In the past month several books have appeared whose basic premise is that being positive can be harmful to your health. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich, is in response to the cheerful pink cult surrounding breast cancer. You know: all those pink ribbons and pink boxes of candy and pink cards with happy faces—pink is so ubiquitous you can buy anything female done up in pink or festooned with pink ribbons for your favorite breast cancer survivor (not victim or even patient, but survivor!).
Ehrenreich, who’s written gritty exposés of women’s paid labor and other takes on reality, isn’t one to wear rose-colored glasses. “In the most extreme characterization,” she writes, “breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance—it is a ‘gift,’ deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude.” Ehrenreich isn’t exactly “negative,” but a realist who insists we look at life as it is. That’s the kind of attitude I used to have, but I became more and more grumpy over the years out of frustration with the taboo on expressing reality. All those “have a nice day”s and the bestowal of blessings, not to mention being told it was my own fault if my life sucked, and that it would continue if I kept on being negative...well, it all made me mad, and I went in the opposite direction.
A recent Australian study on grumpiness gives grumps like me the edge over shiny happy people: “While cheerfulness fosters creativity, gloominess breeds attentiveness and careful thinking, Professor Joe Forgas told Australian Science Magazine.” A mildly negative mood, the study found, promotes an improved communication style, particularly in “stating their case through written arguments.” Hah! That just happens to be my forte!
Another new book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness by Ariel Gore, makes no case for either negative or positive, but is a meandering exploration of the subject. (Full disclosure: I was one of the women who responded to Gore’s survey, and at least one of my answers pops up in the book.)
Always on the lookout for what isn’t being talked about, Gore noticed that in the burgeoning field of happiness psychology, most of those in Happy Land were male, and, even more alarming, the “experts” seemed to be saying that women who opted for traditional stay-at-home roles were the happiest. She sent a questionnaire out to 100 women, asked a smaller group to keep diaries, attended a meeting of “happiness experts,” and in general spent her time studying, ruminating, meditating and cogitating on the subject. Like most books of this type, Bluebird has something for everyone. Here’s one for me: “My mother,” Gore quips, “considered it a sin of dishonesty to let any negative emotion go unexpressed.”
Naturally, when talking about women’s happiness, the topic of motherhood is central, and this is Gore’s specialty. She understands the difference between motherhood as a fact of our lives, and motherhood as an institution; she never confuses the oppression of the latter with reality. She even comes up with a few answers to the questions she raises. But the most significant aspect of this gem of a book, to my mind, is that negativity, or rather reality in its darker manifestations, is not ignored, spurned or judged. That’s my beef with all the happiness cults—they demand eternal positive thinking and behavior.
Lately I’m zeroing in on the California way, and why it doesn’t suit me. I’ve lived here for over 22 years, and I’m still a stranger in a strange land. I haven’t lost my New York accent—if anything, it’s gotten more pronounced. I’ve become progressively more negative, more cynical, and more of a hermit. For a long time I believed my isolationist tendencies were generic, that I’d be this way even if I were on the East Coast, but I’m starting to see that the reason I don’t socialize is that I simply can’t relate to Californians; I feel inadequate and uncomfortable around them.
For complicated reasons I can’t move back to New York, so I have to face up to the situation and find peace—and I seem to be making progress. A few weeks ago I was reading a memoir in which the author said her life works best when she’s open to new experiences, creating the conditions that allow her life to flow in a positive direction. For some reason this grabbed hold of my imagination. I saw all the times I’ve sabotaged myself by shutting out new experience, and I began to glimpse the meaning behind all this positive chatter. It was a humbling moment. And it came at a time when the world seems to be tuning in to the benefits of negativity—or what I call reality.
Good grief! I can just see it now: everyone will finally get real, and I’ll be in positive thinking mode. I’ll run around smiling, drawing happy faces and chirping “Have a nice day,” but I’ll get only scowls in return. People will lecture me about the falseness of my new persona. They’ll explain negativity to me as if I’d never heard the word or known a thing about it...and I’ll just smile and say, “Have a nice day.”
Causes Marcy Sheiner Supports
Hydrocephalus Association, Crohns and Colitis Foundation
Ousting the Republicans