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The happy American

Americans are a “positive” people. This is their reputation as well as their self-image. In the well-worn stereotype, they are upbeat, cheerful, and optimistic.

Who would be churlish enough to challenge these happy features of the American personality? Take the business of positive “affect,” which refers to the mood they display to others through their smiles, their greetings, their professions of confidence and optimism. Scientists have found that the mere act of smiling can generate positive feelings within us, at least if the smile is not forced. In addition, recent studies show that happy feelings flit easily through social networks, so that one person’s good fortune can brighten the day even for only distantly connected others. Furthermore, psychologists agree that positive feelings can actually lengthen our lives and improve our health. People who report having positive feelings are more likely to participate in a rich social life, and social connectedness turns out to be an important defense against depression, which is a known risk factor for many physical illnesses.

It is a sign of progress, then, that economists have begun to show an interest in using happiness rather than just the gross national product as a measure of an economy’s success. Happiness is, of course, a slippery thing to measure or define. Philosophers have debated what it is for centuries, and even if they were to define it simply as a greater frequency of positive feelings than negative ones, when they ask people if they are happy, they are asking them to arrive at some sort of average over many moods and moments.

Surprisingly, when psychologists measure the relative happiness of nations, they routinely find that Americans are not, even in prosperous times and despite their vaunted positivity, very happy at all. A recent meta-analysis of over a hundred studies of self-reported happiness worldwide found Americans ranking only twenty-third. Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States.

How can Americans be so surpassingly “positive” in self-image and stereotype without being the world’s happiest and best-off people? The answer is that positivity is not so much their condition as it is part of their ideology—the way they explain the world and think they ought to function within it. That ideology is “positive thinking,” by which they usually mean two things. One is the generic content of positive thinking—that is, the positive thought itself—which can be summarized as “Things are pretty good right now, at least if you are willing to see silver linings, make lemonade out of lemons, etc., and things are going to get a whole lot better.”

The second thing they mean by “positive thinking” is this practice of trying to think in a positive way. There is, they are told, a practical reason for undertaking this effort: positive thinking supposedly not only makes us feel optimistic but actually makes happy outcomes more likely. How can the mere process of thinking do this? In the rational explanation that many psychologists would offer today, optimism improves health, personal efficacy, confidence, and resilience, making it easier for us to accomplish our goals. A far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideology—the idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success. For both rational and mystical reasons, then, the effort of positive thinking is said to be well worth our time and attention.

Adapted from B. Ehrenreich, Bright-sided. ©2009 by Metropolitan Books.