A lifelong pessimist meets his match
My wife and I had known each other only three months when we decided to get married. We’d fallen in love and gotten ourselves pregnant, more or less in that order. Were we ready for a new life? Who knows? Both of us were pushing 40 so if we weren’t, we probably never would be. There’s bound to be a learning curve in any relationship – she’s teaching me yoga, I’m teaching her poker – but ours has been particularly steep. What my wife didn’t know about me, for example, is that I complain about everything.
What I didn’t know about her is that she’d prefer I didn’t.
Which is why the other day, to see where we stood, we took a “life-orientation test” I saw in a book called Learn To Be an Optimist. The test measures attitude and outlook. The questions were surprisingly easy, at least for me. (1. In uncertain times, I usually expect the best. Ha! 7. I hardly ever expect things to go my way. You can say that again!) I finished the test long before my wife. My score – three out of a possible 24 points; “extreme pessimism” on the test scale – was also easy to tally. My wife, who rated a 16, looked worried. “But I’m happy,” I said. “Really. Extremely.” To which she replied, “Compared to what?”
Good question. Woody Allen once said that life is either miserable or horrible, and you should consider yourself lucky if, most of the time, you are merely miserable. By that standard, I explained, who’s luckier than us? I also pointed out that since studies routinely demonstrate that there’s no happier creature on the face of the Earth than a married man – happier than married women, anyway – it’s safe to assume my score, low as it was, was probably higher than it had been before we met.
Somehow, none of this reassured her. As she double-checked the test results, I could guess what she was thinking – perhaps because it was what she was thinking more and more often: there’s room here for improvement.
Another thing I recently learned about my wife is that she’s addicted to HGTV. Home & Garden Television provides viewers with a wealth of home-decorating solutions and do-it-yourself good intentions. No amount of clutter is untameable, and no slob (i.e. husband) too irredeemable. The premise of the channel, which features redesign and makeover programs 24/7, is that by improving your surroundings you will invariably improve your outlook, your attitude and your potential for happiness.
I complain to my wife about HGTV, but, frankly, I enjoy it. I like the perky hosts and their earnest handyman sidekicks talking about “wallpaper making a comeback.” Or saying things like, “Eggshell is the new black.” Only now, when my wife and I are watching Debbie Travis’ Facelift or Rooms That Rock, I’ll notice she’s eyeing me the way she used to eye our gloomy living room decor. Her focus has shifted from our home’s interior to mine.
In an episode of The Simpsons, Marge shares some advice on the opposite sex with her daughter, who has become infatuated with a pint-sized thug. “Most women will tell you you’re a fool to think you can change a man,” she says to Lisa, “but those women are quitters.” My wife’s no quitter.
And it doesn’t help that there’s now scientific evidence to support her decision to make me her new renovation project. Martin Seligman, the author of Authentic Happiness and a former president of the American Psychological Association, studied optimism for 25 years and concluded that “optimistic people got depressed at half the rate of pessimistic people,” and that they also “had better, feistier immune systems, and probably lived longer than pessimistic people.” They also tend to be better students, salespeople, athletes, parents and, it goes without saying, husbands.
So it’s no wonder that upbeat is in and that self-esteem couldn’t be more highly esteemed. Feeling good about the world and yourself is its own reward, of course, but it’s also as trendy these days as pilates and SUVs. “Happiness is the new black,” my wife announced the other day.
According to Seligman, himself a recently reformed grouch, the goal for psychologists and psychiatrists has changed. They used to worry mainly about making miserable people less miserable; now they concentrate on making happy people happier. “My aim is that psychology and maybe psychiatry will increase the tonnage of happiness in the world,” Seligman said in a recent interview. He and others in the field called positive psychology are hard at work creating “interventions that reliably change pessimists into optimists.”
In other words, as my wife also announced recently, “Resistance is futile.” For some people, the Dalai Lama or Donald Trump, let’s say, happiness comes naturally; others, like me, have to have tons of it thrust upon them. Still, I’m not complaining anymore. In fact I’m counting my blessings – along with learning to enjoy yoga, an exercise highly recommended in Learn to Be an Optimist. I know I’m lucky to have a family I love and a wife who cares about me enough to try to make me into a brand new person. But am I forgetting something? Yes, of course, access, round the clock, to HGTV.
Joel Yanofsky is a Montreal writer and the author of Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind.