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Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness

“It seems to me that if you were to take a rather stringent line here,” concludes Phillips, “then anyone who could maintain a state of happiness, given the state of the world, is living in a delusion.”

Funny he should mention this: One of the most interesting bits of American research to surface—repeatedly—in books about happiness is a study that shows depressives are far more likely to be realists, while happy people are more likely to walk around in a mild state of delusion. The study itself was fairly simple: A group of undergraduates was given varying degrees of control over turning on a green light. Some members of the group had perfect control; others had none—the light went on and off of its own accord. The depressives accurately predicted, in each instance, whether they were in control of the situation or not. The nondepressives, on the other hand, thought they had control about 35 percent of the time over the situation in which they were, in fact, 100 percent helpless.

To me, this study more or less explains our current president—sunny and optimistic and full of faith, certainly, but not quite able to see the world as it is. After I read it, I couldn’t help but think that a different man, a slightly more pessimistic man, may have been less inclined to believe that Iraq could be conquered, subdued, and rebuilt as a flourishing democracy with just 150,000 troops.

I mention this to Seligman. He declines to discuss Bush specifically, but says that he and his colleagues have analyzed political speeches before and discovered that although more optimistic candidates are likely to win presidential elections, it was the presidents who gave the most pessimistic inaugural speeches who went down in history as being great. “You have to be optimistic enough to get voters to vote for you,” he says, “but you have to be pessimistic enough to do serious, great stuff.”

At this moment, it doesn’t occur to me to stop Seligman and ask him to further explain this observation. But later, as I listen to our discussion on tape, the implication seems clear: Even the director of the Positive Psychology Center associates pessimism with seriousness and greatness. He sounds as divided about the question as his critics. It’s a conundrum, certainly. A psychoanalyst might even call him conflicted.