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

True, being a pessimist these days, even a generally optimistic one, is not easy. My boyfriend wonders why I fret so much. My friends often urge me to look on the bright side. My colleagues tell me to relax.

From the sound of it, you might actually think I'm a great candidate for positive psychology.

But you'd be wrong. According to the Authentic Happiness quiz on Martin Seligman's website, my score is 3.67 out of 5 - which means I'm as happy or happier than 82 per cent of Web users who have filled out the questionnaire.

This could be explained by another quiz I take on the site for Julie Norem's book The Positive Power of Negative Thinking that determines personality types. It puts me squarely into the category of defensive pessimist, which is defined as "a person who thinks through worst-case scenarios and uses anxiety to motivate and carry out effective actions."

Optimists and pessimists, it turns out, are not necessarily as contradictory as they might seem. In fact, contrary to the mantra of "happy thoughts," there is a strong argument that playing out nightmare scenarios can actually make some of us more secure - ironically, happier - in the long run.

Barbara Held, a professor of psychology and social studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., is the author of the 2001 book Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching, a treatise on the importance of honest complaint in a culture of sanitized optimism. In it, she critiques what she calls the "tyranny of the positive attitude in America," insisting that blind optimism, while helpful for some, is not simply a one-size-fits-all coping strategy.

"If you try to force people to manage themselves in a way that conflicts with their normal coping style, then you can actually do more damage than good."

She cites a study by a University of Texas psychologist, who found that depressed people who vented their pain in journals healed much more quickly than those who steamrolled it over with a mantra of pep.

"When people put their pain into words it's not merely venting, it's healing," says Prof. Held, who has treated hundreds of patients in private practice. "It helps you to reconstrue and reformulate. It can also lead to new ways of solving a problem."

Prof. Held, who sees herself as a defensive pessimist, says that, for her, channelling positive energy in times of crisis just makes everything worse. "It's just not in my nature," she says. "I'm a high-anxiety New York Jewish person. I'm a worrier. The way I cope is by thinking of all the worst things that can happen. Then, once I've mapped it all out, I come up with my plan to avert disaster."

But as Barbara Ehrenreich found out, sometimes disaster cannot be averted no matter what your natural thought pattern. Despite what you may have heard about the "power of hope," cancer doesn't actually care if you're an optimist or a pessimist.

James Coyne, a scientist at University of Pennsylvania who studies patient adaptation to chronic illness and treatment, recently disproved claims that an upbeat attitude slowed the progression of the disease. He believes the clinical insistence on a hopeful attitude and "the will to live" in cancer wards can often make sick patients feel worse. "People start to see it in terms of blame and if the cancer spreads it's somehow their fault."

Even worse, by insisting that the sick, poor and downright miserable among us must simply buck up to get better, Prof. Coyne (who works out of the same university where the positive psychology movement is headquartered) echoes Ms. Ehrenreich's notion that we absolve ourselves of all need to be tolerant and patient.

"The expectation that people think positive and adopt a fighting spirit becomes a strategy of the people around them not to have to manage the burden of stress," he says.


What exactly is happiness? Is your blue my red? Are such topics worthy of in-depth empirical study or best left to undergrads gathered round the bong pipe?

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