News and Tribune


March 14, 2014

STAWAR: Accentuate the positive?

Last week, my wife Diane and I spent a day in Louisville listening to a lecture on the psychology of happiness. This is normally not the kind of lecture I would attend but: 1. It was the cheapest seminar listed; 2. It was in Louisville; and 3. The deadline for getting continuing education credits is almost here.

 “Happiness” falls into an area of psychology that has been dubbed “positive psychology.” The term was coined by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1964. I thought that it was likely to be a transient fad, like past lives and primal scream therapy, but it has had more sticking power than I imagined.

Scott Lilienfeld from Emory University called “positive psychology” an intriguing, sprawling, but at times inchoate movement that seeks to restore “positive” features of human nature, such as happiness, virtues, personal strengths and altruism, to their rightful place within the field of psychology.

Martin Seligman, who authored the 1990 best-seller “Learned Optimism,” is often referred to as the father of “Positive Psychology.” Seligman made it the centerpiece of his presidency of the American Psychological Association in 1998. He even teamed up with the Girl Scouts to create a Science of Happiness Merit Badge, which middle school girls can earn by developing a strategy for increasing their own happiness.

Research has linked happiness with a variety of social, mental and physical health benefits and several well-known studies underpin the movement. One is the 2001 “Nun Study.”

Psychologists Deborah Danner and her colleagues from the University of Kentucky reviewed early life autobiographies of nuns. These were scored for positive contents and were then related to longevity.

Nuns who expressed positive emotion lived significantly longer than their glum counterparts. On average, they lived a decade longer, which is especially noteworthy given that they shared an environment with basically the same stress, diet and supports.

LeeAnne Harker from the University of California looked at older women’s college yearbook pictures and rated them for positive emotional expression (smiles). After controlling for physical attractiveness and social desirability, women with genuine smiles were consistently rated as having more favorable personalities. People expected interactions with them to be more positive.

Most dramatically, however, the smiles predicted favorable outcomes in marriage and personal well-being 30 years later.

Since then, research has blossomed and psychologists devised techniques to manufacture happiness to remedy problems, such as anxiety and depression. Seligman found that simple exercises like keeping a gratitude diary can significantly boost feelings of happiness, with effects up to six months later.

University of California psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky says that more than 40 percent of happiness is within our power to control. She found that subjects who thought about happy life events eight minutes a day, for only three days, reported greater life satisfaction, and these effects lasted four weeks later.

Meditation, mindfulness, savoring, healthy sleep habits and diet, practicing random acts of kindness and increased smiling are all techniques that are used to increase happiness.

Still I’m unconvinced. Freud said that all the best therapy could do is to turn “neurotic suffering” into “everyday misery.” The world’s a harsh place, and being happy all the time seems disingenuous at best.

My distrust of pervasive happiness stems from my mother, who had a fairly cynical approach to life. She had no use for people who went around saying that they “had a ball” or that something was “marvelous.”

She was probably what psychologist Julie Norem had in mind when she described the “defensive pessimist” in her book, “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.” Defensive pessimists are anxious about upcoming challenges as a way of life — it’s their basic coping strategy. When forced to look on the bright side, their task performance takes an immediate nosedive.

While positive affirmations are often suggested to boost happiness, research shows that when people with low self-esteem repeat a positive self-statement, it actually makes them feel worse, probably because it emphasizes the gap between how they feel and how they’d like to feel.

Positive psychology isn’t for everyone.

Chris Hedges, the author of “Empire of Illusion” worries about the misuse of positive psychology to engineer happiness, where it has no right to exist. He says, “In the land of happy thoughts, we are to blame if things go wrong.” He says that dictators have historically used the same language of “harmony and strength” to enslave and impoverish their citizens.

Indiscriminate use of positive psychology can have the consequence of quashing critical judgment and suppressing legitimate feelings and memories. It might create “happy zombies,” who like cult members, verbalize happiness while they seem depressed or empty beneath the surface.

Thinking too much about happiness actually leads to unhappiness. Eleanor Roosevelt warned against slipping into self-absorption, and said happiness is not a goal in and of itself, but is the byproduct of a meaningful life.

She said, “Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively.”

Well, at least Diane and I have all of our continuing education credits now, and that is a happy thought.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at

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