A high-profile 2013 study that concluded that different kinds of happiness are associated with dramatically different patterns of gene activity is fatally flawed, according to an analysis published on Monday which tore into its target with language rarely seen in science journals.
The new paper, published like the first in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, slams the research for "dubious analyses" and "erroneous methodology" and says it "conjured nonexistent effects out of thin air."
In the 2013 study, researchers had adults answer a 14-item questionnaire meant to sort them into two groups: interested in hedonic well-being (fun and selfish pleasure) or eudaimonic well-being (leading a meaningful life).
The two groups, researchers led by psychologist Barbara Frederickson of the University of North Carolina reported, had different patterns of activity in 53 genes. Hedonists had DNA activity akin to people suffering from chronic, illness-inducing stress. Stress-related genes including those involved in inflammation were overactive; genes involved in making antibodies that fight infection were underactive.
Hedonists, it seemed, were headed for a disease-ridden existence and an early grave, as media reports warned in stories with headlines like "Meaning is healthier than happiness."
The claim caught the eye of Nick Brown, a British information technology worker who has become a persistent amateur critic of what he sees as shoddy statistical analysis in psychology research.
As he and colleagues scrutinized the 2013 paper, they saw numerous problems, he said.
For one thing, the authors failed to rule out that people with specific gene-activity patterns in the immune system might be under the weather when tested.
More crucially, Brown said, the happiness questionnaire was flawed. People who scored high on three items meant to identify hedonists scored equally highly on 11 items meant to identify people who seek eudaimonic well-being.
"The two constructs are essentially measuring the same thing," Brown said, so putting people in one category rather than another was "meaningless."
Most devastating was what happened when Brown grouped the items randomly, calling those who scored high on questions 1, 7 and 8 (or any of 8,191 other combinations) one kind of person and those who scored high on others a second type.
Even with such meaningless groupings, there were patterns of gene activity seemingly characteristic of each group.
Statistics professor Andrew Gelman of Columbia University, who was not involved in either study, called Brown's critique "reasonable."
Flawed statistics have become such a serious problem for journals that many of the world's top titles are adding extra levels of statistical checks in the peer-review process.
Deputy executive editor Daniel Salsbury said PNAS was not changing its longstanding practice, which is "to work within our review process to ensure the work is sound in all aspects."
In a reply to Brown, Frederickson and coauthor Steven Cole of the University of California, Los Angeles, reject the criticism and say they have replicated their 2013 findings in a new sample of 122 people.