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Opinion

Opinion | Jennifer Graham

The power of pessimism

Researchers agree: There’s nothing a bad attitude can’t fix

JORI BOLTON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

If you’re expecting the Sox to tank, the T to derail, and a foot of snow to fall on Patriots Day, take heart. It’s the Pessimist Spring.

Just out: former Indiana Coach Bob Knight’s ode to gloom, “The Power of Negative Thinking,” and a new study by the American Psychological Association that says pessimists live longer than optimists. This is welcome news for everyone who thinks the pursuit of happiness has become greatly overrated, and that nothing’s wrong with America that a bad attitude can’t fix.

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Over in Wellesley, researcher Julie Norem has been saying this for years. Norem’s 2001 book “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking” was an antidote to the positive psychology movement that fermented during her undergrad years and then sprang, fully formed, from the ubiquitous yellow smiley face. (Which was invented, ironically enough, in Worcester, this year’s snowiest city in America. Besides plow drivers, who’s smiling now?)

Eleven years after her book was released — the week before 9/11 — the Wellesley College psychology professor still touts the benefits of negativity and doesn’t mind that the famously belligerent Indiana coach has arrived late to her party. Norem is an advocate of “defensive pessimism,” in which people envision the absolute worst outcomes, and prepare accordingly. Think Eeyore with a plan. “Negative thinking helps you be prepared for things,” Norem says.

This is not the preferred path of most Americans, who see their lives not as brutish and short, but as expansive, limitless, strewn with opportunity — healthy, wealthy lives in which, when it snows in March, it snows flowers. The easiest way to get those lives, we’ve been taught, is to think ourselves happy.

The problem is, beginning with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and ending (let’s hope) with “The Secret” author Rhonda Byrne, all the nonstop HappyThink has created a culture in which “put on a happy face” has become a societal command. If someone’s not smiling, Norem told me, we think not just that there’s something wrong, but that there’s something wrong with them. Further, our insistence on happiness erodes our ability to cope when things get really bad . . . as they inevitably will, when we’re so infected with HappyThink that we buy too much, save too little, marry too soon, try to run 26.2 miles (in snow!) on 10 miles of training.

It has been said that the divorce rate and the housing collapse are byproducts of the nation’s obsession with positive thinking. Our retirement homes will soon be full of smiling boomers wondering how they got so broke and creaky when they’d summoned health and wealth from the universe, just like Oprah said.

“As our population ages, some of the benefits of pessimism are going to become more apparent. People who are preparing are going to be better off, and pessimists are going to look better,” Norem said. They’re also going to feel better, too, according to the study published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

“Our findings revealed that being overly optimistic in predicting a better future was associated with a greater risk of disability and death within the following decade,” said its lead author, Frieder R. Lang of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany.

Norem’s research says about 25 to 30 percent of us are pessimistic. That means at least two-thirds of Americans would benefit from a little less happiness, and we could start by abandoning her least-favorite platitude, “It’s all good!”

No, actually, it’s not. It’s sometimes really quite horrid, and the light at the end of the tunnel is often the oncoming train. To label it otherwise is unproductive, and at root, kind of silly — kind of like recalling a horrific crucifixion as “Good Friday,” the ultimate in ecclesiastical spin. But we need not abandon “Life is Good,” another slogan beloved of Boston, thanks to the company begun here that bears its name.

“Life can be good,” Norem concedes, and Life is Good’s iconic Jake lets out a sigh of relief. Defensive pessimists, though, know that Dr. Norman Vincent Peale got it wrong, just like Punxutawney Phil. If the snow ever melts, let this be the Spring of our Discontent, our Pessimist Spring. Life is best when we see it as bad.

Jennifer Graham, the author of “Honey, Do You Need a Ride? Confessions of a Fat Runner,” writes regularly for the Globe.

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