Mass. - Move over Norman Vincent Peale: Wellesley College
professor Julie K. Norem has found that negative thoughts
can do some of us a world of good.
thinking negative really be positive? It's not the American
way to look on the dark side, Norem admits.
are an unbelievably optimistic culture," she says. "It saturates
our history, our cultural myths. People who aren't naturally
optimistic feel quite a bit of social pressure to be that
way. There's an implication that something is wrong with
them. So when someone comes up with evidence that it may
work very well to be pessimistic, it's a vindication for
a lot of people."
Norem has news for the chronically optimistic: It may be
just as helpful to be negative if that's your preference.
Based on her research, Norem has written a book, "The Positive
Power of Negative Thinking: Using 'Defensive Pessimism'
to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak" (Basic Books,
the time is ripe for a little negative thinking. "The current
climate, both economic and political, is conducive to the
discussion of pessimism," Norem says. "The bombing out of
all the dot-com companies and their like makes people wonder
if we all were a bit giddy and overly optimistic."
research focuses on two strategies for dealing with life's
challenges: defensive pessimism, for the committed worriers
among us, and strategic optimism, for the "think positive"
optimists aren't very anxious, usually," Norem explains.
"When they have to give a talk or go on a blind date, for
example, they typically set high expectations and then actively
avoid going over in their heads what could happen. It works
well for them."
pessimists, on the other hand, are worrywarts. It's just
part of their personality. "When you are anxious, you can't
ignore it," Norem points out. "You can't just say you won't
be anxious anymore. You have to do something about it. So
defensive pessimists lower their expectations, and that
takes a little pressure off. Secondly, they start playing
through how disaster might come about. It leaves them more
in control if they think they know what to expect."
this strategy may sound depressing, it serves a purpose.
"It switches the focus from their anxiety and their feelings
to the task," Norem says. "As they play through the possible
outcomes, they not only analyze the terrible things that
might happen, but they also figure out how they could prevent
those things from happening. By the time they've done that,
they've done some very effective planning and preparation."
which is better? Thinking the best or the worst? It turns
out each approach is equally effective, perfectly suited
for different personalities. Are you a strategic optimist
or a defensive pessimist? To find out, take the following
test: Think of a situation in which you want to do your
best. It may be related to work, to your social life or
to any of your goals. Rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how true
each statement is for you:
. . . . . . . . 2. . . . . . . . . 3. . . . . . . . . 4.
. . . . . . . . 5. . . . . . . . . 6. . . . . . . . . 7
at all true of me..................................................Very
true true of me
often start out expecting the worst even though I will probably
____I worry about how things will turn out.
____I carefully consider all possible outcomes.
____I often worry that I won't be able to carry through
____I spend lots of time imagining what could go wrong.
____I imagine how I would feel if things went badly.
____I try to picture how I could fix things if something
____I'm careful not to become overconfident in these situations.
____ I spend a lot of time planning when one of these situations
is coming up.
____I imagine how I would feel if things went well.
____In these situations, sometimes I worry more about looking
like a fool than doing really well.
____Considering what can go wrong helps me to prepare.
your score is:
70-84: You're a true defensive pessimist. You've got your
anxiety well in hand.
55-69: You're worried and thoughtful, but you need to tune
up your defensive pessimism so you're harnessing that worry,
not wallowing in it.
30-54: You don't have a typical strategy for managing anxiety.
That's fine--but think about whether you're really performing
at your peak.
12-29: You are clearly a strategic optimist. Enjoy the bright
side-but beware of getting too cocky.
Wouldn't it be easier simply to stop obsessing? Unfortunately,
worriers were born to fret.
a tendency to think it's stupid to worry," Norem says. "But
if you are a worrier, it doesn't work to pretend you're
a different person. You have deal with who you are."
If you run from your anxiety, you become what Norem calls
a "self-handicapper," someone who worries without any coping
tactics. Worriers are better off acknowledging their fears--and
using them to strategize for success.
in 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in liberal
arts and the education of women for 125 years. The College's
500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate
students. For more information, contact the Office for Public
Information at 781-283-3321 or go to the web site http://new.wellesley.edu/Psychology/Norem/psychhome.html.