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Happy? How do you know? And does it really matter? Add to ...

Among those joining the backlash is writer Barbara Ehrenreich, whose revelation about the perils of positive thinking came as she entered into one of the more miserable chapters of her life.

"As I was being treated for breast cancer I was assaulted by the message that my illness was going to be a great experience," she said in a phone interview from her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. "Be cheerful, I was told. And it made me sick. It was infantilizing. Here was the most serious disease of my life, and I was being encouraged to buy a teddy bear."

In a recent Harpers article, she angrily lambasted the culture of positivity as a sinister, victim-blaming cult that "seems to reduce our tolerance of other people's suffering." And she is now writing a book on the "cult of cheerfulness."

Ms. Ehrenreich has no problem with happiness per se. What irritates her is the notion that point of view is all that matters when it comes to changing the world around us - as if switching from the proverbial glass half empty to one that is half full, we could actually change the world.

While positive psychology points to rising levels of depression as a legitimate problem in our society (Prof. Ben-Shahar warns of a great "emotional bankruptcy"), its solutions are inward-looking and facile. Imagine, for a moment, where we'd be if Martin Luther King Jr. had decided to purge his negative emotions by keeping a gratitude journal?

Although there is certainly good to be had from a philosophy that encourages people toward gratitude, altruism and love, the science can be difficult to separate from the snake oil. In the same way that sensible nutritional science can be warped into fad diets, there is a growing overlap between the positive psychology movement and self-help hype, between legit research and cheap, quick fixes.

In his recently published book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfilment, Prof. Ben-Shahar describes the advent of positive psychology as a "revolution" that will "bridge the gap between the ivory tower and Main Street."

But if this sounds refreshingly egalitarian, the book's conclusions are not exactly groundbreaking. Suggestions for improving personal happiness include meditation, keeping a journal and appointing close friends and relatives to your "happiness board."

Meanwhile, Prof. Seligman is busy cementing his status as an intellectual turned self-help guru. On the website www.reflectivehappiness.com, a $9.95 monthly subscription buys you access to "happiness building exercises" and a Q&A with the doc himself.

Bracketing the question of whether tenured scientists ought to be selling self-help to the masses for personal profit is a larger problem: If positive psychology is so good, why isn't it working?

According to recent numbers from Ipsos Reid, one in six North Americans have been clinically diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives. That's 1.8 million people in Canada alone. Mental illness also costs an estimated $300-billion in North America each year. This despite the growing popularity of yoga, life coaching and motivational seminars.

Much like the diet industry, the quest for happiness creates its own need. In fact, sociologist Micki McGee says our relentless personality correction results in "the belaboured self" - a self that is in a constant state of restless renovation and self-improvement.

The more crap that life throws at us, the more optimistic we are expected to become - an internal paradox that will quickly leave the average person (and particularly the pessimists among us) feeling exhausted, demoralized and even more depressed than when we started out.

Self-help doesn't work, in Prof. McGee's view, because the void it seeks to fill is actually economic, not personal. "We all want to feel that we have control over our lives," she explains, "but at the end of the day there's no way to insulate yourself from the vagaries of globalized capitalism."

THE POWER OF PESSIMISM

Given the inexorable external factors - skyrocketing inflation, the melting polar ice cap, the international holy war - is it really possible (or even advisable) for us to give up our stone-age commitment to anxiety and pessimism?

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