Friday, October 13, 2006

What Makes You Happy?

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?


Terri B. said...

I am what most optimists would call a pessimist. I call myself a realist. I guess that might actually be a type of coping mechanism in itself!

My mother is an eternal optimist and constantly tries to change my approach to life. She probably wonders what she did wrong. Wish she wouldn't worry so much since I'm actually a very happy, contented and well adjusted person. She on the other hand is often depressed and disappointed. Go figure.

I would have to say my major coping mechanism is having low expectations. I'm constantly surprised and happy at how well things turn out since I go into most everything expecting the worst will happen. Therefore, anything better than the worst is GREAT!

Great post. It's wonderful to be able to see this as a coping mechanism rather than something that needs to be changed.

nonlineargirl said...

I read an article on Norem's work that so spoke to me that I have saved it for years. (In fact, I just walked over to the drawer it lives in to check that, yes, that is the same person.) I am a defensive pessimist, and reading that article was incredibly empowering. Now I could say to all those "look on the bright side"s and "don't worry"s - hey, this is a TECHNIQUE, and one that works well for me, thank you!

I worry about the future and tend to think of all the bad things that could happen as a way to protect myself from them occuring. (In true magical thinking style, I imagine that THINKING of something will keep it from happening. If I don't think of it, it will sneak up on me!)

So interesting to hear your techniques, and how they have helped and hindered you. And thanks for reminding me of Norem's work. Just reading about it gave me such a boost, remembering helps too!

kittenpie said...

I have what I think of as "touchstone moments" that I fall back on when I need bolstering. "If I survived that okay, I can do this."

I also have come to a Pollyanna-esque belief that every time something major in life doesn't go according to plan, the way I wanted it to, it seems to take me down a path that was, in the end, probably better. I went to a different school from undergrad than I had planned, but from what I hear from my friend, it was a better fit for me. Toronto wasn't hiring librarians when I graduated, but it gave me three years in NYC. It's good, the diversion, if I can remember to bounce back from the disappointment and get a plan B going fast.

I guess I am a bit of a mix, because despite all that, I also feel very reassured by having a back-up plan.

owlhaven said...

I am a complete optimist. Hubby is the opposite, and I have spent a fair bit of effort in the past 20 years trying to encourage him to see the bright side. So I found this post very interesting.

It does seem he uses his pessimism as a way to prepare for possiblities. Then he can be pleasantly surprised when things turn out better. No wonder my exhortations to cheer up tend to fall on deaf ears. I'm trying to divest him of his coping mechanisms.

Sometimes he has the effect on me that you describe your mother having on you-- that dampening of the enthusiasm when I just want to glory in the anticipation. It can be frustrating at times, though I do admit my boundless enthusiasm can sometimes stand to be reined in.

All in all, though, I think we balance each other pretty well. Thanks for your insight in this post....

Mary, mom to many

nomotherearth said...

I will definitely have to check out Norem's work after this post. From the sounds of it, I am "defensive pessimist", although, like Terri B, I have always used the term realist. Glad to hear that this can be considered a technique and not a failing.

I need (NEED!) to imagine every scenario, every possible outcome of a situation, so that when one of them inevitably happens, I have a plan already in place as to what to do. This is how I have always coped. Nothing can be that bad if you have a plan. I also envision the worst case scenario so that if anything even remotely better than that happens, it's a step in the right direction and I can enjoy it.

The downside to my realistic approach, however, is that I tend not to actually believe it when good things do happen. It takes a lot of convincing and contined good things to make me believe that the carpet is not going to be pulled out from under my feet.

The Husband is a takes-things-as-they-come-and deal-with-them-then kind of person, which is SO not me. It's a good balance. We understand each other because we're both worriers, though.

Man, we sound really fracked up, don't we? (hee, hee, I just watched the season opener of BSG and it was good!)

Thought provoking post! And an addition to my growing list of must-reads.

bubandpie said...

Terri B., Nomo - LOL. I was going to add to my original post that in my experience there are no self-identified pessimists. There are self-identified optimists and self-identified "realists," and then there are those who resist labels altogether.

JC said...

What a mind-blow! I had never heard that, but does it ever resonate with me.

And how timely. I have recently been seriously questionng the assumption that this one particualr way is the right way.

Only the other day I was writing to a friend about the frustration I feel when people (frequently) tell me I need to "chill out" and "loosen up" as if my needs for logic and order are a character flaw. Same goes for "quit thinking so much" and "always look on the bright side of life."

Oh wow.

Must. go. blog.

I'm going to name you as my Muse. :)

Thank you for a wonderful, and enlightening, post.

metro mama said...

Great post. For a pre-emptive strategy, I'm also a fan of low expectations. For the post, wine and whine.

Andrew said...

I love those kind of premises, when someone challenges what most people hold to be obvious truths, presents an alternative, and makes you think, "You know what? They have a point there." Thanks for sharing this.

To Love, Honor and Dismay

Mary-LUE said...

Well, I can definitely relate to the lab rats, excuse me, subjects of the experiment. Anytime I have to speak in public, fly on a plane, etc., I do imagine the worst-case scenario.

But I think it is mixed up with some optimism. For example... and this is an extreme example, I saw a film called Riding Giants about big surf riders. One man in that film, describing that day he rode this absolutely ginormous wave, said that he was scared, of course, but he sat at the top of the wave and told himself, "Today is a good day to die." I clutch that story to my heart every time I get on a plane.

BUT, because I am a Christian and have a certain belief about what happens after I die, I can get on the plane accepting the possibility of the worst thing happening. So, I think it is a combination of defensive pessimism and optimism that allows me to function in this world.

I also think Sour Grapes and Low Expectations are in my repertoire although I prefer to call them the Bigger Picture and Being Prepared! ;)

Crunchy Carpets said...

I am trying to think...
I think I am an Optimist with low expectations and a pessimistic sense of humour.

I find that it is easy to switch sides so to speak and mentally fight the urge to see the worst in an experience.

I try to live like you learn from is NEVER what you expect and to just roll with it.

It doesn't always work...but I try.

My dh is a terrible pessimist and will see all the worst things happening an NEEDS to work through them before making a big decision....

I prefer to just close my eyes and plunge in!

jen said...

i keep a healthy dose of realism. i plan for worst case, and then am rarely surprised. i'd love to say i live in the moment, and take things as they come, but then i'd be full of shit.

Kristen said...

I've always said I'm a pessimist, but like others have mentioned, when things go wrong, I can usually deal with it pretty well since I've thought through the scenario and don't have to fight through shock. And like you, I tend to be very pleased with accomplishments that may or not really be that impressive (like your example of being out the door by 9:30). So maybe I'm not as pessimistic as I think. I actually think of myself as more of a realist, but my optimistic mother always labeled me a pessimist and I think it stuck.

Anonymous said...

I use the strategy of deferral--I'll be happy once I sleep through the night again. I guess it's a version of low expectations--today sucks, tomorrow will be better :)
The reason I am leaving this annonymously is because I am too tired to remember my password; but it is I, MLD.

Eric said...

Great post. I am a huge optimist, even when the situation would clearly call for pessimism. I ALWAYS think it's going to be okay - even when deep-down I know it's not going to be okay. Which obviously means that I also engage in denial. But it mostly works for me. So far. I think. Or thought, until I read this post. Now I'm not so sure.

And thanks for the shout-out in your last post!

Mary P. said...

I call myself a pragmatic optimist. (It's in my profile!) I do think people have essential ways of leaning into life. My glass is almost always half-full, there are silver linings to almost all my clouds. It's not something I put on, it's innate.

I absolutely agree that there are times when a less-sunny stance is the better one. (I'd have left my first marriage a whole lot sooner if I'd been less irrepressably hopeful - and that would have been a good thing.)

I don't expect everything to be sunshine and roses, nor do I expect everyone to react to things in an upbeat way, nor am I unduly shocked that there are dark and nasty things in the world: shit happens. What matters is how you respond to the shit. It isn't necessary to respond with a smile: sometimes a snarl of rage (or a shrug of resignation or a grimace of sorrow) is the best responses.

cinnamon gurl said...

This is interesting because in my general outlook on life, I am fairly optimistic. But I am a huge worry wart and definitely use pessimism as a coping strategy. I feel like it won't happen if I can think of it first; and if it does then I'll be better able to deal with it. People try to jolly me out of my pessimism but it never helps. It's nice to have a good reason for it now.

sunshine scribe said...

pediemI read this one with great interest.

I think that I certainly have optimistic tendencies but have lived through some tough stuff (that I haven't written about on my blog) and fall back on ... well if I can get through that, I can get through this.

I think that managing expectations can be a brilliant strategy but when that fails I am an expert at rationaliztion ... "everything happens for a reason", 'what doesn't kill us makes us stronger", "sometimes the best gifts are unaswered prayers".

sunshine scribe said...


some how the word verification creeped into my message. LOL

karrie said...

I cope with a heavy dose of sarcasm and snark. I'm ashamed to admit that I look for the bad/weak side of things or people as a defensive strategy. (I only use the information pushed.) I'm a basically nice person, but one you probably shouldn't fuck with because I can be really cold and harsh in matters of self-defense. :)

allrileyedup said...

Great post! I really enjoyed your description of sour grapes and its cousin, holier than thou.

I tend to be pessimistic about most things and have very low expectations, and after reading your post, I think I have these low expectations because I don't like being disappointed.

I am often surprised at my friends and family who, without fail, all think of me as a very high spirited optimist. It makes me wonder what kind of a show I am really putting on here?

Rock the Cradle said...

True to my Geminian stereotype, I am on both sides of the fence on this one (here I am, resisting a label...typical).

I'm an optimist about people. I prefer to think the best of everyone I meet. Which is completely opposite my attitude as a teenager, but I find it makes life much better all around.

On the other hand, as far as situations are concerned, I'm a pessimist. I absolutely need to muck through the worst case scenarios. I don't obsess about them, but it helps me to find a certain amount of equilibrium in the end.

So I'm not sure I'm much of a realist, but I'm definately a rationalist a la Sunshine Scribe's nod to Neitzche.

As to what makes me the moment, just that my brother and his family in Hawaii are safe and well, if still without power. Simple things. Moments of awareness and appreciation.

And, of course, chocolate.

Pieces said...

I'm playing catch up and finally just read this post. Very interesting, I must say.

I am the queen of low expectations. When we were first married I hated going to social functions. Actually, I would look forward to them, plan them, but when the moment came to dress and go I would suddenly balk. It isn't going to be fun, I won't like the people there, it would be so much better just to stay home. Then I would go and have a great time. I used to wonder what was wrong with me. It took me years to figure out that it is actually my way of coping. And if my expectations are low--it is hard to be disappointed.

Robbin said...

I have always been an optimist at heart, but I will admit to adopting my share of "defensive pessimism" in response to a rough adolescence and early adulthood. I find I am becoming more optimistic with age (but since that's one of the questions you asked at my blog, I will save that for next week's blog fodder).

I am not usually into "Christian Philosophy" books, but my brother gave me a copy of "Raising Kids for True Greatness". Kimmel has a chapter on Abundance thinking vs. Scarcity thinking that is really worth reading. So much of it rang true with my experiences.