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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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Some of the studies Held has reviewed even conclude that negative traits like pessimism can be healthier in the long run than optimism and happiness. For example, a 2002 study found that women who are mildly depressed are more likely to live longer than nondepressed or very depressed women. Somewhat alarmingly, a longitudinal study of more than a thousand California schoolchildren concluded that optimism was likely to lead to an earlier death in middle or old age, possibly because the optimistic people took more risks. Another, more recent, study found that preteenagers who were realistic about their standing among their peers were less likely to become depressed than those who held positive illusions about their popularity. But the most surprising case for pessimism comes from a 2001 study coauthored by Seligman himself, finding that, among older people, pessimists were less likely to fall into depression following a negative life event such as the death of a family member. This study goes unmentioned in Authentic Happiness, but at the time it led Seligman to comment to the New York Times that "it's important that optimism not be footless [probably meaning "footloose"] and unwarranted." So realism has its uses after all.

But the results that go out to the public through the media tend to be spun toward the positive effects of positive emotions on health. Partly, this represents a long-standing media bias away from "null results": a study finding, for example, that there is no sex difference in the ability to sprint or solve quadratic equations is likely to be judged less newsworthy than a study reporting that one sex left the other in the dust. In the case of positive psychology, a 2002 New York Times article cited two studies linking optimism to longevity—and four studies tracing longevity to such other traits as "conscientiousness," calmness, pessimism, and even cantankerousness. Yet the article was headlined "Power of Positive Thinking Extends, It Seems, to Aging."

Another case of positive self-spinning is provided by Suzanne Segerstrom, a researcher at the University of Kentucky, who won the 2002 Temple-ton Foundation Award for Positive Psychology for her work on what may be the holy grail of positive psychology—the possible link between positive emotions and the immune system. Although the immune system plays no clear role in cancer, it is definitely important in fighting off colds and other infectious illnesses. Whether there is a link between positive emotions and the immune system is another matter. Martin Seligman asserts such a link, writing that "happy people" have "feistier immune systems than less happy ­people." In a 1998 paper, Segerstrom reported that optimism was correlated with greater immune competence, as measured by levels of key immune cell types. But in a second study, published three years later, she found that "some contradictory findings have emerged" and that, in some circumstances, more optimistic people "fare worse immunologically" than pessimists.

You would not know, however, that her results were negative or at best "mixed" from reading her newspaper accounts of her work. In a 2002 interview with the New York Daily News, she stated that the health benefits of optimism are "significant" and that not only do "optimists almost always have better emotional adjustments," but "most optimists show higher immune responses to illness." When I interviewed Segerstrom by phone in 2007, she insisted that she had been under no pressure from the media, or anyone else, to downplay her negative results. But when I brought up her award a little later on in our talk, she told me, "To get the Templeton award . . . You don't get anything for a null result."