Try smiling while being laid-off. Or conjuring positive thoughts after receiving a cancer diagnosis. Or finding the bright side of a Wall Street meltdown.
Do you consider such scenarios not only perverse but also unmoored from the human experience of life's disappointments and tragedies? So does author Barbara Ehrenreich, who rails against them in her new book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.
In it, Ehrenreich targets hucksters who exhort the discontented and downtrodden to believe just a little more in their own abilities as a means of winning the love and riches they lack. Among the guilty in the $11 billion self-help industry, she says, are religious figures who encourage tithing as a way to reap even greater rewards, motivational speakers who ask their audiences to repeat meaningless affirmations and, yes, definitely the author of The Secret, the best-selling book (16 million copies sold) that tries to teach readers how to control outcomes by thinking hard, and positively, about them.
There's no doubt that these gurus lack scientific evidence to support claims that happy thoughts can cure cancer or lead to great wealth - false promises that Ehrenreich lays bare. But while positive thinking alone cannot move people closer to happiness, there is evidence that people who experience true positive emotions do lead longer, healthier lives.
So while pop positive thinking may be a hollow exercise, there are trustworthy researchers whose work has given us clues about how to best pursue happiness. Unsurprisingly, the key is not the visualization of positive outcomes, but rather lies with hard work - specifically, setting goals and cultivating resilience.
No quick fix
If Barbara Ehrenreich is skeptical of simplistic positive thinking for one reason, it might be that its practitioners often promise immediate results but ask followers to use techniques that require constant repetition.
"If you have to listen to (their advice) again and again, then is it working?" she asks. "Why do you have to keep doing it?"
Ehrenreich may be right to criticize. A study published in Psychological Science earlier this summer found that repeating a self-affirming mantra is not only ineffective, but may actually leave someone with low self-esteem feeling worse.
In the study, participants repeated the phrase, "I am a lovable person" multiple times during a period of several minutes. But instead of feeling more confident immediately afterward, they felt worse. Perhaps they didn't genuinely believe the mantra or picked the wrong quality to reaffirm, but the study indicates that feeling positive about life is more complicated than just willing that emotion into existence.
That complex process is something that Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, has spent the past 20 years trying to understand. Lyubomirsky, who has not read Ehrenreich's book, says that while she has "critiqued and parodied" pop positive thinking programs like that of The Secret, there is some merit to adopting a more optimistic outlook on life.
"Positive thinking has a role to play in a good life as long as it's not empty," she says. "If you want to apply to medical school and be a doctor, I would speculate that practicing optimism about that goal might motivate you to try harder."
The pursuit of happiness
That's the hard part of achieving happiness through a sunnier disposition: Wishing for a certain outcome only works as a motivating factor. Lyubomirsky argues that happiness can beget success--it's not necessarily the other way around because those with a more positive outlook lead their lives with palpable security, cultivating friendships, building skills and relaxing at the end of a hard day. With those additional resources, they are free to seek goals and thereby success that others simply cannot.
Of course, each person cultivates happiness in his or her own distinct way. Such journeys are the subject of a new PBS documentary series, This Emotional Life, which will begin airing in early 2010. Hosted by Harvard psychologist and author Daniel Gilbert, the series aims to convince viewers that happiness can be achieved through coping skills that teach people to be more resilient.
Lyubomirsky has studied various methods to, as Gilbert puts it, regain perspective. They include nurturing social relationships, being physically active, meditating and, of course, setting goals.
"A negative emotion is a signal to go back to the baseline," says Gilbert. "It's important to learn how to control what (one) thinks about the world. But you don't get control by staring into the mirror and saying, 'I'm good, I'm good.'"
Ehrenreich, naturally, is reluctant to share her own strategies for achieving happiness, but does admit to frequent trips to the gym. She adds that trying to effect political change is another path to contentment--a seemingly odd choice given all the disappointments and headaches that come with politics.
For that, she only has a few words of advice, ones that are easily applicable to anything else: "Don't be a baby - keep trying."