Positive Psychology

I tried to look at the bright side of life, but it hurt my eyes - Grumpy Cat (feline Internet sensation)
Optimist: I see a light at the end of the tunnel!
Pessimist: I see a freight train!
Realist: I see two dummies sitting on the rail tracks!
Quoth the Raven: "Nevermore!" - Edgar Allan Poe

Jokes aside, a famous psychological study found that individuals with depression actually had a more realistic perspective on life, the glass being indeed half empty, at least in the experiment carried out by the researchers. Psychology is a social science and thus relies mostly on studies. Unlike physics or other 'hard' sciences, psychology cannot always be quantified using laboratory experiments and thus turns to naturalistic observation and social experiments to predict, describe and explain (goals of science).

Psychology has many branches, and two very opposite disciplines may be juxtaposed in the likes of positive psychology and abnormal psychology, mostly because abnormal psychology looks at disorders negatively impacting human lives, while positive psychology seeks to concentrate on the brighter side of life. To illustrate, Major Depressive Disorder, commonly known simply as depression to the general population, translates into a persistent state of low mood levels. Everyone gets the blues and it appears normal, particularly in reaction to a traumatic event, but in individuals with depression, the symptoms persist for more than two weeks, and include (list non-exhaustive):

  • sudden weight loss or gain
  • altered sleep patterns
  • suicidal or dark thoughts
  • loss of motivation
  • social withdrawal
  • loss of interest in any (and often all) activities once enjoyed

Internal, as opposed to external locus of control, has often been cited a a predictor of lifelong success, self-confidence and as a sort of protection against depressed mood. Internal locus of control is the belief that one influences the world and events in it (to a rational degree, not like ideas of reference in schizophrenia!), while external locus of control may be compared to fatalism. In addition, learned helplessness may be viewed as an extreme of this continuum, believing that no matter what one does, the effect will be the same. A word of caution, however. One of the definitions (non-scientific) of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, so while persistence and positive thinking may be helpful at times, at other times changing strategy or giving up altogether may be the wise choice to make. Sometimes, it is just not meant to be, and one must accept reality as it is.

For the person suffering from depression, feelings of desolation, despair, being alone, being betrayed by those one trusted, being constantly let down and disappointed by others and losing interest in everything, are common symptoms. As one young woman at the clinic eloquently put it: "…depression is laying in the bath, trying to cut your veins but being unable to cut deep enough; taking many sleeping pills hoping to overdose, but staying awake… understanding that the only desire you still have left - to close your eyes forever - evades you, remaining out of reach…" [comments reprinted with consent of the patient, but name withheld out of concern of violating her privacy, even though her consent was obtained, in writing, beforehand. She has since passed away.]. Fatal in severe cases terminating in suicide, even mild clinical depression is a fairly serious and debilitating illness and demands professional attention.

The importance of faith and religion has often been portrayed in mostly non-academic literature, scholarly documents focusing mostly on science alone. Notwithstanding, negative thinking may preclude one from even hoping for, or believing in, anything, altogether. Again, this is one extreme, the other extreme being magical thinking, believing everything will go exactly as planned and as one wishes, simply because one wishes it so, which can translate into delusional thinking (delusions are a symptom of mental illness). Delusions are characterized by persistent belief in something which is clearly false, despite all other evidence to the contrary. Additionally, while it is normal for a child to believe in fairy-tales, it strikes others as odd when adults still hold the same mentality.

From a therapist's perspective, it may not always be easy to cheer up a person with depression, especially if they themselves hold a realistic view of the world; humanity, after all, has a lot of flaws. For example, Stanley Milgram conducted studies about obedience to authority. The experiments focused on blind obedience to authority and the experimenters rationalized the shocking results (omitted from the present discussion) using the belief that nothing really bad could happen in an experiment. Another study showing a rather dark side of humanity, were Zimbardo's prison experiments. Power corrupts - and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The famous quote, while debated, may be used to discuss Zimbardo's prison simulation experiments, a psychological study turned so sour and dangerous, that it had to be interrupted for subjects' safety sake. A movie based on the story portrays the events pretty accurately.

Psychological studies have shown that religious people tend to be happier. However, as usually is the case with correlations, it remains unclear whether religion makes people happier, or whether happier people tend to be more religious. Also, it may be that attending mass and being church (and therefore often community) oriented, leads one to an altogether healthier and more positive lifestyle, than, say, consistently hanging out at the local bar (not that the two are mutually exclusive).

cat toronto tie

Where is PETA when you need them? Most cats dislike being dressed up, especially with something around their necks. Obviously, those who did this to the cat pictured above could not care less. Repeated abuse or prolonged unpleasant situations may eventually lead to feline depression. Image: Copyright © Megan Jorgensen