A Positive Outlook Is Overrated Psychologist Barbara Held believes that there are many ways to cope with the pain of life. She says that — no matter what the self-help books say — people should feel free to be themselves, even if that means being negative.
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A Positive Outlook Is Overrated

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A Positive Outlook Is Overrated

A Positive Outlook Is Overrated

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Unidentified Man #1: I believe in mystery.

Unidentified Woman: I believe in family.

Unidentified Man #2: I believe in being who I am.

Unidentified Man #3: I believe in the power of failure.

Unidentified Man #4: And I believe normal life is extraordinary.

Unidentified Man #5: This I believe.


When you're feeling down, you're often told to cheer up, but that's usually not as easy as it sounds.

Today for our series, This I Believe, we have an essay from Barbara Held, professor of Psychology at Bowdoin College in Maine. She says maybe cheering up is not necessary. Held is a clinical psychologists and she counseled people for 15 years. Her special interest is coping mechanisms and alternative ways of dealing with stress.

Here's our series curator, independent producer, Jay Allison.

JAY ALLISON: One of the few guidelines for our series that we inherited from Edward R. Murrow and his team is that statements of belief must be affirmative. In other words, you can't write about what you don't believe. That doesn't mean however, that statements must be positive as you'll hear from Barbara Held, self-described as the queen of kvetching, with her essay for This I Believe.

Dr. BARBARA HELD (Professor of Psychology, Bowdoin College, Maine; Clinical Psychologist): Many Americans insist that everyone have a positive attitude, even when the going gets rough. From the self-help bookshelves to the Complaint-Free World Movement, the power of positive thinking is touted now more than ever as the way to be happy, healthy, wealthy and wise.

The problem is, this demand for good cheer brings with it a one-two punch for those of us who cannot cope in that way. First, you feel bad about whatever's getting you down, then you'll feel guilty or defective if you can't smile and look on the bright side. And I'm not even sure there always is a bright side to look on.

I believe that there is no one right way to cope with all of the pain of living. As an academic psychologist, I know that people have different temperaments, and if we are prevented from coping in our own way, be it positive or negative, we function less well.

As a psychotherapist, I know that sometimes a lot of what people need when faced with adversity is permission to feel crummy for a while, to realize that feeling bad is not automatically the same as being mentally ill. Some of my one-session cures have come from reminding people that life can be difficult, and it's okay if we're not happy all of the time.

This last point first became apparent to me in 1986. I came down with the flu accompanied by searing headaches that lasted weeks after. Eventually, a neurologist told me that a strain of flu that winter had left many people with viral meningitis. He reassured me that I would make a full recovery, but I was left traumatized by the weeks of undiagnosed pain. I really thought I had a brain tumor or schizophrenia. Being a psychologist didn't help. I was an emotional wreck.

Fortunately, it happened that my next-door neighbor was a brilliant psychiatrist, Aldo Llorente from Cuba. I asked him, Aldo, am I a schizophrenic? Professor, he pronounced, you are a mess, but you are not a mentally-ill mess, you are just terrified.

I told Aldo that two of my friends insisted that I cheer up. I tried to be cheerful for a week, but that only increased my distress. Aldo told me, you say to them: Friends, I would like to be more cheerful, but right now, I am too terrified to be cheerful. So I will let you know when I am not terrified anymore.

The moment I delivered Aldo's message, I felt better. Aldo had made it okay for me to cope in my own way, to recover at my own pace, to be my own mess of a self. That was when I began to realize that I had been tyrannized by the idea that everyone must always have a positive attitude.

Having flourished in my own authentically kvetchy way, I believe that we would be better off if we let everyone be themselves - positive, negative or even somewhere in between.

ALLISON: Barbara Held, with her essay for This I Believe. Consistent with her belief, Held complained to us about having to edit her essay while she was on vacation. And we don't blame her.

If you're interested in submitting your own essay to our series, visit our Web site at npr.org/thisibelieve, where you can also find all the essays we've broadcast over the last two and a half years.

For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

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