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Can someone dig up the corpse of Norman Vincent Peale and drive a stake through its heart?

He’s still stalking about, giving the complacent a lie to shut the dissatisfied up. No, positive thinking doesn’t work; affirmations have no power; The Secret is a scam. The @SciCareer guy put his foot in it again by touting some paper titled “Happy Thoughts May Help Postdocs Handle Stress.” As you might guess, the reactions of young academics aren’t exactly enthusiastic.

Are you for actual serious with this?? The article describes a new study–and I use this word lightly because it’s based on a one-time survey of 200 postdocs–that found less anxiety and depression in folks who self-reported more frequent positive emotions. So, not only do we have a clear correlation vs. causation issue here – who can say that it was the positive emotions that prevented the development of clinical symptoms and not vice versa – but it belittles the many real stressful problems that postdocs face that cannot simply be "thought" away.

The real money quote is this:  "When we suggest that people need more positive emotions in their lives, I know it sounds kind of frou-frou, but it’s actually a very simple practice.” OK. a) I don’t think you know what frou-frou means (frilly or ornamented, not fluffy or insubstantial, which is what you probably mean and you’d be right). b) No, it is not simple. Postdocs have personal, financial, and professional stresses on a daily basis. They are busy as fuck. To suggest that watching a sit-com or going for a run can change that reality not only presumes they have time for something like that, but has very strong undertones of "stop complaining and just change your attitude."

Anger is fuel for change, “positive thinking” is a worthless analgesic for the masses. Get angry, and do something about it.

Comments

  1. Al Dente says

    Someone saying “have a nice day” certainly helps me with my depression. :p

  2. says

    What these stressed-out postdocs need to do is simply follow easy exercises.

    Make sure to take off at least one night a week for a full evening of sitdown dinner, with wine, at a nice restaurant.

    A weeklong getaway to Fiji is a terrific way to relieve stress.

    Having an hour of massage a day will help with that stress.

    When in doubt, buying some vintage jewelry or cars works well too.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    “Happy Thoughts May Help Postdocs Handle Stress”

    Well, that’s my bitter larf for the day. Running did help a bit, until the stress fracture.

  4. Jeff Gill says

    Isn’t it less of a correlation versus causation problem and more of a correlation is correlation problem? I mean the study is basically, “Students who reported they were less anxious and depressed were less anxious and depressed.”

  5. Brandon says

    To suggest that … going for a run can change that reality not only presumes they have time for something like that, but has very strong undertones of “stop complaining and just change your attitude.”

    Speaking as someone that just postdoc’ed for 4 years, I’ll say that going for a run absolutely can change the way you perceive the reality around you. There’s plenty of empirical documentation of the effects of exercise and it’s absolutely striking how quickly an easy 5 mile run can turn a crummy day around. While there are certainly days where that’s not an option for whatever reason, the “I don’t have time” excuse generally holds little water.

    I understand the righteous anger, I felt plenty of that during my postdoctoral life (and even more of it as a grad student), but handwaving away the benefits of exercise seems odd.

  6. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I understand the righteous anger, I felt plenty of that during my postdoctoral life (and even more of it as a grad student), but handwaving away the benefits of exercise seems odd.

    And why should exercise itself be a relief? That implies you have time you don’t spend elsewhere. When I was a post-doc and married, I couldn’t spend tens of hours a week exercising. Somebody, who is still there after 40+ years, deserved a major portion of my non-work attention.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Brandon @5:

    I’ll say that going for a run absolutely can change the way you perceive the reality around you.

    Absolutely, if you love running, or can run. What if you don’t, or can’t? An academic career shouldn’t be predicated on an inclination to exercise, should it?

  8. says

    Yeah, I did the whole Power of Positive Thinking thing. Now I will say this: I do believe that your thoughts affect your mood and behavior. But the whole idea that thinking positive will make you rich? Bullshit!

  9. Brandon says

    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls:

    And why should exercise itself be a relief?

    I don’t understand the question. Whether it should or shouldn’t be a relief, it certainly is a relief. The finding time part really isn’t that hard if it’s something you care about. I’m awfully busy with a new job and a woman I love and ran a bit over 60 miles last week. I wouldn’t ever insist that everyone should have the same hobbies, just that exercise is an excellent hobby that’s worth finding time for if you have the ability and inclination.
    Rob Grigjanis:

    Absolutely, if you love running, or can run. What if you don’t, or can’t? An academic career shouldn’t be predicated on an inclination to exercise, should it?

    Of course not! I absolutely, unequivocally agree that substantial reforms are needed in academic (and government) research programs to address the pyramid scheme nature of the present system. That’s spot on right. All I’m saying is that I’m unsurprised to find that postdocs who enjoy exercising are happier and that I disagree with the sentiment that running can’t change someone’s perspective about their situation.

  10. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I understand the righteous anger, I felt plenty of that during my postdoctoral life (and even more of it as a grad student), but handwaving away the benefits of exercise seems odd.

    You left off significant other than understands your need for extended exercise…..

  11. brett says

    “Secret”-style positive thinking is bullshit, although I think there’s something to be said for attitude-boosting stuff designed to increase your feelings of self-efficacy and confidence. Those aren’t exclusionary to anger-as-a-fuel-for-change either.

  12. chigau (違う) says

    “Have a nice day.”
    “Don’t tell me what kind of a day to have.”

  13. futurechemist says

    If not exercise, just getting some fresh air is good for cheering up. In grad school and my postdoc, eating lunch outside on the grass or a bench instead of at my desk put me in a much better mood the rest of the day. Or if the research group ate lunch outside together, that worked as a bonding activity which tended to reduce tensions between people.

  14. anteprepro says

    Study finds that longer bathroom breaks may lead to increased laxative use!

  15. magicbullet says

    Get angry, and do something about it.

    Best advice. Someone should have told me sooner.

  16. Kristof says

    Oh, you know…

    When life gives you lemons…

    … don’t make lemonade! Make life take the lemons back! Get mad! I don’t want your damn lemons, what the hell am I supposed to do with these? Demand to see life’s manager! Make life rue the day it thought it could give Cave Johnson lemons! Do you know who I am? I’m the man who’s gonna burn your house down! With the lemons! I’m gonna get my engineers to invent a combustible lemon that burns your house down!”

  17. objdart says

    I can’t help thinking that anger doesn’t really seem any different from optimism in terms of the message from the secret or whatever it is called. I assume you are joking? Sometimes I find it hard to tell.

  18. Olav says

    Chigau (違う) #13:

    “Have a nice day.”
    “Don’t tell me what kind of a day to have.”

    Best reply ever.

  19. says

    …found less anxiety and depression in folks who self-reported more frequent positive emotions.

    So the happier people are, the less likely they are to be depressed?

    Seriously?

  20. cynix says

    Ehrenreich’s “Bright Sided” is worth the time to read.
    (see Daz’s link)

  21. Louis says

    I remember one bright young positive thinker in my PhD lab saying “Good Morning!” merrily to our prof. His reply was “I’ll be the judge of that.” as he stalked off to administer what could only be described as one of the world’s epic, public bollockings to a postdoc.

    One guy in the lab, when asked why he never replied to the “good mornings” of this person said “they’re saying it for a reason”. Some people you just can’t reach..

    Louis

    P.S. Should I link to recent Cochrane data on the effects of exercise on mood? Or are we all happy to pull things out of our cheery arses? Because the simple correlation is…well…in the words of a smarter man than me “it’s a bit more complicated than that”.

  22. hillaryrettig says

    This is a more nuanced topic than it seems.

    There is a difference between the trite advice to “think happy thoughts” and the solider advice to recognize and articulate (at least to yourself) the positives in your situation. Not recognizing the positives leaves you disempowered.

    A lot of people confuse negativity and cynicism with clear-eyed toughness. They’re wrong, and often in ways that undermine themselves. Their judgment is impaired and others, including potential colleagues and mentors, will flee from them.

    None of this to say that there aren’t things that merit getting angry over or societal or institutional causes of oppression that need vanquishing. However, anger without action is often worse (for you and others) than not getting angry in the first place. It’s also disempowering.

    The title of the original piece (“think happy thoughts”) wasn’t helpful, I agree. I’m not sure whether the author of the piece came up with it or an editor – editors often do. But macho bs posturing isn’t the answer either. (Not referring to PZ, btw.) The original article made reference to developing “resilience,” which is an excellent goal that is probably best achieved by recognizing the positives in your situation and giving them more emphasis than the negatives.

  23. abelundercity says

    Who needs positive thoughts when you have a heavy punching bag and gloves?

  24. hillaryrettig says

    Also, there are worst things in the world than having someone wish you a nice day.

  25. hyphenman says

    @chigau (違う)

    I prefer “do all you can to make today a good (or better) day.”

    Jeff

  26. hyphenman says

    Good morning all,

    I prefer to think of this as an example of “we notice/pay attention to (or act in accordance with) what we think about.”

    Do all you can to make today a better day,

    Jeff
    Have Coffee will Write

  27. neverjaunty says

    Louis @23: I actually would not mind seeing that! Thought I doubt it would make much impact on the sort of person who classifies “reasons other people do not do what I like to do” as “excuses”.

    Don’t get the hatred for polite ritual comments like “Good morning” or “Have a nice day” though. Unless somebody says those things as a slew of Peale-ish exhortation, snapping back at the clerk who rang up your groceries is a dick move.

  28. Louis says

    Here you go, neverjaunty.

    I seem to remember a more recent review…hmmm…to the BatPubMed, Robin!

    Louis

  29. sueinnm says

    This is why cognitive therapy doesn’t work for me. I”m bipolar, and when I’m in the hell of depression, with constant suicidal thoughts, no amount of positive thinking or cognitive exercises are going to help. After seeing about 20 therapists in my life, I’m still searching for something that will work for me. And I’ve tried everything.

    Funny thing was, even as an atheist, I briefly tried “religious science” which is the positive thinking thing. (The “churches” are usually called centers for spiritual living, or some such). I felt welcome, but after the minister started the spiel about how giving money would cause the universe to throw money back at you, I left in disgust.

  30. Kevin Kehres says

    @26: I don’t have a problem with “have a nice day,” because it’s usually in the setting of “bye, thanks for buying that carton of eggs from my shop,” but in my neck of the woods, it’s more likely to be “have a blessed day”.

    And how the hell am I supposed to do that? And how does one distinguish between a blessed day and a non-blessed day? Blessed by whom? Cthulhu? Zeus? Thor? What if today’s the day my father dies? How in the world is that supposed to be a blessed day?

    Grinds my gears, every time. But, of course, I just smile and nod. Because throttling shop clerks and other total strangers is frowned upon in polite society.

  31. Jason Dick says

    “In shocking new find, scientists discover that happy people aren’t sad!”

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