Feeling good is about more than just slapping on a smile and saying everything is all right. In fact, experts in the field of positive psychology suggest the key to a life well lived is actively engaging with both the good and the bad.
Recently, a friend sought out my advice to clarify a confusing issue. “Your articles usually mention research from the field of positive psychology,” she said. “But I’ve been reading some books about the downsides of positive thinking. Now I’m confused: is positive thinking the same as positive psychology?”
KNOW YOUR POSITIVES
Well, no.. Positive thinking, about which we hear a lot, can be thought of as part of popular psychology: ideas that have gained popularity with the general public even though they may be over-simplified, based on anecdotal opinions or misinterpreted from scientific literature. Some of the tenets of positive thinking have value, but often self-help books will wildly over-promise on outcomes.
I remember as an early teen being carted off to SWAP club (Students With a Purpose) breakfast meetings by my well-meaning parents, where the warm-up greeting was to throw your arms in the air, pump your fists and yell three times, “I’m alive, I’m well and I feel great.” Popularised by the likes of Norman Vincent Peale, Zig Ziglar, Napoleon Hill and Tony Robbins, pop psychology has enjoyed a strong following, especially in the US.
In the late 1990s, the academic science of positive psychology set out to distinguish itself from the world of positive thinking and pop psychology with peer-reviewed scholarly research in international journals highlighting effective interventions and putting forth theories for experimentation. Tal Ben-Shahar, a lecturer in positive psychology at Harvard University and author of Happier (McGraw Hill, 2007), sees the role of positive psychology as bridging the gap between the ‘ivory tower’ of academia and the fun and energy of the self-help movement.
The past decade has been extremely productive in positive psychology circles. There was an explosion in research focusing on what psychologists call subjective wellbeing (and what everyone else calls happiness). In many of these studies, an association was drawn between two variables, such as happiness and health or happiness and money, but it was difficult to know in what direction the association went. Later, experimental studies could establish the cause-effect relationship between the two. For example, in a 2005 review by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King and Ed Diener, three types of studies (cross-sectional, longitudinal and experimental) were used to investigate the happiness research.
From the longitudinal research, the researchers found that people who were successful were happy before their successes. A large amount of experimental literature offered strong evidence that short-term ‘feeling good’ caused a range of successful behaviours as well.
They concluded: “It would be absurd, however, to suggest that chronic happiness is necessary for all forms of success and thriving. Plenty of exceptions are in evidence. The conclusion we draw is much more modest – that positive affect (i.e., feeling good) is one strength among several that can help achieve approach-oriented success.”
Other positive psychology literature found lasting benefits when people engaged in a number of simple practices, which previously were only understood anecdotally to be helpful. Mindfulness meditation, practising gratitude, engaging in physical activity and finding activities that promote a sense of ‘flow’ (i.e., being absorbed in what you are doing) are some of the practices being prescribed not just by psychologists but by other professionals whose goal is to help clients deal with the vicissitudes of life.
There have been a number of detractors of positive psychology, including Eric Wilson in his book Against Happiness (Henry Holt & Co, 2009). His argument is that being melancholic (which he distinguishes from depression) is a state of active learning – a sense of engaging in the world with openness. Wilson states that being content does not lead to challenges of the status quo. Interestingly, it is the state of active learning and engagement that positive psychology tends to promote, rather than a slap-on-a-fake-smile type of happiness.
Last year, Barabara Ehrenreich published Smile or Die (Allen & Unwin, 2009) after being diagnosed with breast cancer and receiving a barrage of advice to think positively (and admonishment when she wanted to express anger or sadness).
The essence of the book is that America has been seduced by positive thinking when, according to Ehrenreich, there is little or no evidence that simply thinking positively can make one’s life better. On this point, she would likely have the support of many psychologists and helping professionals whose offices are inhabited by people frustrated by their negative emotions, and feeling pressure to be happy.
Indeed the journal Psychological Science reported last year that for people with low self-esteem, simply saying affirmations when they are unhappy, e.g., “I’m a loveable person” or “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better”, can cause people to feel worse. What is missing from Ehrenreich’s book is the probability we will all experience a gamut of emotions in response to a range of incidents throughout our lives. Some people may find positive thinking helps them cope, even in the face of evidence that it doesn’t.
The notion of positive psychology being a simple matter of faking a smile and not allowing negative emotion is simplistic. However, according to Aaron Jarden, president of the New Zealand Association of Positive Psychology, “the general view of the (positive psychology) field a few years back was more focused on the positive at the expense of the negative. However, as of the last couple of years, the pendulum has levelled out with most scholars taking the view that it’s important to also acknowledge the negative.”
These findings support the work of Julie Norem, who wrote The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (Basic Books, 2002). Norem identified that some people perform better at tasks when they set low expectations and think through the worst-case scenarios beforehand, even when they have experienced success in the past. She calls this ‘defensive pessimism’ and has found that interfering with this strategy – for example by insisting on positive thinking – can result in worse performance. Defensive pessimists use their anxiety about an upcoming task to motivate themselves to plan for whatever happens. In Norem’s words, “it’s the process that allows anxious people to do good planning. They have to go through their worst-case scenarios and exhaustive mental rehearsal in order to start the process of planning.”
People with high anxiety often find it difficult to approach anxiety-provoking situations, and would rather avoid them. Interestingly, people using the strategy of defensive pessimism are able to recognise that staying in situations and working towards goals will ultimately build mastery.
HOW TO USE POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY
An example may help illustrate the difference between positive thinking and techniques derived from psychology research. Let’s take Joan, a corporate woman in her mid-30s who believes she is less well-liked than others in her office.
A positive thinker might suggest that Joan should repeat affirmations to herself, targeting her self-doubt: “I am a confident and capable person” and “People want to be around me.”
Psychology research would suggest it’s important to know whether Joan’s opinion of herself is accurate. What is the evidence that she is less well liked? Is she excluded from office gatherings? Is she doing socially unacceptable things? Does she push people away? How many people have distanced themselves from her recently? If she is behaving in ways that people findd irritating, affirmations would be unlikely to change that; rather, she would be better to learn socially acceptable skills and new behaviours.
Alternatively, Joan may have the thought she is less well liked in the absence of any evidence to substantiate such feelings. If Joan is often told how friendly and welcoming she is, psychology research would suggest she is learning how to perceive more accurately the state of the world around her.
The strategy of defensive pessimism and techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy fit with the idea that by embracing both positive and negative experiences, we can be better off emotionally. This approach is also used in mindfulness-based interventions, which promotes acceptance of thoughts and emotions.
In fact, both Wilson and Ehrenreich would probably accept that life is best lived when we are learning, questioning and exploring the world with curiosity. Norem captures this sentiment well: “Negative thinking is positive psychology when it helps, as defensive pessimism does, people achieve their goals.” Funnily enough, we could all be talking about the same thing.