Happiness Is… Research Note #7

Positive psychology is not the same as positive thinking.

This ribbon text, which I made last year, appears to promote positive thinking, but I had more in mind.

Christine Wong Yap, think good thoughts / fortify good attitudes, 2011, ribbon, thread, pins, 30 × 40 × 1 in / 76 × 100 × 2.5 cm

Christine Wong Yap, think good thoughts / fortify good attitudes, 2011, ribbon, thread, pins, 30 × 40 × 1 in / 76 × 100 × 2.5 cm

In my readings, numerous positive psychologists explained that the unfocused mind’s natural state is chaos. When we don’t focus our attentions, our minds drift, and unhappy memories arise. Regrets, slights, and petty grievances beg to be reviewed. Engaging in rumination—unproductively mulling over negative events and emotions—can lead to anxiety and depression.

Rumination can be habitual, but people can learn to recognize and interrupt it.

I thought about this process of shifting one’s thought patterns away from chaotic, unfocused, and negative toward intentional and positive. Early steps—”thinking good thoughts” in place of bad ones—might seem forced, but with persistence, they can create a positive longterm habit, and “fortify good attitudes.”

Art & Development, Community, Research

Works in Progress

Christine Wong Yap Work-in-progress view of Cloud II (Aura / Good Thoughts) 2011 mixed media installation: Glitter foil on board, 3-D illusion plastic, fun fur yarn, thread, elastic, hula hoops, beads dimensions vary

Christine Wong Yap, Work-in-progress view of Cloud II (Aura / Good Thoughts), 2011, mixed media installation.

I’ve been working on a new cutout text installation for a forthcoming group exhibition. It will be an optimistic, exhuberant update to my copper and elastic installation, Cloud.

Cloud (installation view), 2006, copper, rope, elastic, monofilament, 7 x 6 feet / 2.1 x 1.8 m

Cloud (installation view), 2006, copper, rope, elastic, monofilament, 7 x 6 feet / 2.1 x 1.8 m

The original installation was comprised of mundane, mindless texts, such as “hey, it’s me, are you busy now?” The new iteration uses spoken, written and emailed texts from my life that express happiness, gratitude, or empathy. It will be made of colorful materials like 3D illusion plastic and glitter foil.

Your wish has come true

Work-in-progress view of hand-cut glitter foil on board. Text: “Your wish has come true.”

February 28 – April 1, 2011
Portraiture: Inside Out
Opening Reception: Thursday, March 3, 5—9pm
An exhibition of contemporary portraiture. Curated by Ruth Ballester, Whitney Fehl and Lauren Thompson, Graduate Students in the Museum Professions Program.

Artists: Sarah Bliss, Dominic Guarnaschelli, Gwen Hardie, Jenny Hyde, Pat Lay, Greg Leshé, So Yoon Lym, Ryan Roa, Steve Rossi, Jesse Eric Schmidt, Travis LeRoy Southworth, Tanja Targersen, Peter Whittenberger, Christine Wong Yap, Raphael Zollinger

Opening Reception: Thursday, March 3, 5–9pm
Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ
Gallery hours: Monday–Friday, 10:30am–4:30pm

Also in the exhibition, by chance, are two members of the collective, Brolab, who I met through volunteering for the Art in Odd Places festival, and whose work I enthused about, last fall.

Random & Rad:

I did a Google image search for “attitude” and this is what came up:

Google image search results for Attitude

I love the mix of results! Trashy, jokey mottos alongside sincere (if simplistic) mantras for optimism. Just the first row is brilliant: unapologetic crudeness underscored by a sassy type treatment, self-help clichés (positive thinking, magic, happy face), motivational sports maxims, more unapologetic crudeness plus sexual egomania, and a party-goer’s mantra. It sort of exemplifies American ignominy as well as the desire for inspiration and the futility of oversimplified positive thinking. It presents lowbrow poles of irony and sincerity.


Positive Psychology and Positive Thinking

In developing my exhibition, “Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors),” last spring, I studied positive psychology. During the closing dialogue, “As Is: Pop and Complicity” (read the transcript), I realized that the term positive psychology is easily confused with popular psychology—understandably, since the distinction is not entirely clear, when my readings of positive psychology take form in trade paperbacks—and positive thinking. Certainly, positive psychology is optimistic; through research-based cognitive behavior modification, it aims to increase happiness, and to engage in that kind of self-awareness and change is to embrace to possibility that one can positively change one’s attitudes. However, to mistake positive psychology for mere positive thinking is a mistake.

In “Power Lines: What’s behind Rhonda Byrne’s spiritual empire?” (New Yorker, September 13, 2010), Kelefa Sanneh reviews two recent books on positive thinking. He takes a critical look at Rhonda Byrne, the positive thinking guru and author of “The Secret” (2007) and “The Power” (2010), starting off with Byrne’s appearance on Oprah. Maybe I’m an elitist, sheltered in a ‘Bay Area Bubble’ unconcerned with such mass culture, but the phenomenon of “The Secret” remained a secret to me until now. Is this what people think I mean when I say positive psychology?

Sanneh contrasts Byrne’s quasi-but-un-religious, ultra-simplistic mysticism with Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America” (2009; also released with the more specific, less ‘sticky’ subtitle, “How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking is Undermining America”). When the leftist activist fired this shot, it alarmed me, but as Sanneh points out,

For Ehrenreich, the alternative to the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of justice—except you don’t have to choose…. She promises that we can find a deeper, richer form of happiness by ‘shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world.’

This, of course, brings to mind the three components, according to Paul Martin, author of “Sex, Drugs and Chocolate” (2008) of happiness: pleasure, the absence of displeasure, and satisfaction—becoming an agent, enacting one’s will in the world. Striving and accomplishing goals through acting in the world—not mere positive thinking—leads to deeper happiness? Yes, I’d agree with that. I am now more inclined to believe that Ehrenreich—whose undercover reports on working class struggle instantiated institutional privilege in America in “Nickel and Dimed” (2001) I enjoyed—is explicit in her aim at unthinking positive thinking, rather than all psychology concerned with happiness.

So while the terminology may overlap, along with the general optimistic outlook and “woo woo” self-improvement vibe, positive psychology and positive thinking are very different. For the latter, read Byrne and watch Oprah. For the former, read psychologists and researchers like Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalvi.