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Landmark Forum

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Not long after I arrived in Central Florida, a young woman I’d met in YMCA indoor cycling classes attempted to recruit me into Landmark Forum. Not everyone who partakes of positive psychology would give much credence to Landmark Forum, but to me it became a symbol of what positive psychology could do when taken to extremes.

Kathy and her husband, Angel, were very friendly. They always chatted me up before class, and they acted familiar with a lot of other people in the room. They seemed genuinely interested—always asking me about myself and sharing cheerful tid-bits from their marriage. They talked about a wide range of friends, and they seemed always to have a busy social schedule. I thought they were great, and I thought that maybe making friends in Orlando was going to be easier than I’d thought.

I was new in the area, had no family or friends nearby to speak of, was a single woman past the age of forty, had a rather serious chronic illness, had poured most of my energy into my career, and was discovering that in spite of moving several hundred miles for my new job it wasn’t going to be an ideal employment situation. I suppose that I looked like easy pickings to Kathy. I would disappoint her terribly.

One day in spin class, Kathy asked if I’d like to go to a movie one evening with her and Angel and a friend of theirs. “A guy friend,” Kathy said, wiggling her eyebrows. “What kind of man do you like?” she asked.

Ever skeptical of the fix-up, especially by someone who only knew the outline of my life, I tried to wriggle out of it. But she mentioned it again a few days later, and again after that. “He’s a really great guy,” she told me. “Very smart and together.”

So I went. From the first moment that I met them at the theater, the mis-match became apparent. I’d worn some very comfortable semi-hippie skirt with lots of bangles; he was wearing a starched shirt with cufflinks and the most preppie pair of loafers I’d ever seen. I had never had a friend, much less a lover, who wore cufflinks on a casual movie outing. It should have been a sign to me that Kathy was trying too hard, but I laughed it off as a mere mistake.

Some days later, Kathy invited me to come to a “meeting.” She said she belonged to an organization that had really helped her achieve her life goals and that she wanted to share this opportunity with me. My first creepy feeling arose, but I had never heard of anything like Landmark Forum, and she wouldn’t tell me at first the name of her organization. She said that it was an “educational” organization that sponsored workshops to help people quit sabotaging themselves.

Over the weeks, Kathy told me more of her own personal story—how she had been in a dead-end relationship, living with her boyfriend but never committing to marriage, and how through this group she had managed to give up the old guy and marry Angel. “Angel was in the group?” I asked. Yes, she told me. She had met him there, and they had married within a few weeks of meeting. She had broken out of a “no good” relationship of seven years’ length in order to do so. She looked at me. Her stare implied that I could do this, too, and mentioned that the movie fellow was an avid seminar leader. “Marriage was part of my goal,” she said with a shrug. She and Angel had also been encouraged to quit their “dead-end” jobs and start their own business, though it was unclear exactly what that business would be. Later, Kathy would ask me to recommend students go to her “journaling” class, and she had a website as a “personal consultant.”

I began to watch Kathy and Angel more closely. Though they came to spin classes together, they didn’t usually sit on adjoining bikes—instead, Kathy always sat next to me, and Angel seemed to be working on a fellow across the room. Sometimes, he would sit on a bike on the other side of me, and he would chime in on how right Kathy was. I had to admit that Angel seemed less into the proselytizing, and, though Kathy would always tease him it sometimes had an edge. I could see that she already didn’t think he was as good as she was at whatever it was they were doing.

The invitations continued, and I continued to decline. Kathy spread her invitations more widely to others in the class, and finally one day she handed out small slips of paper that included directions to the next introductory meeting—proudly labeled as “Free!”—that also included in small print the name of the organization.

I went home straight away and looked it up on the internet. What I found shocked me: personal accounts of brainwashing and verbal abuse at meetings of more than a hundred people at a time, and even stories of lives destroyed. Participants were required to recruit, and many spent long hours doing so; if they weren’t successful, they were reprimanded, but if they brought new members into the fold they were rewarded financially with discounts on further seminars. The seminars were often held in isolated office parks and lasted long hours with little chance to eat, drink, or use the restroom. “Homework” kept participants up late and deprived them of sleep. One woman recounted how her brother had cut off all contact with family and former friends, quit his job, and become destitute because he had invested so heavily in the expensive series of seminars that teach that you are the master of your own fate.

Some of these accounts have been taken down, perhaps because Landmark Forum has a habit of suing anyone who maligns them, especially those who refer to them as a cult, and I’ve been surprised by the only tentatively critical nature of most journalistic accounts now on the internet, though there are still many anonymous negative postings on blogs and the like. LF has also built an enormous web presence, so that its own sites fill the first pages of any search.

Even the Landmark Forum’s own website, however, would have been by itself enough to give me pause. Any organization that claims that “what we think of as reality, which includes an objective world that exists independent of us” is a “myth” is going to send me running. Especially when it notes that part of the seminar’s purpose is to upend those “myths” and teach us “that we no longer need to be confined to living within this limited range.” That’s post-structuralism without any sense of the regulative discourses in which we all function and that are probably as inescapable as any old-fashioned reality. In other words, it’s delusional.

It was after I read these things that Kathy got very aggressive with me. The next time she asked me to go to a meeting, I told her that I’d looked up the organization and that it didn’t sound right for me. I told her I respected the fact that it might help her, but that I knew myself well, and public humiliation would not bring around a breakthrough for me. When she pushed further, I asked her what the qualifications of those conducting these seminars were and whether they had psychology Ph.D.s. I explained that I’m a person who believes that credentials matter. She said simply that they were internally trained. I told her that with my Type 1 diabetes, it would be dangerous for me to go to an event where access to food was limited and where I’d be discouraged from taking breaks to check my blood sugar. She scoffed.

“I’m just not that kind of person,” I reiterated, getting tired. “I’m stubborn and I’m not willing to go through that kind of program.”

“And how’s that working for you?” she said, squinting into my face. She repeated herself two or three times.

It was then I realized that she and Angel had seen me, not as a potential friend, but as a failure with a desperate longing for change. That was a prerequisite to being a real candidate for Landmark Forum, and something—my single status, my illness, whatever—had marked me as that failure to them. I suppose they saw no particular shame in this, since they had been this way too, before. But I felt my spine stiffen.

“You have me all wrong,” I told her.

After that, Kathy and Angel would still say hello, but they never chose the cycles next to mine, and they never asked me how I was. I had certainly been manipulated and used in romantic relationships before, but I had never had someone pretend to be my friend in such a calculated and false way. Adjusting to life in Orlando wouldn’t be easier than anticipated after all. If you were me, actual friendships would have to grow, not spring fully formed from nothing. If you were me, it would just be real life, without the fantasy and self-delusion. I’m happy with that.

Laughing ’til You Cry

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In the general run of my life, I no longer have a lot to cry about. I know now what and who are important to me, and I take care of those things and people at least fairly well. There is always plenty of room for improvement, and there is always plenty of stress, but I’m not in a mess as I often was in my twenties and thirties. I have mellowed, and life is good, as they say.

A couple of weeks ago, Bruce came home after a long day and week at the office. The usual Florida summer weather pattern was setting in, and the dark sky threatened. Bruce often arrives home exhausted by problems at work, and he stretched out on the bed to unwind for a few minutes. I propped myself on a pillow beside him.

Our conversation was desultory. It started with nothing much and ended back around in the same place. We kept wondering what to do with our Friday evening, one of the few we usually take off, but one for which we had no plans. We had both done a lot of running around that week, and, though we kept feeling as though we should do something, neither of us really wanted to. Before we could even begin to rally, the thunder and lightning began. The fat raindrops pelted the skylights and windows. We floated on the bed in a pool of cozy yellow light surrounded by violent wind and blackness.

“What should we do?” Bruce asked. “I can always just go out and get something and bring it back.” I knew he would make the valiant effort, but he sounded tired.

I got up to feed the kitties. He let me rattle in the kitchen, not noticing that I had conceived a plan. While the cats ate, I sliced up a nectarine and an apple, then some cheddar, Gouda, and rosemary goat cheese, and piled it all up on a plate. I brought it back to bed, and said, “Let’s just stay right here. We don’t have to do anything.”

Immediately, I could see the burden of entertainment and provisioning lift from Bruce’s face. We settled in for the evening, just reading, doing a crossword puzzle, playing Angry Birds on the iPad, and talking. The storm rumbled on and the rain pattered down. And we talked, as too often we don’t really have time to do. The room relaxed, and all evening the coziness of being there together with the world held at bay by the weather allowed all our usual irritations to give way to the sensation of closeness.

At one point, one of us mentioned the unsightly three bags of mulch that had sat at the end of our driveway for a year and a half. We were finally getting around to planting the gardenia that we’d been given for our wedding and that had languished for two years in its pot in spite of our best intentions, and we were glad the ugly bags would soon be gone. “No telling what’s underneath those bags by now,” I said.

“Probably your passport,” Bruce answered, referring to the fact that three days before we were supposed to leave for our honeymoon in the U.K., I had realized my passport was missing. There’d been a bit of an ordeal in getting a new one and joining Bruce in Scotland a day late for the start of our honeymoon. The fate of the lost passport remains a mystery.

We’ve had a lot on our plates the past three years–lost passports, brain hemorrhages, and other things–and all of that came pouring out in those moments of relaxation and silliness. I chuckled in response to the idea that the passport could be in one place we certainly hadn’t looked for it. … And then Bruce laughed, and then I started in, and then we couldn’t stop. My cheeks began to ache, and we kept on laughing. We laughed til both of us had to wipe away the tears.

As so often when you laugh til you cry, it was set off by something trivial and absurd, but it tapped into the fact that after the last few crazy years, we were having a lovely, cozy, quiet moment. The oxygen of laughter flooded us, and our bodies had this near-sexual release of laughing and crying at once. It was a great moment, even beautiful, though we won’t put it down in the annals as important.

I haven’t made a study of the phenomenon of laughing til you cry, and experts don’t know much about it. Most times it happens over something trivial and so people don’t remember the details. The specifics of its instances don’t stay with us the way traumas do. But I do think that it often involves the sense of intimacy and closeness that Bruce and I had the other day. It seems to involve a sense of protection from a world outside, the creation of a safe zone for silliness.

I remember only two other specific times laughing until I cried, though I know I have done it many other times, too. One was at a potluck Thanksgiving dinner held one year by my friend Umeeta. It was a gray and unwelcoming November day in Pennsylvania—the kind of weather that makes you want to stay under the covers. And it was a holiday weekend in an abandoned college town. I hardly knew any of the other people there—only Umeeta and, slightly, her girlfriend, Kim. Now I don’t even remember who the other people were. What I remember was that there were six or seven of us, all with the end-of-term hanging over our heads, and that we had a fabulous meal, with not only the traditional American fare, but a wonderful vegetable curry and dal that Umeeta had made. After dinner, we sat around the living room—mostly on the floor because they didn’t have a lot of furniture—and told funny Thanksgiving stories. Then Umeeta put on a Bollywood movie, a tale of frustrated love that rose to quite melodramatic heights. Umeeta has an infectious laugh, and she got us going. And we laughed and laughed until we were all hiccupping and the tears were streaming down our faces. Total strangers, but we had been brought close in that warm living room.

Not long after, when I was still in grad school, I remember laughing with my then-boyfriend, Tad. Tad and I liked each other a lot, but we probably already knew that we weren’t compatible long-term. We spent a lot of time at the house he shared with two roommates and many parties filled with people I mostly didn’t like. In that group, most everything was public, and they shared partners as well as too much information. Tad’s roommate had an ex-girlfriend, still “friend,” who called him every day as she sat naked in her bath and told him all about it. This group of people also probably knew Tad and I weren’t compatible, and they watched us as though we were a TV show, as though they owned Tad (a main character), and I was an interloper (a guest star). But when we would spend a weekend at my townhouse, away from prying eyes, Tad and I really enjoyed each other. Tad was smart and funny and accepting of human foibles, my own included.

One spring weekend, we found ourselves undressed in my second floor bedroom, though it was late in the morning. I loved that bedroom because there was a birch tree right outside the window and when the sun flowed through the leaves as they danced in the breeze, it lit up the bedroom like a flickering river. Tad and I sat on the rug on the floor, examining each other’s bodies, just playing. But when he got to my toes, he exclaimed over how funny my toenails are—little moon-like crescents, he said. My toes have always embarrassed me—they are short and stubby and not at all elegant. But Tad made that all okay—he enjoyed my funny little toes and their even funnier toenails. He sat running his fingers over them and laughing. How could I not laugh, too? We laughed until we gasped and sobbed. Finally, I slapped him on the behind and we went downstairs for some lunch, and I would send him on his way, back to his friends, my enemies.

So maybe there is something also about a sense of a break in the battle, so to speak, about finding a moment of peace and pleasure amid challenges and strife. In the laughter that makes us cry, there is some tension relief. For even now, as mellowed and generally happy as I am, I know that the devil will eventually come through the door again. Bruce and I laughed because he said something amusing, but we laughed til we cried because that humor came up in contrast to a life in which we are often too harried to share some fun. The salty can certainly intensify the sweet.

Here’s “Laugh Till You Cry, Live Till You Die” from the 1976 album Flow Motion by the German band Can.

“Give Positive Reviews”

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One very popular popularizer of positive psychology (as opposed to academicians like Martin Seligman) is Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project: On Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. In her penultimate chapter, one of the goals she sets herself is to “give positive reviews.” It seems to be part of a strategy played out in her final pages to upend possible criticisms of her own book. I’ve really never seen a writer do this so blatantly.

I am not going to obey her, though I want to say that her book was not as bad as I thought it would be. There’s plenty of practical advice in it that’s perfectly good on one level. Rubin even gives the book a veneer of self-criticism here and there, and she doesn’t present herself as perfect. She qualifies things and even notes that “Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy” (79). I liked that she didn’t sell her intelligence short by being really simplistic, though it can’t be avoided completely in this kind of book. And I truly liked her focus on the ordinary. This is one piece of “stunt nonfiction” that doesn’t take us off to a war zone or an exotic adventure. It’s rooted in the home, which I found appealing. In that way, others truly could use her as an example for their lives if they wanted to, at least in bits and pieces.

Yet, one of the main things that kept slapping me in the face as I read this book is that Gretchen Rubin is basically a very wealthy and well-educated woman who threw her career over to become a housewife with a boatload of resources and time at her fingertips. I don’t want to judge her negatively for that fact, but none of this is presented particularly honestly; rather it is skirted. It’s not that she lies exactly, but nowhere does she mention the fact that her father-in-law is Robert Rubin, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and someone reputed to have received more than $126 million in cash and stock during his eight post-government years as an executive at Citigroup. Before he worked in the government, he was a member of the Board and Co-Chairman of Goldman Sachs; lord knows how much money he made there.

To me, this matters. I like to know who I’m taking advice from and how her circumstances are likely to affect the advice she gives.

Not that the Rubins are not good people. Robert Rubin, though a very wealthy man, is a Democrat, and web sources note that one reason he gives for that is that the world is not just and that not everyone has the same opportunities that he had and has. He feels that Democratic social policies contribute to a more fair nation. So, he is interested in social justice, and I appreciate that kind of philosophical generosity in a rich man.

I don’t know if Gretchen shares her father-in-law’s concern. In one odd little aside, she notes that “I … accepted my idiosyncratic reluctance to read any book (or see any play or movie) that centers on the theme of unjust accusation. I was never going to be able to force myself to read Oliver Twist, Othello, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atonement, A Passage to India, Burmese Days, Crime and Punishment, or Arthur and George if I could avoid it—and that was okay” (229-30). Certainly not all of these books are about class and racial injustice, but most of them are. Though Rubin said nothing else on this topic, this one sentence revealed to me a huge willingness for her to ignore whole realms of dire experience and certainly a lack of interest in how the other half lives.

The first thing that made me feel right away that something was wrong in Happiness Project-land was that I couldn’t imagine how anyone would ever have the time to spend on all these little projects that Rubin describes. My god, she wrote a novel in a month (NaNoWriMo style), she kept a resolutions chart; she kept a food diary and a gratitude notebook; she started a new blog that she posted on six days a week, created a huge scrapbook of clippings, established memento file boxes for each year of her children’s lives, self-published several things through, and made countless scrapbooks and photo albums for her family members. She also ran multiple reading groups, threw numerous large parties, joined an expensive new gym with a personal trainer, volunteered at the local library and her daughter’s school, cleaned out all the closets in her house, and did her sister’s Christmas shopping for her. To me this did not sound like someone with a day job.

Rubin writes of herself as having made a “career change.” She decided that, in spite of the fact that she graduated from Yale law school and clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor, the practice of law was not her thing, and so she decided to become a writer. Now, this decision for her did not imply near-starvation or long years of struggle. She speaks of working with her agent as though she is dropping off dry cleaning. Anyone could do it. She notes that after she started her blog on the Happiness Project, she was delighted to find that she had made the Technorati Top 5000 without even trying. (Yet somehow she is aware that Technorati exists.) At one point, because her husband has been diagnosed with asymptomatic Hepatitis C, she reads up on organ donation issues and then “joined the board of the New York Organ Donor Network” (291). Just like that. There is no discussion of how her connections influenced these accomplishments or whether her “career” as a writer included living off what she had made as a writer before The Happiness Project became a bestseller.

While this occurred to me in the first half of the book, the real downturn for me was Chapter 7 on “Buy Some Happiness.” This chapter was chock-a-block full of stuff that comes from a wealthy person’s perspective, even if many not-so-wealthy people also buy it. It was also full of the sentiment that although money is not the only thing that gives happiness, it is certainly a good in itself. There is no discussion whatsoever of the corrupting possibilities of money. She does, however, note that money should be spent “wisely” in order to contribute to happiness. “People at every level of income can choose to direct their spending in ways that take them closer to happiness—or not,” she claims (171). She never discusses why they don’t—why, in particular, poor people might make a lot of spending decisions that better-off folk would consider short-sighted and even destructive. This edges very near to a blame-the-victim stance. It was pretty much downhill from there.

One of the most disturbing parts to me had to be when Rubin decides in contemplating spiritual issues to read “memoirs of catastrophe,” mostly those about illness and dying. Her entire response to these memoirs is that they made her recognize how much better her life was than those of the authors or subjects of the books she read. She admits that she feels a little guilty about this, but then moves on by saying that these authors “emphasized the importance of cherishing health and appreciating ordinary life” (202). That may be true, but it still seems to me incumbent on a reader to muster some sympathy for those in terrible situations, and Rubin strikes an odd note at the end of that section when she asserts that “I don’t think these memoirs would cheer me if I’d had more brushes with serious illness” (202). She hasn’t even bothered to understand the genre enough to know how many people are comforted by knowing that they are not alone in hard times. In other words, her rather self-centered reasons for “enjoying” them are the only reasons she can conceive of.

At the end of that same chapter (8), which focuses on the need to “Contemplate the Heavens,” she trots out all the reasons why someone might resist happiness: it’s not a worthy goal (it’s self-indulgent), it is associated with a lack of intellectual rigor (it’s not “cool”), some people use unhappiness as a guilty control mechanism, and some people fear that being happy will tempt fate to bring disaster down on them. She dispatches all these arguments in a mere three and a half pages, which, I must add, she does with very little intellectual rigor. Then she notes the ultimate cause of resistance: “Happiness takes energy and discipline. It is easy to be heavy, etc.” (218).

She reiterates this at the end of Chapter 9, on “Pursue a Passion,” when she encounters a naysayer who quotes John Stuart Mill as saying, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.” She dismisses this idea in exactly sixteen lines. And she concludes, “you must make the effort to take steps toward happiness” (233-34). I think about the happiness that has flooded me at completely unexpected moments, and I wonder. But there is no serious self-questioning here.

In Chapter 10, “Pay Attention,” she decides that the traditional Buddhist koans aren’t for her, but that she has some quotes that can serve the same function for her. This is a very funny section because none of her “koans” are koans at all. She spends more time contemplating the meaning of Samuel Johnson’s “He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry the wealth of the Indies with him” than she did Mill’s statement at the end of the previous chapter. Her interpretation of this statement, however, is no deeper than her dismissal of the other. All it means to her is that happiness inheres purely in the individual and not in circumstances.

In the section of Chapter 10 already mentioned above, on giving positive reviews, she notes repeatedly that it is easier to give negative ones. While some of the assertions she makes in the book about happiness are supported, at least marginally, by some scientific studies, she gives absolutely no evidence for the claim, repeated numerous times in the last few chapters, that it is easier to be negative. I myself have to say that I find writing this kind of review, where I try to be thoughtful and fair about saying even critical things, far more challenging for me than simply writing, “Oh, what a cute book. It’s so true.” I work hard for a fair and balanced critical mind, and most of the intellectuals, writers, and scholars that I know do, too.

These last few chapters of the book are filled with material seemingly designed to dismiss criticisms that Rubin seems aware may come up. Perhaps the funniest of these is that she spends numerous passages quoting from people who have posted on her blog to the effect of how much her blog helped them. How could this handful of readers of her blog be wrong? She even quotes her sister and her husband to prove that she’s become a happier and therefore better person over her year of effort. I mean, would you quote your sister or husband as proof of anything? That’s like someone in a creative writing workshop telling everyone that his mother liked his story so it must be good.

However, if the bestseller status of Rubin’s work is any indication, this strategy seems to have worked, much to my chagrin. She’s now working on a Happiness Project for children. I can’t wait to get those kids in classes I teach. It might make me cry.

Really, it’s not that I don’t want people to be happy, but I just can’t believe that this is the way. It leaves too many other important values in the dust.

The Father of Positive Psychology Isn’t Stupid

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It’s hard to approach an entire field of study in a blog post, and positive psychology is no exception. I hope that over time and multiple posts I can clarify why I find some of its assumptions so disturbing, even though I no doubt attempt to put many of their recommendations into practice myself. It’s practically unavoidable since positive psychology has become so pervasive in our culture in recent years.

However, one thing that happens with any kind of popularizing movement for complex theories is that the ideas get oversimplified, often even dumbed down, denuded of any kind of subtlety that might make them useful. In fact, in the hands of popularizers, such theories often become tools for brow-beating non-adherents and take on cult-like tones.

Martin Seligman, credited with being the founder of positive psychology and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, started publishing about optimism in the early 1990s. It seems that he grew tired of treating depression and wanted instead to prevent it. In 2002, he published Authentic Happiness, which became a bestseller and rallying cry for the growing minions of positive psychology followers. He still maintains a website with that title that claims “almost 1,975,000 users from around the world.”

Nonetheless, a recent New York Times article now quotes Seligman as saying he regrets this title and is ameliorating his stance on happiness somewhat. I could be completely cynical about this development. For one thing, Seligman has titled his new book Flourish, which seems just as potentially brow-beating as “authentic happiness.” For another, he has a new acronym that seems designed for the over-simplifying satisfaction of the minions. PERMA stands for Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. Some of this has clearly been developed in response to critics of positive psychology who noted that people don’t always behave in ways to achieve happiness and that happiness isn’t the only good.

One of the things about positive psychology that has always bothered me is that it seems to abandon the ill and the poor. It has been much celebrated for moving away from the treatment of pathological conditions to an embrace of higher fulfillment. This is all well and good for neurotic upper-middle-class and well-off people (of which I am admittedly one, too), but it turns its back on a whole host of people who really need help. That Seligman chose to focus his practice on those with the best health insurance and the flushest wallets doesn’t strike me as an accident. Maybe he himself was just depressed by the deeply mentally ill, which is entirely understandable. Many in the general medical field have done just the same, and we have a proliferation of “health care” that is about Botox and cosmetic surgery. On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with this; on another, I thought the goal of medicine was to relieve suffering.

So I’m glad that Seligman is re-incorporating some other values along with “positive emotion.” Scientists must always move forward and respond to legitimate criticism of and gaps in their work, and it’s to his credit that he is doing so. But I also can’t help but notice that Seligman is changing his tune at a time when the economy is dreadful and fewer people are likely to accept the panacea that techniques to achieve simple happiness are the be all and end all. More of us are face to face with people who didn’t deserve to lose their jobs and their homes and whose optimism couldn’t protect them. In a down economy, it’s less likely that your positive emotions will be enough to get you what you want.

At least Seligman is in touch with the reality of this economy. He is at least adapting his marketing plan accordingly. Let’s hope it’s a more substantive reconsideration than just that.

First Tears

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We usually think that babies are born crying. And for most of us this was undoubtedly true. Some of this stems from the tradition of doctors slapping babies on the behind to start or confirm their breathing, and the need for this was augmented by the introduction of drugs to alleviate the pain of a woman giving birth. The advent of chloroform for this purpose in the 1800s and the use of the “twilight sleep” of morphine and scopolamine in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s (perhaps even the use of epidurals now) led to an increased risk that a baby might not otherwise breathe properly because some of the drugs often got into the baby’s system as well as the mother’s. Today it’s more likely that a baby will be vigorously rubbed with a towel than held upside down by the ankles and whacked on the bottom.

Since the 1970s, various takes on natural childbirth have attempted to make the birthing process less traumatic for the baby as well as the mother. These include creating atmospheres that are dim, warm, and quiet, and leaving the umbilical cord attached a little longer so that the baby can still get oxygen that way and make a more gradual transition to air-filled lungs. There are even those who give birth in water, supposedly easing the transition from the fluid-filled womb. Sometimes babies grunt and growl or simply gasp rather than crying, and as long as the baby is pinkly oxygenated and breathing deeply to fill all the little newly inflated alveoli in the lungs, it’s perfectly healthy.

Even today, though, most babies cry at birth. Some even cry before they are quite out of the womb, perhaps giving credence to the idea that traveling down the birth canal in itself is uncomfortable. Other theories of why babies cry involve the startling experience of encountering cooler temperatures, noise, and light. Some note that babies’ crying is their first communication that something is wrong–at least that they are cold, and maybe also scared of all the hubbub. Our first method of communication is definitely crying, and it is the prime way that infants get what they need.

“Crying doesn’t indicate that you’re weak. Since birth, it has always been a sign that you’re alive.” –Anonymous