Scientists say it’s good to be a grumpy pessimist

(ORDO NEWS) — Since psychiatry, which uses medical and biological methods to treat mental disorders, has largely bypassed psychotherapy, which relies on non-biological approaches such as conversation and counseling, psychotherapists are looking for alternative tasks.

One common approach is to focus on increasing the happiness levels of mentally healthy people rather than alleviating the pain and trauma of those who suffer.

This approach is known as “positive psychology” and has recently spread not only to psychologists, but also to social workers, life coaches and modern therapists. However, there is evidence that this approach also has a downside.

Perhaps the most common advice from positive psychologists is that we should enjoy today and live in the moment. It helps us to be more positive and avoid three of the most infamous emotional states, which I call RAW emotions: regret, anger, and anxiety.

Ultimately, this means that we should not focus too much on regrets and anger about the past or worrying about the future.

This sounds like a simple task. But human psychology is evolutionarily sharpened to live in the past and the future. Other animal species have instincts and reflexes to help them survive, but human survival depends a lot on learning and planning. You cannot learn without living in the past, and you cannot plan without living in the future.

For example, regret, which can make us suffer when reflecting on the past, is an indispensable mental mechanism for learning from our own mistakes in order to avoid repeating them.

Worrying about the future is also necessary in order to motivate us to do something that is somewhat unpleasant today, but may bring benefits or save us from great losses in the future. If we didn’t worry about the future at all, we might not even bother getting an education, taking care of our health, or storing food.

Like regret and anxiety, anger is an instrumental emotion, as my coauthors and I have shown in several research papers. It protects us from abuse by others and motivates those around us to respect our interests.

Research has even shown that a certain degree of anger in negotiations can be beneficial, leading to better outcomes.

What’s more, research has shown that a negative mood in general can be quite beneficial – it makes us less trusting and more skeptical. Research has shown that 80 percent of people tend to be optimistic, which means we learn more from positive experiences than from negative ones.

This can lead to ill-conceived decisions, such as putting all your money into a project that has little chance of success. So do we really need to be even more optimistic?

For example, the optimistic bias is associated with overconfidence – the belief that we are better than others at many things, from driving a car to grammar.

Overconfidence can be a problem in relationships (where a little humility can save the day). It can also make us not prepare properly for a difficult task – and blame others when we end up failing.

Defensive pessimism, on the other hand, can help anxious people, in particular, prepare by setting the bar reasonably low instead of panicking, making it easier to overcome obstacles calmly.

Despite this, positive psychology has left its mark on policy-making at the national and international level.

One of her contributions was that she sparked a debate among economists about whether a country’s prosperity should be measured by growth and GDP alone, or whether a more general approach to welfare should be adopted.

This led to the erroneous assumption that happiness can be measured simply by asking people if they are happy or not. This is how the UN Happiness Index is built, which is a ridiculous ranking of countries according to their level of happiness.

Although happiness questionnaires measure something, it is not happiness per se, but rather people’s willingness to admit that life is often difficult, or, conversely, their tendency to arrogantly boast that they always do better than others.

Positive psychology’s overemphasis on happiness and its claim that we are in complete control of it is harmful in other ways as well.

In his recent book Happycracy, author Edgar Cabanas argues that this statement is being cynically used by corporations and politicians to shift the blame for everything from mild dissatisfaction with life to clinical depression from economic and social organizations to the sufferers themselves.

After all, if we have complete control over our happiness, how can we blame unemployment, inequality, or poverty for our unhappiness? But the truth is, we don’t have full control over our happiness, and social structures can often create hardship, poverty, stress, and injustice – things that shape how we feel.

To believe that you can simply think better of yourself by focusing on positive emotions when you are in financial danger or have experienced a serious injury is, to say the least, naive.

While I don’t see positive psychology as a conspiracy of capitalist companies, I do believe that we have no control over our happiness, and that pursuing it can make people more unhappy than happy.

Telling a person to be happy is not much different from asking them not to think about a pink elephant—in both cases, their thoughts can easily go in the opposite direction. In the first case, the inability to achieve the goal of becoming happy leads to significant frustration and self-flagellation.

And then the question arises whether happiness is really the most important value in life. Is it even something stable that can last for a long time?

The answer to these questions was given more than a hundred years ago by the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be noble, to be compassionate, so that it has some meaning, you lived your life and lived it well”


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