August 15, 2000 Seeing Pessimism's Place in a Smiley-Faced World By ERICA GOODE
Dr. Barbara Held has had just about enough of accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative.
She does not want to cheer up, look on the bright side or let a smile be her umbrella. And she is not planning to put a smiley face sticker on her car bumper any time soon.
In fact, Dr. Held views such activities as rather worrisome. She is one of a small band of psychologists who believe their profession -- and indeed America as a whole -- has succumbed to an ethos of unrelenting positivity. This "tyranny of the positive attitude," as Dr. Held sees it, prescribes cheerfulness and optimism as a formula for success, resilience and good health, and equates negativity with failure, vulnerability and general unhealthiness.
Positive thinking is a staple of self-help books, popular music and Sunday sermons. And in recent years, it has also found a home in the positive psychology movement, which was founded to correct what its leaders, including Dr. Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a former president of the American Psychological Association, saw as the field's overly narrow focus on mental illness and human failing.
But Dr. Held and like-minded colleagues, who gathered last week at the psychological association's annual meetings in Washington for a symposium titled "The (Overlooked) Virtues of Negativity," feel that bliss can be taken too far.
While positive thinking has its advantages, they argue, a little whining now and then is not such a bad thing. Pessimism, in some circumstances, may have its place. And the unrelieved pressure to be upbeat, they assert, may gloss over individual needs and differences, and may make some people feel worse instead of better.
"I'm worried that we're not making space for people to feel bad," said Dr. Held, a clinical psychologist at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., and the author of "Stop Smiling Start Kvetching."
"Life is very hard," Dr. Held said. "If you're having a hard time with something, it can make it harder to cope if you feel pressure to act O.K. when you're not."
A large body of experimental work has elaborated on the pluses of optimism and positive thinking, which appear to have beneficial effects on performance, social adjustment and some aspects of health. But at least some research supports the notion that in some cases, it may be more useful to see the glass as half empty.
Dr. Julie Norem, a social psychologist at Wellesley College, for example, has studied "defensive pessimism," a coping strategy that involves setting unrealistically low expectations, then mentally playing out all the possible outcomes of a given situation.
For instance, Dr. Norem explained, a defensive pessimist is likely to approach a coming public speaking engagement with mounting anxiety. But rather than giving herself a pep talk or using positive imagery to calm herself down, the defensive pessimist will picture herself tripping over the microphone cord, dropping her notes and dissolving into a fit of coughing.
Yet this anxious reverie will also include plans for avoiding such humiliation, like wearing low heeled-shoes or having a glass of water on the lectern.
"This mental rehearsal tends to make defensive pessimists feel less anxious, and so they actually perform better," Dr. Norem said.
In laboratory experiments, the psychologist and her colleagues have found, defensive pessimists indeed perform as well on tasks as "strategic optimists," who are less anxious, tend to set high expectations for their own performance and avoid thinking about all the things that could go wrong.
But the performance of each group suffers when it is impeded from engaging in its preferred strategies.
In one study, for example, defensive pessimists and strategic optimists participated in a dart throwing exercise. The subjects were randomly assigned to prepare for the task in one of three ways. In one, they engaged in "coping imagery," imagining something going wrong and taking steps to fix it, a strategy close to the natural approach of defensive pessimists. In the second, the subjects practiced "mastery," imagining a flawless performance.
In the third, the participants engaged in a relaxation exercise, distracting themselves from the pending dart-throwing by imagining a peaceful scene, perhaps a beach.
Defensive pessimists, the researchers found, did well in the game when they prepared using imagery that mimicked their preferred coping style. But their performance declined when they imagined performing perfectly and they did even worse when asked to act like optimists, distracting themselves with relaxing images. Strategic optimists, in contrast, performed best after the relaxation exercise and worst when they imagined things going wrong.
Other researchers have investigated the benefits of griping (high for those who do it infrequently, lower for frequent complainers) and extent of pessimism in different cultures. (Asian-Americans, one study found, are more pessimistic than Caucasian-Americans, and are more likely to use pessimism as a way of coping.)
Work by Dr. James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, also underlines the positive role of what some might call "constructive negativity."
Obsessively ruminating about how miserable life is, studies show, can have a harmful effect on health. But in a series of studies, Dr. Pennebaker and his colleagues asked subjects to focus on stressful or disturbing life events in a structured way, writing essays about the most traumatic experience of their lives, for example. The subjects' health improved on a variety of measures, and this improvement persisted for up to four months after the studies were over.
Dr. Pennebaker said he was happy to be considered part of the positive psychology movement but that "a lot depends on what we mean by positive psychology."
"There's some reasonably compelling evidence to suggest that when people are falsely peppy and upbeat and chipper, it's not very healthy," he said.
And, he added, little data supports the idea that a positive attitude enhances health -- something he pointed out repeatedly several years ago when his wife developed breast cancer, and people kept telling her, "You just need to be positive all the time."
In fact, Dr. Pennebaker added, a 1989 study he published with Dr. David Watson, now at the University of Iowa, indicates that even nervous, unhappy people, prone to chronic complaining, appear to be no more unhealthy than their buoyant peers. Subjects in the study who scored high on measures of nervousness, apprehension, irritability and oversensitivity were more likely to complain about physical symptoms. But they were no more likely to visit the doctor, develop high blood pressure or die.
"It's not bad to be nervous and it's not bad to be angry," Dr. Watson said in an interview. "We have these emotions because they serve useful functions for us."
The participants in last week's symposium emphasized that they hoped to temper, not to disparage the field's interest in positive things.
"I'm not saying it's good to let people wallow in the negative," said Dr. Arthur Beauhart, a humanistic psychologist at California State University at Dominguez Hills. "I see this as a healthy corrective, or an expanding of the positive psychology movement." But psychologists identified with that movement say that positive psychology already makes clear that at times optimism is neither appropriate nor beneficial.
Dr. Seligman, a founders of positive psychology, expressed amusement that a positive focus could stir controversy.
"I'm all for negative psychology," he said. "I spent 35 years of my life doing it. It just seems to me that there's no danger that people are going to be working exclusively on the positive. I think most of psychology has been about going from minus 8 to minus 5."