Recently, a number of writers and researchers have questioned the notion that looking on the bright side — often through conscious effort — makes much of a difference. One of the most prominent skeptics is Barbara Ehrenreich, whose best-selling book “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” published in the fall, maintains that thinking positively does little good in the long run, and can, in fact, do harm.
“Happiness is great, joy is great, but positive thinking reduces the spontaneity of human interactions,” Ms. Ehrenreich said. “If everyone has that fixed social smile all the time, how do you know when anyone really likes you?”
There are quite a few distinctions that need to be made regarding the general concept of positive thinking. For example, there's the difference between internal and external cheerfulness, and between private and public optimsim.
Having finally seen the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man last night, which is like a less funny version of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which mild-mannered physics professor Larry Gopnik is relentlessly abused by the spontaneity of human interactions with people like Ms. Ehrenreich, I'd say that a little social smiling isn't such a bad thing.
About a year ago, my younger son's high school hosted a talk by radio rabbi Dennis Prager. He said that young people all want to help humanity, but that the surest, most effective way to help humanity is for you to act less whiny and more cheerful toward the people around you. Every single student at the school thought that was the worst idea ever -- Shouldn't you be authentic and therefore wallow in the horrors of having your oppressive parents ask you to empty the dishwasher? -- except, to my astonishment, my kid, who thought that Prager had a great idea. And he has been easier to live with ever since (and easier than I was to live with at that age).
So, thank you, Dennis Prager.
A study published in the November-December issue of Australasian Science found that people in a negative mood are more critical of, and pay more attention to, their surroundings than happier people, who are more likely to believe anything they are told.
“Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, cooperation and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world,” Joseph P. Forgas, a professor of social psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, wrote in the study.
In other words, don't marry a stand-up comedian.
Psychologists and others who try to study happiness scientifially often focus on the connection between positive thinking and better health. In the September 2007 issue of the journal Cancer, Dr. David Spiegel at Stanford University School of Medicine reported his efforts to replicate the findings of a 1989 study in which he had found that women with metastatic breast cancer who were assigned to a support group lived an average 18 months longer than those who did not get such support. But in his updated research, Dr. Spiegel found that although group therapy may help women cope with their illness better, positive thinking did not significantly prolong their lives.
I have no idea if the Placebo Effect is real or not. But I do know that when I had cancer in 1997 and was, not surprisingly, pretty much paralyzed by depression, a half-dozen hypnotism sessions helped me get my mood up enough to research the alternative treatments and choose, correctly, among the three on offer. The point of hypnotism is to lull you into a relaxed state where your skepticism is low enough that you'll believe a pep talk. (I crafted a personalized pep talk for my hypnotist to give me when I was under.) It worked for me, in the sense that it helped me get back to the point where I could make important decisions, such going with the clinical trial in which I became the first person in the world with my specific form of cancer to be treated with what's now the world's most lucrative cancer drug, Rituxan.
Ms. Ehrenreich, who was urged to think positively after receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer several years ago, was surprised by how many readers shared her visceral resistance to that mantra. She created a forum on her Web site for people to vent about positive thinking, and many have. “I get so many people saying ‘thank you,’ people who go back to work after their mother has died and are told, ‘What’s the matter?’ “ she said. Likewise, there are “corporate victims who have been critics or driven out of jobs for being 'too negative.'"
The far, far bigger issue is the mandatory Happy Talk among the intellectual elite. You might think that people at the level of James D. Watson and Larry Summers might be allowed a Happy Talk-free zone about social issues so that the ruling elites could stay informed, but the opposite is true.
So, we wind up with disasters like the Sand State Mortgage Meltdown.