Monday, August 11, 2014

The Dangers of "Positive Psychology"

Everyone wants to be happy. At least, that's what we believe, especially in the U.S., where all our movies have happy endings. The proponents of positive psychology will tell you that a happy brain performs better on tests, better than neutral or stressed, and can help us live longer, more productive and enjoyable lives. Sounds pretty wonderful, right? Except when you try to out it into practice, there are some drawbacks that appear. One major drawback is when things fall apart. Positive psychology has no better answer than, "look on the bright side! Find the good in this! Don't put your happiness off as something that will happen after you reach a goal... have it right now AND reach your goal!" Except that life doesn't work that way, and now studies are showing what I suspected: happiness can be hazardous to your health.

It's simple, really. Who goes about solving problems when they're happy? What's to fix? When we feel great, the world is a wonderful place. Who complains when they're happy? Who watches out for bad things coming our way when everything is fine now? Why be such a Negative Nancy or Gloomy Gus, when we can be joyful in everything we do? there are no problems when your happy! It's easy to see how things are not a problem, and therefore no solution is necessary. What, me worry?

The truth is pessimists live on average TEN YEARS longer than happy people. And the truth is a pessimistic or realistic outlook is MUCH better at handling stress and misfortune. And when you have a chronic illness, there's a lot of stress and misfortune. Worrying when you *know* something is wrong is NOT a bad thing!! Oh, sure, other people might not like my attitude, but they don't have to live my life, do they?

Leslie Martin, co-author of the 2011 book "The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study," found similar results in a long-term study that followed 1,528 people over eight decades. Among other health-related findings, the study showed that the subjects who were identified as most optimistic as children were the ones who died the soonest.

What most people haven't experienced, and therefore they do not know, is YEARS OF FAILURE while surrounded by some of the best and brightest minds our society has to offer (doctors & nurses). That would make anyone pessimistic. Every time I was given a new medication, I was told, "This time, it will work and you'll get better!" I would pray and hope as much as I could, I would send out good energy to the Universe and work hard to accumulate good karma so that THIS TIME, it would work. I would meditate for hours, visualizing a healthy me, so that reality would manifest that outcome. I'm betting you can guess how well that worked!

I got tired of the roller coaster. I got tired of trying to keep my spirits up while enduring one failure of a medication after another. Nothing was working, and I mean nothing. I was kicked out of no fewer than five doctors offices, being told, "I'm sorry, we have nothing left for you." I mean, I know there are people who claim they've tried everything, but I actually was IN an experimental study whose protocol demanded that, "all other therapies had failed." So I am one of the few people who indeed HAS "tried everything," including Eastern and alternative medicines. It is not pessimism when it's the TRUTH.

When I gave up hoping, I freed myself from all that misery. No more would I be slammed to the ground in despair and disappointment. If a medication worked, fantastic! I would be happy then, but there was NO use to getting all worked up ahead of time. All that was doing was setting myself up. And then, when I wasn't able to maintain my good mood in the face of bad news, positive psychology made me feel like a failure because I couldn't hope. To me, hoping became a sign that I didn't know what was going on, but whatever it was, it wasn't going to turn out well for me. Hope became a feeling associated with my powerlessness to keep bad things from happening to me. Hope was the veil I threw over my head, trying to make the world soft and dreamlike, only to find that all it did was cloud my vision and keep me from seeing the potentially bad things headed my way.

So it was a HUGE relief to find out that indeed, pessimism is actually better at handling stressful situations. My experience with happiness and hope being liabilities instead of support is absolutely correct! I was NOT a failure for my negative attitude, in fact, that was the best attitude I could adopt for my situation. People who are negative and worry more are more apt to take care of the little problems before they become HUGE problems. They are more cautious and don't take risks like happy people do. They can see the problems before they happen (because they're on the lookout for the negative) and therefore live an average of TEN YEARS LONGER than happy people. Take that, positive psychology!

People think that happiness is a good idea because it feels good. But I can tell you from my own hypomanic (that happy & creative stage before full-blown, hallucinating mania) experiences, feeling good does not mean thinking good. In fact, feeling good can be quite dangerous, and can cause me to be sexually aggressive, fiscally irresponsible, and insensitive to other people's feelings. I feel good, and you feel good, so let's feel even better together. Hey, it's okay for me to spend this money! It will all work out somehow, I don't have to worry, I'll find a way to get more. Oh, come on... why did that hurt your feelings? It's all in good fun, right? We're all happy here, why are you upset? Don't be so serious all the time!

For me, trying to maintain happy all the time is also very stressful, but not in the way most people view stress. See, the body doesn't care if the stress is bad (an upcoming exam) or good (winning the lottery), BOTH times are periods of increased heart rate and a stimulated body. That means a greater drain on cortisol (the hormone that allows us to cope with stress), the hormone that my body doesn't make. It doesn't matter whether the stress is good or bad, either way, I crash! And when I have an adrenal crash, that triggers a migraine, which means hours or days of pain. I've learned over the years that the Buddhists and Goldilocks have it right: not too hot, not too cold — the middle path is the best.

So while happiness may feel good emotionally, it is NOT good physically! And my attempts at positive psychology led to one of the biggest crashes I've had since I first got sick. We cannot fool ourselves that just because something feels good that means it is good. Of course people will do better on tests when they're amped up on their own internal supply of stimulants... everyone does better on tests on speed! That's how our bodies are able to survive crisis situations, by amping up all our systems to better survive the occasion. But that's not something you want to try and maintain! You'll burn your body out in the process. We need neutral and negative. It's just plain safer and healthier.

I would like to thank Shawn Achor for his work, but I would like to add a word of caution: you pulled off a few magic tricks in your presentation that you failed to mention, and as a result have started down a dangerous path. Of course young children can be talked out of their pain, but we outgrow that at a certain age and that trick stops working. We all get to an age where we realize we're being fooled, and we don't buy the b.s. anymore. And even though there is the tendency for people to think that something bad is going on when it's nothing (cute that the guy thought he was going through menopause, nice joke), but that helped us survive because it's better to assume it's a tiger when it's just the wind, than to assume it's the wind when it's the tiger...

And THAT's the biggest danger of positive psychology— it wants us to assume it's just the wind. Oh sure, it can show you that 90% of the time it's the successful way to go! And they'd be right! But if in that 10% there lies the tiger, and you land on that tiger, you're dinner, and that's 100% failure. Even though the risks are small, the catastrophic results make it such that it's better to "err on the side of caution" and assume things are NOT going to work out. It doesn't pay to be na├»ve.

There's the saying, "Fools learn from experience. The wise learn from history." And history tells us that the leaders of Rome kept the masses pacified with "bread & circuses." It's a political game as old as history itself: keep the people fed and happy, and they'll let you get away with genocide. It's only during economic stress that people start paying attention to what the people in power are doing. Why question authority when God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world?

We would be wise to be wary.

WSJ Infographic:

Video:


Sources:
WSJ - "A Perfect Dose of Pessimism"
NPR - "Do You Want To Be Happy? Don't Set Your Expectations Too High"

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