Living your life sunny side down

By Pamela H. Sacks

Everywhere we turn we’re told to be cheerful, upbeat, look on the bright side. Life is a self-fulfilling prophecy, after all, and negative thoughts will only drag us down.

For this approach to life we can, in large measure, thank the positive-psychology movement, which has held sway for several decades. Books on the subject are innumerable: “The Power of Positive Thinking,” “Learned Optimism,” “I’m OK, You’re OK.”

Well, it turns out maybe neither of us is OK — and that’s OK.

All that cheeriness could, in fact, be downright dangerous to our prospects for success.

Call it the contrarian view. Julie K. Norem does, and she’s a research psychologist, Wellesley College professor and author of “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.”

Ms. Norem’s research over the last 15 years indicates that many people would do well to employ the techniques of what she calls “defensive pessimism” in order to ensure success. It’s a strategy that can help those with a darker view of life harness their anxiety and make it work for, rather than against, them.

Ms. Norem’s book, which came out in hardcover last year, has recently been published in softcover by Basic Books. She will be at Nichols College in Dudley tomorrow night to talk about how pessimists can put negativity to work for them.

Ms. Norem, in a recent telephone interview, said her research doesn’t bear out the widely held belief that everyone does better adopting a sunny outlook.

“One way to summarize it is to say that one size doesn’t fit all,” she said. While many people are energized and motivated by positive thinking, people who are anxious feel more pressure when told to buck up.

“You not only have to do what you have to do, you have to feel cheery about it,” Ms. Norem said. “It’s the tyranny of optimism.”

Instead, this type of person is likely to do quite well employing defensive pessimism. If, for instance, you have to give a speech, the first step is to set low expectations and think about all the things that could go wrong — tripping on the way to the podium, knocking over the pitcher of water, dropping your notes. Then imagine the worst-case scenario.

It may sound counterintuitive, Ms. Norem said, but thinking about the specifics shifts your attention to the concrete steps you can take to avoid disaster — and, in turn, takes your mind off your anxiety.

“It is a very effective way to harness anxiety, which makes you unable to think or focus,” Ms. Norem said. “Once you’ve done that, you’re really well prepared.”

So, why isn’t it better to envision everything going wonderfully? Because, Ms. Norem said, those types of thoughts tend to be very general.

“It doesn’t get you acting and behaving in ways that are effective,” she said. “It leaves you daydreaming. When it comes time to give the speech, all those rosy things aren’t likely to happen because you haven’t been specific about how to make them happen. Things start to go wrong, the anxiety returns and you’re paralyzed.”

Ms. Norem frankly admits her views have not been well received in the United States, one of the most optimistic cultures in the world. The exceptions have been the people who automatically practice defensive pessimism. In mainstream psychology, defensive pessimism is considered an anomaly. The optimists just don’t get it.

Overseas, the concept has gotten a far more enthusiastic response. Europeans and Asians have no expectation that life will be one big joyride. The book has been translated into German and Chinese. Ms. Norem is amused by the Chinese title, “I’m Pessimistic But I Achieve.”

Ms. Norem first became interested in the seeming paradox of successful-but-pessimistic people while working on her doctorate at the University of Michigan. She observed that her adviser, Nancy Cantor, was perennially anxious and pessimistic, though she seemed to succeed brilliantly. Ms. Cantor is now chancellor at the University of Illinois.

This was during a boom time for optimism.

“It was supposed to be good, good, good to maintain rosy illusions of the world,” Ms. Norem said. “It didn’t jibe, and I was curious about how she did things.” She was willing to go with it as a research topic.

The trouble with forced optimism, Ms. Norem said, is that it tends to engender guilt and even greater anxiety. To quell the negative feelings, people self-medicate by drinking, smoking or eating too much.

Despite the relentless push for perkiness, life, in reality, is full of conflict, Ms. Norem said. Many women, for instance, want a career and children, contrary goals that can create tremendous anxiety.

“Pretending it’s not true really sets us up” for stress, she said.

There has been an enormous rise in anxiety in children over the years, she said, and the pressure on parents to give their young ones a fun-filled, happy life bears part of the blame.

Children not only are given everything, they are told in a general way that they are wonderful. In the parlance of professional psychologists, they get “noncontingent positive regard.”

“We think that’s good for them, but it creates anxiety,” Ms. Norem said. “They don’t know why they were told they are great in the first place.”

Moreover, it cheapens the value of actual achievement.

“There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears involved there,” she said. “Most of us are perfectly capable of handling it if we’re prepared for it.”

Undue optimism can even be dangerous, Ms. Norem asserted, by creating an egotistical, overconfident attitude. She pointed to Enron Corp.’s top executives, optimistic go-getters who cheerfully led their employees into financial disaster.

Ms. Norem said she recommends that both optimists and pessimists employ their techniques for success in their heads, rather than out loud. Otherwise, they are bound to really annoy one another.