The Positive Psychology of Romance

I am on blog holiday while meeting a deadline for Evil Day Job.  Please enjoy this rerun of one of my past posts.

Yesterday’s post on Romancing the Blog–which I admit to being surprised was written by a guy–hey I don’t know any men liberated enough to read, let alone write romance or about romance–was a response to yet another controversy in the romance world, a controversy to which he provides several links to if you care to check it out. I won’t duplicate them here, as I’m not so much interested in the academics of it. But he does bring up the point that “romance novels are pervasively novels of resilience, and I suspect that the lessons they teach are often quite good ones, empirically so.” He goes on to mention Martin Seligman and positive psychology, hazarding that “romance novels are often primers in positive psychology, in ways that measure up quite well against current research.

Well now, I find this intriguing on a couple of different levels. First and foremost, my degrees are in clinical psychology, my job in research and teaching psychology. I have always been fascinated by the notion of positive psychology, and I am enormously impressed with Seligman (a former President of the American Psychological Association). During his tenure heading up the APA, he made a call to researchers to turn their focus from (or rather not to focus exclusively on) traditional topics of research that are all about the negative, the abnormal, and look to the positive. In a field that has for over a century been dominated by looking at deviation and abnormality, which focused exclusively on the negative aspects of the human condition in an attempt to get to the root of disorders of depression, anxiety, and thought, this was a radical move indeed. Why not study happy people? What do they do differently than their unhappy compatriots? Perhaps the secret to helping people overcome a whole plethora of psychological problems is not looking for a single organic reason among the afflicted, but looking for the differences among those who are happy and positive and enjoy a much higher quality of life. He’s spearheaded some really interesting research on the subject for any who are interested.

Positive psychology is, according to Seligman, “a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the ‘good life.’” He and others like him have and are empirically proving that positive attitudes change everything. I hear a lot of pessimistic people tout the old “If I don’t expect anything good to happen, I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it does. If it doesn’t, then I won’t be any worse off.” I always want to ask them “Um, ever hear of a self-fulfilling prophecy? You expect bad things to happen, so they do!” Anyway, that’s not the point. Just like you can learn helplessness (Seligman’s early research), you can learn optimism. And optimism, it’s been shown, is directly linked to being genuinely, authentically happy, regardless of life circumstances.

What does this have to do with romance novels you may be asking. I’m turning off my natural geek inclination and moving back to where I was going with this. What was my point…oh yeah.

The whole post got me to thinking about why I read romance in the first place as opposed to some other things. As a former hard-core academic, it often surprised colleagues that I chose to pick up something of that ilk. I have a few friends who read almost no fiction at all (and what a sad, colorless world they must live in). Apart from the escapist side of things (I need something light after tomes of boring, overly complicated academic drivel I deal with for work), I read romance because it’s a pick me up. Quite simply it makes me happy. My husband is eternally amused that I will laugh and giggle at what I’m reading. Nothing makes me smile like a good love story. Well maybe puppies… If it doesn’t have a happy ending where girl gets boy or vice versa and good triumphs over evil, I don’t want it. I don’t want negativity. I like reading stories where people rebound from adversity and persevere. Stories where people learn something about themselves and grow. That’s what romance is all about. Apart from the love story, and in some ways because of it. People are changed by love. That’s just a fact. So yeah, I think that Eric Selinger has a great point in his post on RtB. And I would be very interested to do an informal survey of readers of romance vs. readers of other genres. Are there more optimists among the romance crowd than in readers of other genres? Weigh in with your opinion!

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