The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Positive Psychology and the Anna Karenina Principle

Does the Anna Karenina Principle apply to people’s well-being?

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. - Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy's well-known opening to Anna Karenina is thought by some to apply not only to families but also more broadly. It has even given rise to a rule dubbed the Anna Karenina Principle*, which holds that it is possible to fail in many ways but to succeed in only one way, by avoiding each of the routes to failure.

An example was provided by Jared Diamond (1997) in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel. He discussed why so few animal species have been domesticated. Unless an animal is easy to feed, unless it grows rapidly, unless it breeds readily in captivity, unless it has a benign temperament, unless it does not run away when frightened, and unless it has a stable social hierarchy, domestication is not going to happen. Think horses versus zebras.

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Centuries ago, Aristotle proposed a similar idea in The Nichomachean Ethics: "For men are good in but one way, but bad in many."

And much more recently, psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues (2001) concluded that "bad is stronger than good," meaning that bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than their good counterparts.

The Anna Karenina Principle implies that what is good is more elusive than what is bad. What is good reflects a perfect storm of contributors, and the absence of only one of these contributors precludes what is positive, desirable, or worthy.

If we apply this principle to the well-being of people, the conclusion is discouraging. Threats abound to happiness and life satisfaction, and only one of these needs to be present to bring us down. In contrast, doing well can only occur in special circumstances.

So, do we have another criticism of positive psychology? Is the scientific study of what makes life worth living the study of the fragile and the fleeting among the fortunate and the few?

I think not. Calling a notion a principle need not make it so. I prefer to regard the Anna Karenina Principle as a hypothesis to be tested. While it may hold in some cases, it likely does not hold in all or indeed most cases. If it did, then the factors that enable happiness (well-being) would - necessarily - be necessary ones, and that flies in the face of what the evidence actually shows. Conversely, the factors that make happiness difficult to attain would - again necessarily - be damaging and insurmountable in all cases. That too flies in the face of what the evidence actually shows.

If positive psychology, not to mention common sense, teaches us anything, it is that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. No one has it all, and no one lacks it all, except of course the boys who want to date our teenage daughters. And our daughters would beg to differ.

We know that there are numerous contributors to happiness but that they rarely if ever exist at the same time for the same person. Nevertheless, most people are happy (Diener & Diener, 1996).

We know that Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and Steven Jobs, among many other well-known folks, all had weaknesses and flaws, yet each lived a life worth living and indeed a life that is widely acclaimed.

We know that most people are resilient. Despite experience with potentially-traumatic events, most do well in their wake (Bonanno, 2004).

And by the way, although this is a topic for another essay, I doubt that the Anna Karenina Principle even applies to families. Happy families exist, as even Tolstoy would acknowledge, but they are wonderfully diverse.

*Thanks to Wikipedia for background on the Anna Karenina Principle.

References

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.

Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events? American Psychologist, 59, 20-28.

Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. New York: Norton.

Diener, E., & Diener, C. (1996). Most people are happy. Psychological Science, 7, 181-185.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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