A response to a recent criticism of happiness, positive psychology and optimism

A response to a recent criticism of happiness, positive psychology and optimism

I’m not, and I know most positive psychologists are not, against constructive criticism and/or valid debates within and about the science of happiness and positive psychology. But let’s be careful about how we interpret some writings and especially, what information/data we consider valid and reliable (or not)…

Last week, The Daily Pennsylvanian asked _ã–Does Positivity Cripple the U.S.?_㝠after hearing Barbara Ehrenreich speak in College Hall about her new book, Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion Of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. According to reports, her talk was an argument against positive thinking and smiles. Seriously.

Although we did not attend the talk or review a pre-released copy of the book, a few things about Ehrenreich are clear. According to the DP and The New York Times, she finds herself _ã–infuriated_㝠by teddy bears and frustrated by upbeat T-shirts. Positivity and optimism are _ã–the strongest sources of negativity in our society_㝠she claims _ã” and optimism is _ã–just too damn much work_㝠to be a worthwhile pursuit. However, we resist the urge to dismiss Ehernreich outright as a grump.

Ehrenreich is critical of _ã–bogus_㝠and _ã–false_㝠and _ã–unsullied_㝠optimism. Fine. But such specific modifiers mean that there must be a _ã–genuine,_㝠_ã–real_㝠and _ã–authentic_㝠optimism out there _ã” something imperfect but grounded in reality. In fact, realistic optimism is the bedrock of positive psychology _ã” the scientific study of well-being. When carefully defined, optimism is about seeing opportunity in challenge, identifying the limitations of bad events and finding hope in the most dire of times. Optimism is what got Barack Obama elected.

In practice, what is the difference between optimism and pessimism? A pessimist examines a situation and can identify only the most dire possible outcomes. Case in point: Ask a good attorney to review a contract, and she will point out everything that might possibly harm you in its execution. Planning for the worst situation is a good thing when it comes to attorneys and airline pilots. But artists and authors and athletes flourish as optimists, when they take a chance and try to do better, and more, than their predecessors.

This isn_ã_t just a matter of semantics _ã” it_ã_s science. Research started decades ago shows that Penn students who are optimists perform better in school and exhibit fewer signs of anxiety and depression than those who are pessimists. Today, every freshman in Wharton is required to complete the PennSTART program to learn how to enhance optimism skills through resilience training. In last week_ã_s DP, columnist Maya Brandon called for PennSTART to become available to students in all schools.

In her talk, Ehrenreich reportedly railed against smiling. But research shows that people who exhibit genuine smiles in a high-school yearbook picture are less-likely to be divorced in their mid-50_ã_s. And a happy physician reaches a faster, more accurate diagnosis of a difficult liver condition. Positivity levels were the difference between life and death for the Sisters of Notre Dame. Nuns who expressed the most positivity throughout life lived an average of 6.9 years longer than those who expressed the least.

But some of the most striking research shows that emotions of the heart, like hope and optimism are good _ã_ for the heart. Pessimistic men who suffered heart attacks were 86 percent more likely to die of another heart attack within 10 years. Only 33 percent of the most optimistic patients suffered the same fate. Put more bluntly, being a pessimist has the same effect on heart health as smoking about three packs of cigarettes a week. These findings are nothing to sneeze at _ã” unless, of course, you_ã_ve got a cold. If so, your roommate should hope he is an optimist _ã” optimists have a significantly reduced chance of catching a cold, compared to pessimists.

Authentic happiness and realistic optimism have been rigorously studied around the world. Some of the best work comes from Penn_ã_s own Martin Seligman, Ph.D., the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology. Seligman and his colleagues have developed tests to let you measure your own optimism and happiness. The tests are available for free, at happier.com. Is your glass half empty, or half full?

Andrew Rosenthal and Doug Hensch are both Penn graduates. They are the co-founders of happier.com and can be reached at the web site.