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Can optimism lead to a happier you in the new year?

The posit¡ve thinking debate

The debate about the value of positive thinking rages on in the USA, the land of Norman Vincent Peale and Mary Baker. Positive Psychology, the latest entrant into this debate here receives a well deserved rebuttal from Ms. Ehrenreich. She rightly points out that defensive pessimism and critical thinking are just as necessary, and perhaps more so, for human welfare than optimism. What do you think? Read her comments with care.

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara EhrenrichOne of the most prominent skeptics of positive thinking is Barbara Ehrenreich, whose best-selling book “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,”  claims that thinking positively does little good in the long run, and may do harm. I feel that her comments are important to consider if we wish to understand what actually happens in the area of positive psychology.

Happier people are more likely to believe anything

A study in the November issue of Australasian Science found that people in a negative mood are more critical of, and pay more attention to, their surroundings than happier people, who are more likely to believe anything they are told.

Negative moods trigger more careful thinking

“Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, cooperation and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world,” Joseph P. Forgas, a professor of social psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, wrote in his study.

Positive thinking did not prolong their lives

In the September 2007 issue of the journal Cancer, Dr. David Spiegel at Stanford University School of Medicine reported that although group therapy may help women cope with their illness better, positive thinking did not significantly prolong their lives.

Positive psychology

The field of positive psychology began in 1998 when, Martin Seligman, the president of the American Psychological Association at the time, looked for reliable scientific research on positive emotion. Dr. Seligman concluded, “it’s certain you can change pessimism into optimism in a lasting way.” Dr. Seligman is not pleased with Ms. Ehrenreich’s book and says “Where Ehrenreich and I agree — we’re both trying to separate wheat from chaff... We just differ on what we think is wheat and what we think is chaff.

Optimism and improved recovery?

James C. Coyne, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, in his recent study, found no correlation between optimism and improved recovery. he said, “Being optimistic is secondary to having health and resources.”  “It’s easy to show an association between optimism and subsequent health,” he said, “but if you introduce appropriate statistical controls — if you take into account baseline health and material resources — then the effect largely goes away.

Positive emotions vs positive thinking

Barbara L. Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina and researcher in positive emotions considers positive thinking and positive emotion as two distinct phenomena. “Positive thinking can sometimes lead to positive emotion, but it won’t always,” she said. “It’s like the difference between wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Life is Good’ and actually feeling deep in your bones grateful for your current circumstances.


Ms. Ehrenreich wants to encourage realism by, “trying to see the world not colored by our wishes or fears, but by reality.

Can pronouns help your marriage?

We or I and You?a couple talking

A recent study about the significance of using we vs. separateness pronouns, such as "I" and "You," among married couples has some interesting suggestions. The couples in the study were asked to have a conversation about their marital conflicts. Their emotional experiences during this quarrel were evaluated, and each partner was asked how happy they were in their marriages. The results showed that using we-ness pronouns was associated with higher levels of positive emotions, lower levels of negative emotions, and low levels of cardiovascular arousal. When one spouse used we-ness words, it was soothing to both. The results suggest that using "we" can be healthy and emotionally comforting. Older couples showed greater levels of we-ness usage and a greater sense of shared identity than the younger couples. Among older couples, the wives were more affected than their husband by the use of separate pronouns.

Use 'we' for more positive emotions

What would happen if families consciously used "we-ness" in conversations? Might this create more positive and relaxing moments, emotional closeness and compatibility?

The Age of Empathy:

Are We Essentially Good or Evil?

i thought that you would like to read what one of our most important primatologists has to say about empathy among animals and how he believes it is a behaviour that has evolved in mammals. He echoes his earlier hypothesis that we are good (altruistic) by nature and not just kindly mannered on the surface. Many believe, what Frans de Waal calls the 'veneer theory' of human behaviour, that we display an altruistic behaviour on the surface but that we are actually evil in our core. He is convinced that we are innately good. How encouraging to hear this from a biologist and zoologist.


We took my daughter and her friend to see the recent film by Richard Geere called "Hachiko: a dog's story" based on a real dog that lived in Japan in the 1930s. The film helped us remember, as the Yoga and Buddhist traditions do, that we are part of the same family of creatures called mammals. Today, thanks to Darwin, we call this common heritage, evolution. Nevertheless, we all cried uncontrollably when the dog Kachiko, displayed devotion and attachment that compared to the most touching of human devotion. How can it be that he has such deep attachment to someone not of his speicies? Perhaps we are not so separated from other species as we have been led to believe by our Judeo-Christian tradition!

Animals also Display Empathy

Frans de Waal's latest book "The Age of Empathy" illustrates the mounting evidence for not only the six basic emotions as Darwin proposed but much more - empathy and sympathy; emotion and cognition. Not only do many animals feel empathy but they exhibit behaviours that suggest that they are capable of the cognition of empathy. De Waal 'shows us that many animals are predisposed to take care of one another, come to one another’s aid, and, in some cases, take life-saving action'. Here is an excerpt from his new book which was published in the September 2009 issue of Natural History magazine.

An Excerpt from "The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society"

"Apes will groom and hug those in distress. There is also evidence of that behavior in dogs. Belgian biologists watched more than a thousand spontaneous fights among dogs released every day onto a meadow at a pet-food company. After aggressive outbursts, nearby dogs would approach one of the combatants—usually the loser—to lick or nuzzle, play with, or simply sit with him or her. Doing so seemed to settle the group, which quickly resumed its usual activities.Age of empathy"

"As for its origins, empathy probably started with the birth of parental care. During 200 million years of mammalian evolution, females sensitive to their offspring out reproduced those that were cold and distant. When a pup, cub, calf, or human baby is cold, hungry, or in danger, its mother needs to react instantaneously. Females that failed to respond did not propagate their genes."

"Descended as we are from a long line of mothers who nursed, fed, cleaned, carried, comforted, and defended their young, we should not be surprised by gender differences in human empathy. Two-year-old girls who witness others in distress treat them with more concern than do boys of the same age. And in adulthood, women report stronger empathic reactions than men, which is one reason why a “tending instinct” has been attributed to women."

Frans de WaalFranz de Waal

Frans de Waal is a psychology professor at Emory University with a Ph.D. in biology. He is the author of many books, including Chimpanzee Politics and Our Inner Ape. The director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, de Waal was ranked among the World’s 100 Most Influential People of 2007 by Time.