Sorry, it’s not the happiest day of the year

21 June 2013 by Pete Etchells, posted in Bad Psychology

OK, I'll bite. The Daily Telegraph is running a story today claiming that it's the happiest day of the year - at least according to psychologist Cliff Arnall, a specialist in creating nonsensical 'mathematical' formulae that 'prove' some meaningless rubbish or another.

The last time I tried to follow one of these equations, it didn't go so well. Let's hope it works better this time. The formula in question is O + (N x S) + Cpm/T + He, where O is a measure of ' being outdoors' (I assume a binary variable; I'm indoors, so 0), N is 'Nature' (er, I assume this is 1? Nature definitely exists), S is 'social interaction' (binary again, I guess? I'm not chatting to anyone at the moment, so 0), Cpm is 'childhood memories of summer/positive thoughts' (I'm not feeling very positive right now, so 0), T is 'temperature' (currently 18 degrees), and He is 'holiday excitement' (I've not got any holidays coming up soon, so 0). Let's plug those numbers in:

0 + (1 x 0) + 0/18 + 0 = 0.

So, no, it's not the happiest day of the year -  well, not for me at least. Depressingly, this isn't the first time this story has been run. Cliff Arnall and his equation first cropped up over at the BBC in June 2005, when ice cream maker Wall's paid him to come up with it.  It came up again in China Daily in June 2006, in the Daily Telegraph in 2008, the Daily Mail in 2009, and the Irish Examiner in 2010. Incidentally, the most recent Telegraph piece bears some striking similarities in places to some of those earlier pieces, but that's besides the point. The point is, it's a pointless unscientific equation, it doesn't tell you anything meaningful, and it's not new. So why is it news today?

I'm fed up of stuff like this. Psychology, as we all know, is going through a pretty rough time at the minute. It's got a bit of an external image problem in the media, and it's going through internal ructions with recent high-profile cases of fraud and misconduct. As I've said before, there are good people doing good things to try and rectify these problems, but having attention-hungry psychologists parade these sorts of farcical stories around as though they're the bread and butter of the discipline doesn't do anyone any favours.

So, if you're a psychologist, and a PR company approaches you with an offer of 15 minutes of fame, please think about it before you sell not just your credibility, but that of the wider discipline, for a measly £1650. Then just don't do it.




One Response to “Sorry, it’s not the happiest day of the year”

  1. Stephanie Swift | Permalink

    Love it! That is, I love your appraisal of Cliff Arnall's formula and his subsequent conclusions. Not the formula itself, which is obviously a load of old tripe.


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