Bobita’s post on optimism yesterday reminded me of a book I scrammed (speedily crammed) at the bookstore once: Julie K. Norem’s The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. Norem’s thesis is that pessimism gets a bad rap in our culture (and by "our," she clearly means "American" – I suspect that Canadian culture is a bit more skeptical about the value of optimism). According to conventional wisdom, optimism is healthy and normal; pessimists are admonished to "cheer up" and "think positive" so as to maximize their happiness and success. Norem found, however, that people who are temperamentally anxious actually function better as pessimists than they do as optimists. She coined the term defensive pessimism to describe the functional, strategic use of pessimistic thinking to help overcome anxiety.
The part of the book I remember best is a study in which subjects were required to perform an anxiety-inducing task, like public speaking. Optimists generally coach themselves for such tasks by boosting their self-image ("I think I can, I think I can"), while pessimists use their time backstage to envision the worst-case scenarios. For the purposes of the experiment, subjects were coached by researchers prior to their performance: the optimists were asked to think about how they would feel if they failed and made fools of themselves, while pessimists were given lots of encouragement of the "don’t worry, you’ll be great!" variety. Both groups performed poorly under this regime – the pessimists actually did better when allowed to describe their worst fears before going onstage. Norem’s theory is that envisioning worst-case scenarios can actually bolster an anxious person’s confidence; having visualized failure, the pessimist feels that nothing can take her by surprise.
One purpose of the book is to encourage parents to recognize defensive pessimism in their children. Since optimism is widespread and culturally valued, children are especially vulnerable to being coached out of their coping mechanisms by well-meaning parents. I found this intriguing because I recognized the pattern in reverse: I’m an optimist by temperament (a trait I inherited from my father who believes, with some justice, that if he refuses to acknowledge negative things, they will just go away). Throughout my childhood, however, I was coached in the techniques of defensive pessimism by my anxiety-prone mother. Like Anne of Green Gables, I always felt that looking forward to things was half the fun, but I couldn’t help but notice my mother wincing uncomfortably when I wriggled in anticipation of the upcoming school play or field trip. "Don’t get your hopes up!" she admonished constantly, "and then you won’t be disappointed."
As a result, my grab bag of psychological coping mechanisms bulges uncomfortably with the blithely optimistic traits I inherited from my father and the defensive strategies I was trained in so painstakingly by my mother. And yet both approaches are functional – I suspect that optimism and pessimism are not really things that you are; they’re things we do, strategies we employ depending upon the situation. When I’m down on my luck, here are the habits I fall back on:
- Sour Grapes: As Mr. Collins observes after Lizzy turns down his proposal, "resignation is never so perfect as when the blessing denied begins to lose somewhat of its value in our estimation." I often think of how isolated and miserable I would be if I had landed one of those appealing tenure-track jobs I interviewed for in Ottawa and Victoria (two of Canada’s most beautiful cities); I would be far away from friends and family, I would be struggling to balance the task of raising two toddlers with the demands of a full-time academic career, and I would have no grandparents on call, no sister to drop by twice a week for an afternoon romp with her niece and nephew. And the politics! English departments are rife with in-fighting and petty competition. It was a pair of lucky escapes I had, there. The Sour Grapes coping mechanism doesn’t deserve the mockery it gets at the hands of Aesop; it’s a good, solid, happiness-boosting habit. It’s possible that my conscious awareness of this technique undermines its effectiveness, but the up-side of that is that I can be vigilant about avoiding Sour Grapes’ meaner cousin, Holier than Thou. It is always tempting to take refuge from disappointment in the comforting reflection that I am morally superior to the soulless careerists who scooped those jobs out from under me. Self-mockery appears to be the best defense against this temptation, which might otherwise become overwhelming.
- Denial: "I can honestly say that getting married to my husband was the best decision I ever made." I can still remember the thud of shock I felt when a new friend uttered those words a few short months after my first wedding. I knew that there was no way I could say such a thing: marriage had turned out to be far, far different from what I had expected (a lot more playing of computer games, a lot less conversation; a lot more arguing about the housework, a lot less sex). At the same time, I was convinced that my friend’s experience was rare. Everybody knows that marriage is hard work; everybody knows that passion and excitement don’t last forever. For five years, those convictions defended me from the realization that there’s a difference between waning passion and actual dislike, that there’s a difference between a bored husband and a husband who hopes you get killed while driving on the 401 (ha! just remembered that tidbit, one of many revelations that came out during the post-mortem analysis). Denial has its dangers – it’s not terrifically useful, for instance, for determining when to leave a bad relationship – but since leaving wasn’t really an option for me anyway, Denial allowed me to function more or less happily in the midst of my "normal" (read: doomed) marriage.
- Low Expectations: Despite all my mother’s admonitions, I have never quite managed to stop getting my hopes up. I always believe that the evil alliance on Survivor will be broken (even in the face of overwhelming numerical odds); I continue to root for Canadian figure skaters at the Olympics (even after Kurt Browning’s two consecutive fourth-place finishes). Where the Low Expectations come in handy is in regards to myself: I am constantly amazed and delighted by my own prowess at the most mundane of tasks. This morning I managed to get out of the house before 9:30 am. Both children were dressed, I had two sippy cups in tow (50% juice, 50% water), the breakfast dishes were cleared away, and one out of two beds was made. I’m a star, I tell you. I often feel a sense of incredulity at the fact that I can operate a motor vehicle; I hurtle through intersections marveling at my power and grown-up-ness. Career disappointments notwithstanding, I still often feel faintly surprised that I am employed at all, in any capacity. This ability to be impressed by trifles extends to my virtues as well: one of the things I appreciate most in myself is my willingness to accept support from others. When I turn to friends for help, I envision how fulfilling they must find my reliance on their advice. This is one of the easier virtues to acquire, and there are numerous side benefits to it as well, ranging from yummy compliments to even yummier chocolate desserts. I devour them all greedily, express my gratitude wholeheartedly, and pat myself on the back when I see how good it makes people feel to make me so happy.
So there are a few of my happiness-inducing coping mechanisms. What are yours?