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Negative May Be Smart, but Happy is Better

Is happiness boring? It is, according to the “Anna Karenina principle.” Tolstoy’s famous opening line from the book of the same name says that happy families are all alike; unhappy families, on the other hand, are all different. The implication is that unhappiness is, well, romantic — or at least makes people special, even if they’re special in a painful sort of way.

Negativity Has a Point

It’s true that painful emotions can be a spur to growth: Anger gives us a sense that violation has occurred and prods us into action; grief lets us acknowledge loss, and can be a reminder of what’s important and what we value. And the human condition includes significant periods, both long and short, of blue, irritable, and just plain negative feelings.

In the book Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich takes Americans to task for our almost dim-witted belief that “positive psychology” can and will improve everything. She says it leads us to irrational behavior, the kind that stimulated the credit-fueled boom and crash — because we believed we really should and could have anything we wanted. She also suggests that our desire to live on the bright side leads to a kind of “blame-the-victim” mentality, which can lead us to think we can cure ourselves of cancer by believing hard enough that things will get better.

Ehrenreich makes some excellent points. But I’m here to tell you that happy is better. Upbeat is better. Optimistic is better. I don’t mean wishing and hoping. I mean just having a positive attitude and looking for the silver lining while you forge ahead, soldier on — and sometimes risk leaping — as you try to make your way toward a more satisfying future.

Look for the Upside

Recently, I had my own belief in the upside of life confirmed after a couple of interactions with people who seemed to be, well, negative. And unhappy. They seemed to have a sincere and persistent anticipation of dissatisfaction, and believed that things would naturally go wrong and people would behave badly because, after all, what else would you expect? And these were all intelligent people — so intelligent that they were truly skilled at seeing what was wrong in each aspect of a potentially difficult situation, picking out the weak links, and putting their fingers on the soft spots.

Is it actually superior to be able to see what’s wrong? Perhaps a little ignorance is necessary for bliss, or at least a slight, willful blindness. “Look away!” my grandmother used to encourage us, as if looking too closely would expose some unnecessary flaw that didn’t add value, but only fostered skepticism, wariness, and disappointment.

Find the Fun

Superiority is not that much fun. Laughing big, gut-wrenching laughs and being silly together — even childishly — is a lot more fun. Laughing is physiologically and psychologically healthier than worrying or fretting.

If you’re out of practice, check out Laughter Yoga, which is basically an exercise routine created by Dr. Madan Kataria in 1995. Dr. Kataria’s website lets you sample a little of Laughter Yoga’s physical experience without having to undertake the practice itself; take a look at the video of the laughing baby that Dr. Kataria himself watches whenever he feels a little low.

Life is going to be life, no matter what you do or how you feel about it. A shared laugh, a grateful smile, a warm hug, or a kind word may not be more incisive or more rigorous — but I’ll bet they feel good. Try one — or all — and let me know.

Onward and upward,


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2 thoughts on “Negative May Be Smart, but Happy is Better

  1. I couldn’t agree more — happy is much better! You know what? Happy is also powerful and contagious! Try noticing something good about someone and then complimenting him or her on it. That person will perk up, stand up straighter and feel better. And, you know what? You’ll feel better too, because you passed on some positive energy.
    Thanks for the inspiration, Liz!

  2. Kind of amazing how good it feels when you make someone else feel good, isn’t it? As you just did for me…

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