides and drawbacks and to ignore the positives. We make up our minds unconsciously and then rationalize our decisions after the fact — what’s called motivated reasoning.

There is considerable evidence that people are more likely to arrive at conclusions that they want to arrive at, but their ability to do so is constrained by their ability to construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these conclusions.

You want to be right, and being right means everyone else must be wrong, or stupid, or your choice of derogatory term. Your brain then makes that happen and convinces you that you’re being objective and reasonable.

When faced with a large and challenging problem, whether a project at work or trying to stick to a diet, it’s easy focus unduly on how hard it will be, on all the drawbacks, potential risks, and all the reasons why trying to pull off this forsaken scheme from HP Lovecraft’s imagination is a bad idea.

This is where perfectionism originates.

You can quote facts all day long. In human decision-making, facts are largely irrelevant. We’re so inherently biased that we will give less weight to facts that disagree with us, to the point of ignoring or outright dismissing them. Meanwhile, the facts that agree with us are elevated far beyond their relevance.

Chris Mooney recently wrote an excellent piece titled The Science of Why We Don’t Believe in Science, which covers the power of cognitive biases and motivated reasoning. This article is well worth the read for a summary of the field as it stands. We see that humans are not pure rational beings, but instead engines of rationalization who create fictional narratives based on a loose approximation of the real world.

Believing that a project will be difficult to the point of impossible means that you’re quite likely correct. Facts alone can’t change that. As much as we love to immerse ourselves in the concrete world of science and reductionist materialism, as much as we want to base our actions on research, this information is largely worthless when it comes to getting things done.

Perhaps most insidious, even a research-informed viewpoint is subject to potentially immense biases — the educated and informed are not exempt from the slimy tendrils of motivated reasoning. Consider that next time you’re evaluating an allegedly informed source. Not adhering to your arrived-at set of beliefs doesn’t make a person stupid or ignorant. It makes them human.

And if you want to persuade human beings, your best bet is not to put them on the defensive or bombard those people with endless series of useless factoids. Jerry Sternin referred to info-dumping as facts which were True But Useless — information which is technically true and probably correct from a factual standpoint, and entirely useless for generating solutions.

At this point I stop, review my older writing, and cringe. How much time did I spend on True But Useless information? I hardly want to think about it.

We’re supposed to focus on solutions. Pontificating over useless truths and acting obnoxiously pedantic over every last piece of trivia is not productive. As the Heath brothers said, find the bright spots and ignore the rest.

Find what works, take away what you can use, and don’t worry about anything else.

Consider my recent review of the paper on light-load constant tension training, and some of the skeptical responses this paper generates. Every criticism in the world can be leveled at this paper. They didn’t use a mid-range group to test between the extremes of heavy and light loads (this wasn’t the point of the paper). They didn’t control for the results. There’s always something wrong with a paper if it disagrees with your previously established viewpoint. Everybody has a motive.

But that’s not helpful. That doesn’t provide a solution.

Find the bright spot. What’s bright about this paper? It shows us that there is a physiological mechanism to explain how light, constant-tension ‘pump’ training can build muscle. It doesn’t say ‘drop all heavy work and do nothing but light training’. It says ‘here’s how light training might work’. It says ‘maybe this is why bodybuilding methods using light isolation exercises build muscle’.

The subtext is that things we observe happening in the Real World can be explained. The research provides an explanation for why it works. The paper isn’t perfect — so what? What benefit do I get from pointing out that there are largely irrelevant flaws in research methods? Does that help me achieve what I want from the gym?

Sitting on forums and deconstructing the fine trivia of workouts or research studies or diets I don’t like isn’t a productive use of time. Caving in to the petty nitpicking urges of motivated reasoning is not useful.

Over the last few years I’ve become more and more frustrated with nitpicking and obsession with True But Useless details. This mindset becomes negativity for negativity’s sake, whether for ego-building or arguing for the sake of arguing. Either way, nothing useful comes out of it.

I’d rather focus on what works, find the bright spots, and take away those things that help me.

Dealing with Uncertainty in Training [Program Hopping]

What is the ‘perfect program’? Could any of us, educated and experienced, define perfection? What does ‘perfect’ mean in the first place?

The thinkers among us might be able to cobble together a definition based on abstract concepts, maybe a little handwaving about goals and efficiency and other assorted trinkets of philosophical pontifications. In the concrete world of the gym, where the barbell trumps the abstract, there can be no ‘perfect’.

So why do so many people spend their time looking for perfection in training?

Consider the phenomenon of program-hopping. Every last one of us either knows a person who does this — or is that person. Training ADD is the eternal quest for something better, the greener grass we can see just over there. The program-hopper continually second-guesses and always wants something more.

This is perfectionism, and it’s a kind of disordered thinking born out of insecurity.

The remedy to perfectionism is Doing, instead of Thinking.

Analysis Paralysis

A lot of us — especially those who would be attracted to my viewpoint — come from a very rationalist, science-influenced background. We like, and expect, hard answers. When we don’t find those, we shut down. Uncertainty leads to paralysis. We need quantifiable values or else we can’t function.

Spreadsheets are cause for relief. The percentages that dominate periodized workout plans are sweet comfort, saving us from the unknowns that hide in the power rack.

Each and every week, new programs come out. Every year, there are new fads: supplements, training programs, diets. And there are always hundreds, thousands, lined up to go — abandoning what they’re doing right now, which is usually last year’s bandwagon, in favor of the new hotness.

That’s not productive behavior; that’s a fashion trend. Graphic design and professional photography ensure that there’s scarcely a superficial difference between the two fields.


Beginners always ask the same questions. They’re interested in the same broad set of issues: What exercises? How many for this part or that part? How do I split my workouts? How much should I eat?

Beginners never ask the important questions. Beginners never want to know how to train. Beginners never want to know how to succeed.

When the wise man points at the moon, the beginner focuses on his finger. The program, the written-down details of a training schedule, is not wisdom. What is the program pointing towards?

The beginner asks questions which have no meaningful answer. Details. Trivia. Unimportant. Unask the question.

The essence of success is mastery. Productive training is an internal mindset, not a list of exercises and reps. A program is a signpost, an outward sign of the real training process.

How do you train with, and who do you talk training with? Do you train with successful lifters, or do you sit on forums and complain about ‘overtraining’? Do you lift in a gym with a charged, vibrant atmosphere, or do you exercise in a neon-and-chrome ‘fitness center’? Do you show up for your workouts? Do you get enough sleep?

These are the things that matter. Not SuperPump XLS 5000, not exact diet macros, not a precisely-crafted program that you’ll change in two weeks.


Biology, at the macro-level of weight training and adaptation, is not an easily-modeled system. You cannot introduce Variable X and expect Outcome Y with predictable regularity. The system is nonlinear. Alter X and 100 different elements change in response.

Last week, I linked to Nick Horton’s excellent article The Death of Heavy Days. Nick describes the ability to let go, to stop stressing over what happens. You can come into a workout knowing only the exercise to work on. The workout can evolve organically from that. No stress. No targets, no goals. Only the doing-without-doing.

Effortless effort.

In training there are no well-defined inputs that lead to well-defined outputs. The essence of training is uncertainty. How you deal with uncertainty dictates how far you can go.

This is not to say that there is no need for programming. Far from it. There are mostly-rights and mostly-wrongs in program design. I concede that these days, I’m far more forgiving than I once was regarding diversity in training approaches. So long as a program isn’t explicitly injurious, and as long as it motivates you to show up, then enjoy yourself.

Put another way, Do What Works.

Humans are wired to label and categorize. We look for patterns even when there are none. Programs are an illusion of meaning, based on our assumptions and biases. We assume that everything can be mechanized and systematized. We assume that we can copy the outward and mimic the inward.

Realize that, as a program-hopper, no matter what you do you will always be questioning your results. Could I be getting stronger? Could I lose this fat a little faster? The less experienced you are, the more likely your questions will be off the mark: Could I do barbell curls instead of dumbbell curls?

Don’t simply resist temptation. Relax. Unask the question. Your logical mind seeks answers and meaning where there is none.

The finger is not the wisdom. Look at the moon.

Why goals do more harm than good [Goal-setting]

Sports are highly competitive. I know, I get the Nobel Prize for Obvious Statements, but we take it on faith that we must push to be the best. And why not? Why go into a sport, or any activity, if you don’t plan to win? Winning is the whole point, no?

I’m being sensationalist with the title, as I don’t think goals are intrinsically harmful. With no goals, we’d have nowhere to aim. We need direction. My concerns about harm relate to how we perceive goals and the importance we attach to them.

Consider how you approach a goal in training, whether you’ve got an upcoming bodybuilding show or powerlifting meet, or a lift you really want to hit. Is it only the outcome — the trophy, the number — that matters to you? If you lose, what will your behavior say about you? When you fail, do you take it personally?

Goals, in themselves, are neither good nor bad. How you treat your goals can make or break you. We tend to measure ourselves by our ability to achieve, transforming failure into a character flaw. Focus on the number means defining yourself by your ability to achieve.

Hearkening back to Carol Dweck’s Mindset, we see that status-driven, fixed-talent mindsets revel in their natural abilities — until they come across a genuine challenge. When that happens, and it always does, the fixed thinker collapses. Convinced they can’t change, they implode. They have tantrums. They get jealous, or spiteful, or hateful. They lie about their successes and hide their failures. They quit applying themselves and stop trying.

The goal is everything. The journey is an afterthought, an annoyance, or a burden. This is the same person that wants to be lean, or strong, or rich, but doesn’t care about eating right, or lifting weights, or doing well in finance. The activity, doing for the sake of doing, is secondary to the outcome.

Psychologist Jeremy Dean of PsyBlog writes of how fantasies of future success can blind us. Positive fantasies emphasize the feeling of achievement while leaving out the work required to get there (called the planning fallacy).

Dean suggests that visualization strategies should focus on the effort require to achieve — the process, rather than the outcome. Concentrating on the process — the doing — focuses your attention on the right actions, while reducing anxiety.

Finding value in your training, training because you enjoy it, training for the sake of training, will more likely lead you to success than focusing on the achievement.

Very Zen.

We should think of goals as signposts, not yardsticks. Direction, not label. Even in competitive world of sports, there’s more of value than winning. The effort — the process of doing for doing’s sake — should drive us. We lift weights because lifting weights improves our bodies and minds. We compete in sports because playing sports is fun. Invest yourself in the activity, enjoy the activity, and focus on what you can become, rather than what you are.

I’ve had this conflict with myself over the years. When I was younger, the goal meant everything. Being big and strong meant everything. What’s the price of getting as big and strong as possible? You eat yourself fat. You experiment with chemicals. You train until you hurt and then train more, until muscles tear and joints give out. And when you get there, it’s never what you thought it would be. Humans are generally horrible at predicting our future happiness.

People who do for the sake of doing are far happier and lead far more fulfilling lives.

How important is that goal, really? So important that you no longer enjoy what you’re doing?

Fast Food Solutions for Fast Food Problems

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
-Albert Einstein*

Every time I go to a store with a large parking lot, I always see cars hovering around the front waiting for a space near to open up. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of spots to be had just a few rows back. By taking the far spot and making the sacrifice of an embarrassingly short walk, you can be on your way in a fraction of the time. The parking space vultures, in search of an easy quick-fix solution, wind up sitting there wasting time.

Taking shortcuts and always looking for a new angle — whether it’s corporate cost-cutting or a new diet pill that will melt off the 50 pounds you need to lose — has a way of backfiring. What’s startling is how people apply this kind of thinking to their health, always looking for the easy way out when it comes to exercising or eating.

The whole point of exercise is to get up and move around. Physical activity activates otherwise dormant genes, with plenty of research indicating that our minds and bodies alike require at least modest amounts of activity for optimal health. We’re not meant to be sedentary creatures.

And yet there are entire fields and sub-fields of pop-culture fitness that promote the quick ‘n easy solution. Abs in eight minutes. A shapely body with just 10 minutes of weight training three times a week.

If only I’d known it would be so easy.

I’ve always operated on the understanding that the body needs stimulus to adapt. The stronger you become — the more ‘adapted’ you are — the more stimulus you need. The trend, then, is towards doing more.

The minimalists don’t see it that way. Instead, they suggest that plateaus happen due to ‘overtraining’. You’re simply doing too much work; by cutting back workloads and encouraging recovery, you’d see far better results.

Like any mostly-scientific proposition, this hypothesis is testable, and proponents of infrequent, slow-tempo, machine-based training simply don’t have support for their position. The preponderance of scientific research doesn’t agree, and if you need empirical Bro-wisdom, there are no top athletes that (successfully) train this way.

Exercise and results relate on an inverted-U-shaped dose-response curve. As the amount of exercise, your dose, increases, so do results — up to a point. Past that plateau, further increases lead to decreased performance. The sweet spot is in the middle of the curve, where the dose maximizes the result. Doing too little, by clinging to the absolute minimum, short-changes results as much as ‘overtraining’. You need to up the dose for best results.

Time-efficient machine workouts with extreme tempos are certainly better than sitting on the couch eating Cheetos, but you will not find a world-class physique or Olympian athleticism at the end of that path. Minimalism says do less; science and practice say do the right amount.

You don’t have to think hard to see how this mentality came to be, or why it’s so popular. The Western world takes pride in efficiency, in outcomes over processes, in getting the most done in the least amount of time. Modern life is encapsulated in equations measuring productivity and time-efficiency and maximum utility.

Why should nutrition and fitness be exempt from the trend towards cultural industrialization? These are just processes to integrate into the daily time-table, commodities to exchange at market rates.

With an obesity epidemic on the rise and no solutions in sight, is it really the best idea to continue the same policies of quick-fix thinking?

You have people like Gary Taubes claiming that exercise doesn’t help manage your weight, but you can eat as much as you want as long as you cut out the scapegoat foods. You have people like Fred Hahn telling you that you can get in the best possible shape using ultra-minimalist workouts based on discredited science.

Simplistic, fast-food solutions. Satisfying solutions. Solutions that feed the need for self-esteem-building, not-my-fault validation. All the same thoughts that got us to this point. Are they enough to get us out?

Probably not.

* For some totally unrelated trivia: this often-cited quote is commonly attributed to Einstein, and yet it may be the result of the whisper game. The original quote was “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”

In The New Quotable Einstein (2005), editor Alice Calaprice suggests that two quotes attributed to Einstein which she could not find sources for, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them” and “The world we have created today as a result of our thinking thus far has problems which cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them,” may both be paraphrases of the 1946 quote above.

The Cortical Lottery: Dopamine and the Activity Set-point [Research Review]

Years ago in one of my criminology classes, the professor introduced us to various theories on social deviance. Criminologists want to know what makes people act up and steal, or rob you in the street for crack, or stab their neighbors in the face. That’s social deviance. Lots of theories have come and gone over the years, thanks to the mysterious wiles and real difficulties of doing quality sociological research.

Lots of ideas came out of the literature, ideas on social strife, class struggle, even plain old boredom. One of these in particular stuck with me over the years, thanks to my budding interest in cognitive neuroscience. The theory goes that some people are natural stimulus-seekers. For whatever reason, this group lacks something in their brains, or they have some dysfunction that leaves them feeling under-stimulated, and this leaves them with an itch. These people are always in search of a fix, always looking for the next hit of neurochemical reward, and as a consequence they’re more likely to go out and get mixed up in naughty things like drugs, sex, and, you guessed it, crime.

At the time, I didn’t think much of the idea. Not because I don’t agree with it, but I didn’t have nearly the interest in behavioral psychology and neuroscience back then. With my current investigations into the neurological factors behind exercise performance, the concept of the stimulus-seeker brain-type stands out. To understand why, we need to look at how neurological activity creates behavior.

I recently finished Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. I found it a brilliant read, but I didn’t wind up doing a full review on it because I didn’t have a clear way to relate it to exercise or performance. As you could imagine from the title, the book examines the concept of happiness–where does it arise in the brain, what causes it, and what are the circumstances that maximize that feeling of ambiguous bliss? An interesting topic, but there was no direct application to exercise, minus the vague connection to neuropsychology.
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