All of this psychological focus on happiness and optimism makes Julie K. Norem a little gloomy. Americans have turned optimism into a virtue, with the implication that happiness is under our control, says Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College and the author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak. “It is a belief widely held in our culture and promoted by some self-help gurus that if we are not happy, it is our own fault.”
Excessive optimism can be destructive in its own way, if someone focuses too much on what’s going well and ignores a potential looming disaster, she says. Moreover, some people — a group that Norem calls defensive pessimists — perform better if they worry some, sussing out and working through potential problems in advance. “The same formula is not going to work for everybody.”
Peterson couldn’t agree more. “There’s no guarantee — try these things out.” All of these studies are based on large populations, he says, and might not be applicable on an individual level. As one example, a $75,000 annual income might be more lifestyle (and mood) cramping in New York City than in Kansas City.
Instead, focus on the long-haul goal of living a more caring and connected life, Peterson says. And hopefully you’ll enjoy the byproduct: greater happiness.