POSITIVELY RIDICULOUS

There’s a word for constant, unmitigated happiness about your life: denial.

Barbara Ehrenreich skewers the positive psychology field in her new book Bright Sided. It’s about time. First of all, it’s become a veritable industry, with top motivational speakers making tens of thousands of dollars and books on ‘happiness research’ flying off the shelves. The message of this research, some of which is quite solid and interesting, has become diluted down to: smile, be happy, and you’ll be healthier and have your dream life. But the research itself is more nuanced and ambiguous- for example, some ‘negative’ people are actually healthier than optimists. Let’s face it, at times pessimism is a more appropriate view of life. The skill is to learn to cope with life’s curve balls without melting down, not to look the other way in ignorance.

More support for the nuanced view of ‘positive thinking’ comes from research reported in this month’s issue of Psychology Today (sorry folks, the actual paper magazine, not online yet). This study correlated scores on a test measuring trust in people with household income. Turns out there’s an optimal level of trust: too little and you miss opportunities because you mistrust everyone, too much and you’re a sucker.

Positive psychology needs to go back to the drawing board. Life just isn’t so simple that wearing a ‘happy face’ will solve your problems. Maybe it’s just my New York point of view, but don’t you find constantly cheerful people annoying, anyway? One of my favorite websites is Despair.com, which lampoons positive psychology with ‘demotivational’ posters and t-shirts with slogans like this one:

DEFEAT: For every winner, there are dozens of losers. Odds are you’re one of them.

My arguably twisted mind finds this -positively hilarious.

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