Saturday, January 02, 2010

Seeking a Cure for Optimism (On Barbara Ehrenreich)

I like positive thinking and I think people need feel that they are worthwhile human beings. However, when either of these is pasted over a negative sense of self-worth, or depression, or any number of other less-than-healthy feelings, they can much more harm than good.

Optimism is the natural outflow of a healthy system, but not too many are really healthy - so the seemingly positive culture of optimism that Barbara Ehrenreich is rejecting really is not so good, and she is doing us a favor in exposing it.

The author of the article also speaks to Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of the Positive Psychology movement, and he is not pleased with Ehrenreich at all. I think Seligman has done a great service for psychology in trying to offer a more hopeful look at human beings, but I also fear that those who are attempting to use his approach are simply throwing a fresh, pretty coat of paint on cracked walls and a shaky foundation.

We have known for years that depressed and anxious people tend to have a better grasp of reality than those who are not suffering those feelings. This has posed a paradox for treatment models, since it is also well-known that depressives have a very unrealistic self-concept. So they tend to have more realism about the outside world, and less realism about themselves.

On the other hand, I have clients who use "positive thinking" and "looking on the bright side" as ways to avoid their pain. I think this has become a common issue among "spiritual but not religious" type people. But that is just my assessment and I have not read the book yet to see where Ehrenreich comes down on why this is happening.

Seeking a Cure for Optimism

Susana Raab for The New York Times
The author Barbara Ehrenreich argues that positive thinking may actually do some harm.

Published: Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 5:12 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 5:12 a.m.

AMERICANS are an optimistic, can-do lot. We subscribe to the belief that we have a right to not just pursue happiness, but to be happy. No matter how grim the last year has been, no matter how rotten the economy or one’s own setbacks, people believe it can all change with the flip of the calendar: all you need do is look on the bright side.

Happiness is not just our birthright, it is a growth industry. Beyond the perpetually positive Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins and the thinking-makes-it-so gurus behind “The Secret,” the Internet offers many new programs for self-improvement. was created in the fall with promises of “scientific solutions for real improvement.” LiveHappy, a $9.99 a month “mobile happiness boosting program,” is based on the book “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, who says that activities like “envisioning your best possible self” are “scientifically shown” to make people happier.

Is any of this true? Can an optimistic attitude and a will to happiness lead to a better you in the new year?

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?”

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.

Psychologists and others who try to study happiness scientifically 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.

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.’ “

Such criticism has annoyed those in the burgeoning academic field of positive psychology, which traces to 1998 when the president of the American Psychological Association at the time, Martin Seligman, sought out good scientific research on positive emotion. He found hundreds of studies showing the health benefits of thinking positively. While it is impossible to change one’s inherent temperament, Dr. Seligman said, “it’s certain you can change pessimism into optimism in a lasting way.”

Dr. Seligman, who now runs the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and makes a rather unflattering appearance in “Bright-Sided,” is not pleased with Ms. Ehrenreich’s book. In a posting on a positive psychology list serve, he accused “Barbara I Hate Hope Ehrenreich” of “cherry picking” studies to suit her purpose.

“Where Ehrenreich and I agree — we’re both trying to separate wheat from chaff,” he said in an interview. “We just differ on what we think is wheat and what we think is chaff.”

Many experts have come to question the connection between optimism and health. “Being optimistic is secondary to having health and resources,” said James C. Coyne, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who conducted a study on positive thinking and cancer and found no correlation between optimism and improved outcomes. “Ranges of cross-studies have found this,” he said.

“It’s easy to show an association between optimism and subsequent health,” he said, “but if you introduce appropriate statistical controls — if you take into account baseline health and material resources — then the effect largely goes away.”

Other experts are less definitive. Barbara L. Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been exploring the function of positive emotions since the early 1990s. Dr. Fredrickson, whose book “Positivity” was published this year, differentiates between positive thinking and positive emotion. “Positive thinking can sometimes lead to positive emotion, but it won’t always,” she said. “It’s like the difference between wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Life is Good’ and actually feeling deep in your bones grateful for your current circumstances.”

With that in mind, she cautions that the idea of “fake it till you make it” can actually be harmful to one’s health. “What my research shows is that those insincere positive emotions — telling yourself ‘I feel good’ when you don’t — is toxic and actually more harmful than negative emotions. We need to become more sophisticated about what is real and what is fake within people’s attempts to be positive.”

Ruth Rossoff, 79, of Philadelphia, said that she has felt tyrannized by the agents of positivity. In September, she said, her husband, who had been ill for some time and had realized he would never again live the kind of life he had been used to, decided he was ready to die. “After seeing all the people who mattered to him and discussing his decision with me and our adult children, he made his wishes known to the people caring for him in the hospital,” Ms. Rossoff said.

Then a doctor who was covering for her husband’s physician stopped by. “This young man came in and proceeded to tell him about his own mother’s miraculous recovery from some illness by sheer willpower and pushed him to try harder to get better,” Ms. Rossoff said. Her husband, energized, lived a few weeks longer. “I was livid,” Ms. Rossoff said. “My husband suffered a few extra weeks with the same end result by listening to the pep talk.”

As for Ms. Ehrenreich, she believes that negative thinking is just as delusional as unquestioned positive thinking. She hopes to see a day when corporate employees “walk out when the motivational speakers start talking,” she said. “It’s all about control and money.” Her goal? To encourage realism, “trying to see the world not colored by our wishes or fears, but by reality.”

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