Monday, March 3, 2008

Pollyannaish New-Age Hoohah (self-help, part 2)

I was brought up a New Yorker, in that cynical, hard-headed city. I was also bought up in a time when scientists were valorized for their access to truth, and were lauded for their hard-headed skeptical attitudes towards anything that was not proven. Logically and philosophically I have a strong skeptical streak. If I had to pick one philosopher who influenced me more than any other, it is possible that I would choose David Hume, the renowned Scottish skeptic.

That being said, I am fascinated by the hard-headed logic that suggests reasons to adopt psychological habits that are very much along the lines of those suggested by even the most pollyannaish new age philosophies. I don't necessarily agree with the logic that gets the authors to their points, or agree with the general logic. Often the tone is mawkish and annoying. All the same, I believe the logic that provides the foundation.

Positive thinking, quite simply, appears to be a good thing.

I was reading "Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier" by Robert A. Emmons. It makes suggestions that I think are worth trying to incorporate into my life--mostly the value of gratitude. Emmons, an experimental psychologist at the University of California, Davis, studies the relationship between affect and the practice of gratitude. The general conclusion: people who are more grateful are also more emotionally healthy.

Emmons, as a researcher reporting on empirical studies, has some protection from the dangers of being unduly optimistic--after all the conclusions are supported by "hard-headed" science. Nonetheless, the book often devolves into conclusions that stick in the craw of a hard-headed cynic: like that prayer is good.

Well, I have trouble releasing my skepticism. But I do believe that practicing gratitude and other forms of positive thinking are fundamentally sound practices that can enrich our lives. Even if they may sound pollyannaish.

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