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Leah McLaren

The mean shall inherit the Earth (or at least clean up on Jeopardy!) Add to ...

I have never really understood the point of a sunny disposition. If all those people doing laughing exercises at the behest of their cognitive behavioural therapists opted to simply read the paper instead, the world would be a crankier place - and, in my view, all the better for it.

As it happens, my belief was confirmed recently by an Australian study that found grumpy people are in fact smarter than their optimistic counterparts (but more on that later).

Increasingly, there are two kinds of people: those who strive to be happy and those who have better things to do. Neither type is particularly well adjusted, of course; it's just that those of us in the latter category don't beat ourselves up about not jumping out of bed each morning to do sun salutations because it's The First Day Of The Rest Of Our Lives.

At best, we instead drag ourselves to the kitchen, cursing the sunlight, managing the daily ration of joint pain and hoping to Christ that we aren't out of soy milk - again. At worst, we begin our days like writer Christopher Hitchens, who once admitted in any essay to awaking each and every morning of his life "to a sensation of pervading disgust and annoyance."

I know what you're thinking: Maybe he's just a touch hung over? Well that's just downright cynical. Hitchens happens to be a terrifyingly intelligent person. And like so many terrifyingly intelligent people, he seems to have spent most of his life in a hopelessly bad mood. Who can blame him? If I saw politics as "a sordid auction between banal populists" and religion as "the most base and contemptible of the forms assumed by human egotism and stupidity," I'd probably be a bit grouchy before my morning coffee, too.

On the other hand, I am a moderately intelligent person (I took a test online) and, as such, I am in a moderately bad mood most of my waking life - except in those rare moments when I'm happy (most recently drunk, dancing, on my wedding night) in which case I become deliriously stupid. And that, I must admit, is a whole lot of fun. Not that I'd trade it for being moderately intelligent and grumpy, of course.

If you think I'm making all this up, you're wrong. That Australian study, conducted by the University of New South Wales, found that cranky folks are indeed much brighter than upbeat types. The researcher, Joe Forgas, conducted the study by asking people to watch different films and dwell on positive or negative aspects of their lives in order to determine their mood. He then asked the participants to perform a number of mental tasks, including judging the veracity of urban legends, providing eyewitness accounts of remembered events and various other cognitive tests. In the end, the grumpy people performed much better than their sunnier co-participants. This led Forgas to conclude that "negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world." Oscar the Grouch: One. Big Bird: Zero.

The ill-tempered Australians in the study were also better at communicating, particularly via the written word, which is no surprise to anyone who happens to write for a living.

I once tried moving to the country with the idea that it would help me work. I went for walks. I pressed wildflowers. I made jelly. It was bucolic and peaceful and a total professional disaster.

The problem was that I had no ideas. I was absorbing all the same information, but I simply wasn't irritable enough to react to it intelligently.

And that's when it hit me: Low-level crankiness doesn't just facilitate intelligence, as any Australian researcher worth his salt will tell you; it might actually be a precursor to intelligent thought as well.

This is more or less the view held by the wonderfully flinty American polemicist Barbara Ehrenreich, who, in her recent book Bright-Sided , makes a sustained attack on what she calls "the collective mass delusion" that is positive thinking.

Her theory, which she explained to me in a phone interview while she was writing the book (and with which I heartily agree), is that enforced cultural optimism (whether of the corporate or social variety) not only quashes critical thought but is also a signal of a deeper cultural insecurity. "If the arc of the universe tends toward happiness and abundance," she said, "then why bother with the mental effort of positive thinking? Obviously, because we do not fully believe that things will get better on their own. The practice of positive thinking is an effort to pump up this belief in the face of much contradictory evidence."

In a sense, Ehrenreich takes the Australian study one step further. Not only do good moods make us less cogent, but trying to maintain a false one requires us to suppress what intelligence we have.

For a psychological opinion, I contacted Toronto writer and psychologist Catherine Gildiner, author of the just-published memoir After The Falls , to see what she thought of the theory that bad moods and critical thinking go hand in hand. Her answer was somewhat humbling.

"What is so new about that?" came her swift and cranky reply. "Freud described 'the anal retentive' character at the turn of the [last]century. He said that the one who withholds is fixated on details around him. He is the opposite of expansive, lacks humour and joy, is often dour, abstemious and financially successful. Like Scrooge."

Or Oscar the Grouch. Or Christopher Hitchens. Except maybe for the abstemious part.

But who am I to judge? I'm cranky. My brain hurts. I need a large drink.

Bah humbug.

Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

 

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