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Wanna be happy? Expect the worst

WHEN PEOPLE ask me why I'm so negative, I always tell them I'm simply looking out for my best interests and everyone else's. Like instant mashed potatoes (which, let's face it, are often better than real mashed potatoes), negativity gets a bad rap. Everywhere you look, someone's waxing fustian about the power of positive thinking.

Want a job promotion, a new sweetheart, a cure for that nasty foot fungus? Just say yes! Close your eyes and imagine a future of generous end-of-year bonuses, the unconditional love of a flawless human being, feet so bacteria-free you could eat off them. Do you see it? Yes? Then you shall have it.

This is total bunk. I know because my life is pretty good, and I attribute it to imagining the worst and then being pleasantly surprised when the worst doesn't happen. Last week, I read about research out of the Netherlands suggesting this outlook increases my chances of dying from causes such as heart disease. The study asked subjects between the ages of 65 and 85 to react to such statements as "I still have positive expectations concerning my future" and "I often feel that life is full of promises." Of the 397 who died during the study, 56.5% fell into the "pessimistic" category.

This news might have moved me to change my ways (or at least stop eating powdered mashed potatoes), but then I saw an article about some new data from Denmark. Over the last three decades, Danes have been shown to have higher rates of "life satisfaction" than any other Western country. Their key to contentment? Low expectations.

As the article explained, Danes know they don't come from the largest, blondest or most temperate nation on Earth. They don't expect to be big winners of any game. So when good things happen, they're that much happier.

This is the philosophy I've been living for years. It's why I go to every party expecting to have a miserable time and leave for every vacation betting it will rain. These scenarios are rarely realized, so my life generally floats along on a steady undercurrent of joyous relief. That's the power of negative thinking.

I fervently believe there's such a thing as being too positive, especially when expectation gets confused with hope. Americans seem especially unable to separate these ideas, and for good reason. Our entire ethos is wrapped up in the myth of turning dreams into realities, of constantly reaching for higher goals, of never settling.

Obviously, this can-do spirit is what turned us into the world's most powerful nation. Without it, we wouldn't have railroads and vaccines and, coming soon, the Apple iPhone. But it's worth remembering that the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" wasn't originally connected with the terms "life" and "liberty." Thomas Jefferson's wording of the Declaration of Independence was inspired by the work of 17th century British philosopher John Locke, whose social contract outlined rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of property." It was Jefferson who substituted "happiness" for "property," saddling centuries of Americans with the notion that happiness is not only a realistic expectation, it goes hand in hand with life itself. (I say, don't blame your mother that you're in therapy, blame Jefferson.)

Of course, we've been taking Locke's advice all along by relentlessly pursuing property and confusing its acquisition with happiness. But I've always thought we'd be better served by a line like "the pursuit of contentment" or, better yet, "life, liberty and hope." That's because pursuing happiness as a social contract sounds a lot like a mandate to set pie-in-the-sky goals and then feel cheated when they don't come to pass. Hope, on the other hand, has some poetry to it. Hope acknowledges human desires while respecting life's uncontrollable forces. It's downsized from the entitlement inherent in expectation.

Do we hope our children will wind up in Ivy League colleges, or do we expect them to? Did we bank on fivefold appreciation when we bought the house with a 0% ARM, or did we just have our fingers crossed? Did the president hope military intervention would bring peace to Iraq, or did he … oh, never mind.

It's interesting how the maxim "Hope for the best, prepare for the worst" now sounds quaint. It even suggests bad karma. But that's the problem with positive thinking. It skips right over simple satisfaction and careens headlong into high expectations.

So let's stop being so optimistic. How else do we expect to beat Denmark at this game?


mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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