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Barbara Ehrenreich: Why Forced Positive Thinking Is a Total Crock

Positive psychology -- forced optimism -- is actually quite Calvinist, putting happiness to work as a means to an end.

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Happiness and Health

The central claim of positive psychology, as of positive thinking generally, is that happiness—or optimism, positive emotions, positive affect, or positive something—is not only desirable in and of itself but actually useful, leading to better health and greater success. One book on positive psychology states that "happiness . . . is more than pleasant, it is beneficial," and Seligman begins Authentic Happiness by summarizing a few studies showing that happy (or positive) people live longer than unhappy ones. In other words, you should make an effort to be happy, if only because the consequences of unhappiness may include poor health and lower achievement. Would happiness stop being an appealing goal if it turned out to be associated with illness and failure? Isn't it possible to imagine being gloriously contented with a life spent indulging unhealthy habits, like the proverbially happy "pigs in shit"? Nothing underscores the lingering Calvinism of positive psychology more than this need to put happiness to work—as a means to health and achievement, or what the positive thinkers call "success."

Happy, or positive, people—however that is measured—do seem to be more successful at work. They are more likely to get a second interview while job hunting, get positive evaluations from superiors, resist burnout, and advance up the career ladder. But this probably reflects little more than the corporate bias in favor of a positive attitude and against "negative" people. A widely cited review article entitled "The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?," coauthored by Ed Diener, makes no mention of this bias and hence appears to do little more than to confirm it.

When it comes to the proposed health benefits of a positive outlook, the positive psychologists would seem to be on firmer ground. A positive outlook cannot cure cancer, but in the case of more common complaints, we tend to suspect that people who are melancholy, who complain a lot, or who ruminate obsessively about every fleeting symptom may in fact be making themselves sick. Recall the miraculous cures worked on chronic invalids by Phineas Quimby and others in the nineteenth century, simply by encouraging them to get up out of bed and start thinking of themselves as healthy people. We don't have "neurasthenics" today, but there are plenty of ills with a psychosomatic component, some of which may indeed yield to a "mind over matter" approach. When John E. Sarno, a professor of rehabilitation medicine, published a book proposing that lower back pain was caused by repressed anger rather than a physical abnormality and that it was curable by mental exercises, thousands testified that they were helped, including the well-known health guru Andrew Weil.

In contrast to the flimsy research linking attitude to cancer survival, there are scores of studies showing that happy or optimistic people are likely to be healthier than those who are sour-tempered and pessimistic. Most of these studies, however, only establish correlations and tell us nothing about causality: Are people healthy because they're happy or happy because they're healthy?

Adding further ambiguity to the "picture of happiness as a prolonger of life and improver of health" are a number of studies showing that happiness or other positive emotional states may have no effect on one's health. An improved mental outlook—generated in support groups or through psychotherapy—does not extend the lives of breast cancer patients, and the same has been found for those suffering from throat and neck cancer. Nor, it turns out, does optimism add to the longevity of lung cancer patients. The evidence that positive emotions can protect against coronary heart disease seems sturdier, although I am not in a position to evaluate it. At least a list of articles on heart disease and emotional states compiled for me by Seligman included a number of studies finding that optimism and other positive states can both protect against heart disease and hasten recovery from it. But others on Seligman's list were more equivocal, and one study cited by Barbara Held of Bowdoin College found that people high in "trait negative affect" do more complaining about angina but are at no greater risk of pathology than cheerful people.