An Australian psychologist has claimed that feeling grumpy ‘is good for you’. At least that’s the spin the popular media put on the findings of Professor Joe Forgas of the University of South Wales. What the guy actually says is a little more nuanced. His claim is that there are some advantages to negative moods, just as there are to positive moods.

For instance, negative moods foster these sort of effects:

  • attentiveness
  • careful thinking
  • paying greater attention to the external world

Positive moods are valuable to promote:

  • creativity
  • flexibility
  • co-operation

He actually claims that mildly negative mood may promote

“…a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style… Positive mood is not universally desirable: people in negative mood are less prone to judgmental errors, are more resistant to eyewitness distortions and are better at producing high-quality, effective persuasive messages.”

This is interesting to me due to my recent rant on one Americans journalist’s attempt to blame the recession on optimism. It seems she might at last have some scientific backing from this study.

My own viewpoint is to wonder whether there is a key distinction missing here between optimism as an emotion and optimism as a thinking strategy. Forgas talks about mood, which is nothing other than a relatively long lasting emotional state. Martin Seligman’s version of optimism is as a habit of mind that is learnable rather than an emotion. In the jargon, optimism is an ‘explanatory style‘ or a way of explaining your successes and failures to yourself. The opposite of this learned optimism is learned helplessness rather than pessimistic feelings.

It’s worth noting that Seligman recognises the limits of optimism by itself and prefers to advocate what he calls and flexible optimism. John Braithwaite, an academic at the Australian National University, suggests that in modern society we undervalue hope because we wrongly think of it as a choice between hopefulness and naivete as opposed to scepticism and realism. It depends how you define your terms.

So perhaps we can admit that a naive optimism, with its risk-taking abandon, unbalanced by realistic worst-case scenario planning and black-hat thinking, might have been a factor in the recession. (My money is still on a mixture of natural economic cycles and the emotion of greed as the prime causes.)

It hardly follows from this at all optimism is bad, or that optimism has no part in getting ourselves out of recession!

True, optimism doesn’t in itself change reality. But it does help your resilience to reality, and drive your motivation to go on and change it. Pessimism asks ‘why?’ Optimism asks ‘how?’ There’s a worldview of difference between the two.

Image credit: dabert.