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Why Fake Optimism Is the Worst Way to Deal with Life's Problems

Looking at crap and calling it candy has become a growth industry. But experts say there are better ways to deal with crisis.

One of the funniest, sickest and catchiest scenes in film history was at the end of Monty Python's Life of Brian. Brian and about a dozen other guys have been crucified and while they're waiting to die one of them launches into that impossibly perky little toe-tapper, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."

This parody was written 30 years ago but its ironic ending of the whistling doomed feels totally appropriate for today; a time of crisis in which the desire to learn how to look at crap and call it candy has become a growth industry. Affirmations, visualizations and the long arm of the Law of Attraction -- you attract what you put out -- seem to be everywhere. Undoubtedly someone has met your doubts this year with the mantra "Think positive!" And how dearly we'd all love to believe that wishing could make it so.

Barbara Ehrenreich takes a long, comprehensive look at positive thinking in her most recent book, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Ehrenreich delves into our country's religious history, the way positive thinking has been absorbed into religion, psychology and economics, the ubiquity of motivational speakers, and why it might not be such a good thing to, say, avoid the news because it brings you down. One of the most memorable passages in the book is a call center worker who describes having to simulate happiness as "the kind of feeling you might get from getting a hand job when your soul is dying."

Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer is what ushered Ehrenreich into the world of positive thinking, where despite innumerable stories of fellow sufferers on the Internet, she felt increasingly isolated: "No one among the bloggers and book writers seemed to share my sense of outrage over the disease and the available treatments," she writes, and later, "The effect of all this positive thinking is to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage -- not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the lifecycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood." In one case cancer is characterized as a "gift."

In the current economic crisis we are all giving and receiving more bad news all the time. Maybe later you can help your friend spin that pink slip into gold, but even if you mean well, jumping straight to "This is a good thing!" might not be something she can hear right now.

So what is the best, most compassionate way to respond when a friend has been visited by -- gasp! -- negativity: a job loss, an illness, a break-up, a breakdown, or any other of life's freaking "gifts" for which here is no evident return counter? I talked to four authors, all of whom offered excellent advice for how best to respond to a friend or family member in crisis.

Dr. John Sharp, a neuropsychiatrist who teaches at Harvard and UCLA and whose forthcoming book, The Emotional Calendar is due out next year, says that while being positive has value, "you can't deny the stress you're under or the reality and think you're doing yourself a favor." Real change starts with acceptance. Once that's taken place Dr. Sharp recommends a technique called PERL, an acronym that stands for Partnership, Empathy, Respect and Legitimization.

The first, Partnership, has a brief prelude: as a friend you have to quickly assess and decide how much you're able to really be there for this person, which can help you steer your own course more effectively.

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