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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.