When my dental hygienist asked me if any new medical conditions had popped up since my last visit, I thought nothing of telling her about my recent breast cancer diagnosis. I was soon very sorry I did. Of course, she thought she was being helpful as she commanded me to maintain a positive attitude, that science had proved you must feel certain you will be all right. Soon, she started demanding that I repeat an affirmational mantra she started dictating to me about knowing for sure I was going to be cured. I finally had enough, explaining that as a psycho-oncologist, I knew that she meant well but that her words were actually not helpful for everyone, certainly not for me.
I had my own mantra, in fact, one that calmed me down when I would start to feel that certain sense of terror well up inside me. My mantra was You get what you get, and that's what you get! I didn't know why it worked, and I didn't care. Maybe it was precisely the refusal to look on the bright side that made me feel tough enough to cope, reminding me I was a tough, cursing chick from Brooklyn who might one day get past the nightmare that was cancer, and that other nightmare that was cancer treatment. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that the first time I said it, it made me feel calm, and so I learned to say it when calm was needed.
Like the time I googled a psychologist who had given a lecture to my department years earlier on how she coped with her breast cancer, and the first entry on my screen was her obituary. But it also helped me laugh when that was needed too. Like the time, while I was still mulling over how to break the news to friends about my diagnosis, and my five year old son yelled to his friends on a crowded bus, "I'll have to leave our play date early, BECAUSE MY MOM HAS BREAST CANCERRRRR."
My experience in the dentist's chair was not an isolated incident. Many people reminded me not to talk openly about my fears because I had to stay positive. Maybe because Americans like to feel we can power our way through anything, it just takes enough can-do attitude. Or that one of the benefits of my listening to them was that they wouldn't have to be reminded of their own fears either. But I think it's more than that. I think it's because people believe that science backs them up, and so they feel empowered, even obligated, to educate the uninformed, helping us cope better and, allegedly, live longer.
In fact, there is a branch of behavioral science devoted to positive psychology, but there is also a movement with the same name. While there is much overlap between them, it's important to remember that they aren't the same thing. To paraphrase that great philosophical treatise, Top Gun, sometimes the movement writes checks the science has yet to be able to cash. In a 2010 paper in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, for instance, psychologist (and fellow PT blogger) James Coyne analyzed the results of numerous studies, finding little evidence of a causal connection between positive thinking and survival, or even improved coping.
Wellesley Psychology professor Julie Norem found that some people are actually hurt by the attempt to stay positive. She described this group (for whom-full disclosure-I could be a poster child) as "defensive pessimists," people who need to see potential problems ahead of time so they can plan accordingly, and then relax. When forced to stay on the bright side, they do less well on tasks than when they're allowed to see the negative possibilities. For a defensive pessimist, having a positive attitude means appreciating that life does not always go the way we want it to.
My point is not to deny that staying forcefully optimistic helps some people enormously. Perhaps it helped my dental hygienist in times of great need. Further, while science can be useful for exploring the different ways that we handle adversity, it's never the final word on how any one individual person copes best. We each discover our own coping niches as we go through life, learning through trial and error what makes us feel better and what makes us feel worse. Just as we would do best to find ways to support our friends and neighbors even when their discoveries are different than our own.
Click here for my book (one of O: The Oprah Magazine's 10 Titles to Pick Up in May; with Foreword by New York Times columnist David Brooks): The House on Crash Corner and Other Unavoidable Calamities—about the sad, hilarious and meaningful ways we deal with the crises in our lives.
Coyne, J.C. (2010). Positive Psychology in Cancer Care: Bad Science, Exaggerated Claims, and Unproven Medicine. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39(1), 16-26.
Norem, J.K. (2002). The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak. (Basic Books)