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. …