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Friday, August 18, 2006

Get Happy the White House Way: Bummed out by the Middle East? Turn that frown upside down!

by Rosa Brooks
Did you know that happy nuns live longer than unhappy nuns?

No? Don't feel bad. You probably didn't go to Harvard, where the most popular class last semester was Psych 1504, "Positive Psychology." That's "positive" as in "Don't be so negative." In Positive Psychology, students read up on happy nuns and tackle assignments such as: "Write a brief biographical sketch from the positive perspective…. Mention … some wonderful things that … are happening to you." The aim of the course is to teach students to be happier.

Critics say the new field of "positive psychology" is just a collection of gimmicky self-help tricks. But proponents cite research suggesting that optimistic people (like the happy nuns) are healthier, longer-lived and more successful than their pessimistic counterparts. Apparently, even "positive illusions" can help you increase your happiness, and optimism can be both taught and learned. That's why Psych 1504 enrolled more than 850 students last spring. "Read More" click link below


That's cool. When I was in college, in the late 1980s, education was kind of a downer. The most popular courses were "Introductory Economics" and "Theories of Justice." Can you believe we used to worry about that stuff?

I don't want to be stuck in the past, so I decided to give Positive Psychology the old college try. After all, even President Bush has successfully absorbed the lessons of positive psychology, insisting to cynical reporters that he remains "optimistic that all problems will be solved." And if Bush — a C student in his Ivy League days — can learn positive psychology, I know I can too!

I got started Thursday morning. First, I read the newspaper, which set me back a little because I was depressed to learn that we've been fighting in Iraq for nearly as long as we fought Germany during World War II.

But once I started to think more positively, I realized that 3½ years is really not bad. The Iraq war has been going on for less time than the Thirty Years War! And it's been much shorter than the Hundred Years War. This realization made me feel a lot happier.

I also felt downcast initially about an article claiming that Israel's offensive in Lebanon has increased Hezbollah's popularity in the Middle East. One Egyptian newspaper described a surge in the number of babies named after Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. In Alexandria alone, health officials reported 128 newborn Nasrallahs.

Depressing? Not if you think about it from a positive perspective. As Democracy Arsenal blogger Shadi Hamid points out, all those baby Nasrallahs just confirm Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's prediction that the conflict in Lebanon represents the "birth pangs of the new Middle East."

Once I got the hang of looking on the bright side, everything began to fall into place. When my husband, Peter, reminded me that it will soon be the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which killed 2,740 Americans, he expected me to pull a long face. But I just gave him a patient smile. "2,740 dead Americans may seem like a big number to you," I explained, "but almost as many American soldiers — 2,604 — have now been killed in the Iraq war. And a number like this isn't a sign of some sort of problem — as White House spokesman Tony Snow put it when U.S. military deaths in Iraq reached the 2,500 mark, it's just 'a number'! It doesn't mean anything!"

I tried to explain. "Look, I bet you think there's some kind of problem with the war in Iraq. You probably think we need to get out — or maybe you think that if we don't get out, we need more troops. Wrong! You just need to think more positively. As Colin Powell once said, 'Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier!' " Peter snickered.

"Go ahead, laugh," I told him generously. "Laughing makes people feel better." That's why even many conservatives are snickering. As George Will sneered in a Washington Post column this week, the Bush administration's "farrago of caricature and non sequitur makes the administration seem eager to repel all but the delusional." But what's so wrong with delusional, just as long as it makes you feel better?

Anyway, who uses words like "farrago" and "non sequitur"? Insecure people — people who don't truly understand positive psychology — use fancy words in the mistaken belief that this will make people like them better.

Will is probably just jealous that he doesn't go to Harvard. If he did, he'd understand that delusions and optimism are in, while realism and negativity are out. As the Crimson, Harvard's venerable student newspaper, put it: "Happy is the new sad."

Rosa Brooks is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
Get Happy the White House Way: Bummed out by the Middle East? Turn that frown upside down!


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