THE NEW OPTIMISM; Supporters of the Positive Psychology Movement Believe You Can Learn to Be Happy. the Usually Pessimistic Helen Kirwan- Taylor Put Their Methods to the Test

The Evening Standard (London, England), September 21, 2009 | Go to article overview

THE NEW OPTIMISM; Supporters of the Positive Psychology Movement Believe You Can Learn to Be Happy. the Usually Pessimistic Helen Kirwan- Taylor Put Their Methods to the Test


Byline: Helen Kirwan-Taylor

PSYCHIATRISTS used to study misery. Then one day Martin Seligman, the (now very wealthy) father of the positive psychology movement, had the bright idea of turning things on their heads. Rather than study unhappy people, he thought, why not look at happy people? Better yet, why not deconstruct their thoughts and put them together again in someone else's head? This upside-down approach to mental health became the foundation for the biggest psychological movement of our time and the focus of the first world Congress on Positive Psychology in Philadelphia this summer.

This is also how Ben Renshaw, a "happiness" coach came to be sitting at my kitchen table. An indirect disciple of Seligman, Renshaw and his partner Robert Holden (whose book Be Happy: Release the Power of Happiness in You has just come out) are in the business of turning pessimists like me into, if not Pollyannas, then at least moderately upbeat personalities. Later this autumn they are running a London-based course to help turn our city's mood around.

But Renshaw's challenge was to turn my thinking around, and in one week or less. He would use methods developed in the Happiness Project that he and Holden founded in 1995. Much of this was to be done by comparing our responses to the same events and completing certain exercises.

From the moment Renshaw, a former musician dressed in a bright Hawaiian shirt, sat down and politely refused a second glass of red wine, I knew we were on different wavelengths. Words such as "great", "terrific", "success" and "connect" quickly came streaming from his mouth. My normal response to positive people is to get instantly negative, and this is where many of us get it wrong.

In Britain, we often identify positive thinking with childishness (and even stupidity). Those of us with a less sanguine view of the world can see optimism as shallow - after all, most great art is born of suffering.

"Optimism is not a denial of your feelings," explains Renshaw, "but the ability to be constructive with yourself whatever you're feeling."

My situation felt dire: my youngest son was leaving home for boarding school and the thoughts circling around my head were so dark that I hardly dared share them.

"Pessimism is how you approach choices," he says. "The future is largely how you define it." As Winston Churchill once said: "Pessimists see failure in every opportunity. Optimists see opportunities in every failure." Of course, Churchill said that before there were MRI scanners. Now you can actually see parts of the brain light up when you smile. The more you stimulate the happy part of the brain, the less the other (dark) side gets a look in (hence why jolly people say "Great!" the whole time. The mind clocks that you are feeling enthusiasm and produces happy chemicals just from your tone).

Before positive psychology, the belief was that we are stuck with our general outlook, but according to the research, optimism is not only "infectious" but only 25 per cent (as opposed to 40-60 per cent of most hereditary traits) of it is hard-wired in our genes. Which means you can "learn" happiness.

Happy people, Renshaw explains, don't just walk around beaming: they make things happen. "Optimalists," says Tal Ben-Shar, a professor who taught the hugely popular positive psychology course at Harvard University, "are not those who believe everything happens for the best, but those who make the best of everything that happens. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

THE NEW OPTIMISM; Supporters of the Positive Psychology Movement Believe You Can Learn to Be Happy. the Usually Pessimistic Helen Kirwan- Taylor Put Their Methods to the Test
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.