Friday, October 02, 2009

Realistic Happiness

In Mary Balogh's First Comes Marriage, the heroine, Vanessa, is not the most beautiful of the three Huxtable sisters. Her gift is her "ability to be happy and to spread happiness about you" (196). It is a gift she learned, or at least perfected, in the course of her short first marriage to Hedley Dew: "He taught me so much about living life one day at a time, about finding joy in small things and laughter in the face of tragedy" (376). Thus although she is far from unaware of the realities of disease, bereavement and sorrow, Vanessa always tries to find joy in life. As she says to Elliott Wallace, Viscount Lyngate,
Realism does not exclude love or joy. It is made up of those elements. [...] We should all be as realistic as I [...] Why is realism always seen as such a negative thing? Why do we find it so difficult to trust anything but disaster and violence and betrayal? Life is good. Even when good people die far too young and older people betray us, life is good. Life is what we make of it. We get to choose how we see it. (Balogh 359)
This is, I think, an argument which many romance authors have made in defence of the genre itself. Shannon McKelden, for example, relates that
While shopping with a coworker, a friend found herself being chastised for purchasing romance novels. “How can you let your children see you reading those things?” she was asked. “All those happy endings give kids such a distorted, unrealistic view of the world.” Huh? [...]

The media makes sure we all have a healthy dose of murder, mayhem and misery to start and end every day. Then, there’s the newspapers, pointing out every riot and act of religious hatred, supplemented with political scandals and racial attacks. [...] Honest, unbiased news would present the real facts — that every day, somewhere in the world, in this country, and, yes, even in our own backyards, someone saves a life, someone gives a needy child a home, and someone shares peace with their neighbor.
In rather more combative mode, Jennifer Crusie has written that
the world is full of cynical, sophisticated, seductive people who will tell you that only a romantic (and when did that word get to be a pejorative?) would believe in love and connection; that the world is a cold, cruel, heartless place; and that happy endings are unrealistic and ultimately harmful; and I think these people are snot-nosed jackasses, and it is my God-given duty to thwart and annoy them at every turn. (226)
Obviously there are a great many unrealistic elements in the romance genre, including vampires and shapeshifters, but what these romance authors are asserting is, I think, the realism of the emotionally optimistic outlook on life presented by the genre. Eric Selinger's "hunch [...] is that romance novels are often primers in positive psychology, in ways that measure up quite well against current research."
The positive psychology movement was born in 1998 when Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, was voted in as president of the American Psychological Association. In his inaugural speech, Seligman, who had worked on depression for 30 years, stunned his audience by saying psychologists had missed a trick. Rather than devoting attention to lives that had gone desperately wrong, psychologists should change tack, focusing instead on people for whom everything was going well. While psychologists knew virtually all there was to know about depression, he said, they knew almost nothing of the secrets of a happy life. Discover what they are and it might give you a recipe that people could learn to make themselves happier and more satisfied with their lives. (Sample)
Vanessa and the romance authors' view of realism and happiness back up Eric's hunch, and they do seem to be shared by a number of psychologists. Daniel Nettle, for example, has stated that
The things in modern life that cause us fear, shame, and sadness are really - by and large - not as threatening as a large carnivore. [...] our negative emotion programs, designed as they were to cope with real, ugly, Paleolithic emergencies, go off on a needless rumination of fear and worry. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, since our constant fear and worry makes us more hostile, more paranoid, less attractive, and less open to good things that might come along.
The approach known as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) works on this insight to reduce negative thoughts and feelings. (148)
Or as Vanessa puts it, in the context of Elliott's rather Darcy-like disapproval at a country ball
Viscount Lyngate, Vanessa strongly suspected, had not really enjoyed the evening at all. And it was entirely his own fault if he had not, for he had arrived expecting to be bored. That had been perfectly obvious to her. Sometimes one got exactly what one wished for. (Balogh 55)
"Nick Baylis, a psychologist at Cambridge University" (Sample) seems to agree with Vanessa on this last point. He believes that "If you're optimistic and you think life is going to get better, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy" (Sample). Elliott not only marries Vanessa, but he also eventually opens himself up to accepting her views on life and happiness and so
Their lives were to be brimful and overflowing, he suspected - and always would be.
What else could a man expect when he was married to Vanessa?
He grinned at her and set to work. (Balogh 388)

The photo is from Wikimedia Commons. You can decide for yourself if the glass is half full, or half empty!


  1. I think it's so true! I am no stranger to death and illness, either. I am coping with a chronic, disabling health issues, I have many dark moments. I come from a very dysfunctional family, so my past was full of emotional pain as well.

    And yet one of the more powerful lessons of my life was meeting people who found the emotional connection, and who are truly happy. And I mean, not just putting a good face on it, but having a true and abiding love that I can sense (and I can tell the difference, having seen a lot of the opposite)

    Now, positive psychology is something tricky. I often feel like I am going to scream if one more person tells me that I would recover if only I were more positive, or that I will "suffer less" if I am not afraid about my future, regardless of my health problems.

    But I find that good romance reminds me of that - that happy endings are real. In a way, I measure romance by real life - the books that I like in a way match the good relationships that I have seen in real life, and therefore serve as something that reinforces that pattern.

  2. Seligman's books are fantastic. Great post.

  3. I am interested in the 'positive psychology' concept too, and would take it further. The study of physical diseases and disorders is essential, of course, but I think there is too little study of good health, too little understanding of the factors that make some people able to lead long and healthy lives, sometimes against considerable environmental odds.
    I don't suppose there are many research grants to be had for looking hard at some of the people in their 90s who are still compos mentis, able to get around and look after themselves, and generally live their lives, but it might still be a fruitful project.

  4. This is SUCH a coincidence ... my company has a infrequent blogger, making a round the world trip with his wife -- our connection is the he brought some of our stuff with him so he could keep fit on the road -- on twitter he's @seanglass -- but the connection here is that his master's thesis at Penn is on that exact subject: the power of positive psychology, and as he explained to me months ago, PP is not the way you react to bad news, it's a forward-looking way to face life. He thinks there's a physical component and I would agree with that. If I hike in the morning, I don't need as much caffeine at 3:00 pm!

    So back to Balogh, this is one of her most popular themes (tropes?). I just finished reading The Incurable Matchmaker and the heroine says to the hero at the end of the book -- he's very nervous about his ability to make her happy, to be a happily married man because of his father's dismal example, and Diana says (and she has been previously married and is now a widow), that life is what you make of it. She choose to be happy married to her vicar. Of course we need not get into how much happier she's going to be married to Jack! She won't need to call on her Dream Lover anymore and how often have you ever read about that in a book!?

  5. I think that this is one of the reasons that I enjoy Balogh's romances--she present characters choosing to be happy.

    A lot of romances show us characters who are 'destined' to be together, and therefore Fate ensures that they will be happy.

    I think Balogh tends to present characters who aren't fated partners, instead they are men and women who choose to make good out of their relationships by the dint of hard work and persistence, if nothing else.

  6. I have certainly found this to be true. I have turned my life around since the time I realised that I was creating a narrative of frustration, defeat and suffering. Embracing the joy of life, the excitement of challenge and the optimistic assumption that I could do whatever I set my mind to accomplishing (and enjoying the journey regardless of the outcome) has been invigorating. I don't ignore trouble, but I address it with the knowledge that I have a happiness inside me that is not affected by the inevitable fluctuations of fortune.

  7. "I often feel like I am going to scream if one more person tells me that I would recover if only I were more positive, or that I will "suffer less" if I am not afraid about my future, regardless of my health problems."

    MD, that would make me angry, too. Particularly if they're just plain wrong that positive thinking would help you "recover." It's not realistic optimism if you can't acknowledge your worries and troubles.

    "But I find that good romance reminds me of that - that happy endings are real."

    Yes, I think it can make it easier to cope with the difficulties in life when one has reminders like that of the hopeful, happy emotions.

    Eva, I haven't read any Seligman. I probably should, but there are so many books in my to-be-read pile already.... Maybe I'll get round to it sometime. Or maybe Eric will write in more detail about his hunch and then he'll condense Seligman's ideas for me ;-)

    I'm glad you liked this post.

    "I don't suppose there are many research grants to be had for looking hard at some of the people in their 90s who are still compos mentis, able to get around and look after themselves, and generally live their lives"

    Tigress, why do I get the impression there's someone in your family you might like to volunteer as a research subject? ;-)

    I did read something just the other day about life expectancy increasing which did mention this age group, though it didn't mention happiness:

    "More than half of babies now born in the UK and other wealthy nations will live to 100 years, researchers say.

    The study, published in The Lancet journal, also says the extra years are spent with less serious disability.

    Data from more than 30 developed countries shows that since 1950 the probability of surviving past 80 years of age has doubled for both sexes. [...]

    Danish research had shown that as many as 30% to 40% of individuals were independent from the ages of 92 to 100.

    And a study of US super-centenarians (age 110 to 119 years) showed that, even at these advanced ages, 40% needed little assistance or were independent.
    " (BBC)

    Janet it seems a bit of a pity your "infrequent blogger" is "making a round the world trip with his wife," because otherwise maybe you could have persuaded him to come and leave a comment on this thread. I know, I should do what Eva's done and just read Seligman for myself ....

    "by the dint of hard work and persistence, if nothing else"

    Kathleen, that rings true to me about the ones I've read. Her characters end up happy, but they mostly have to overcome quite a bit to get there.

    "I have certainly found this to be true."

    Thanks, CM, it's good to have additional confirmation that Vanessa's ideas really do work in real life.

  8. I don't know if quite explicit comments about happiness and learned optimism are really very frequent in the genre, or if I've just been sensitised to them by thinking about the topic, but I found the following in a short story by Eileen Wilks:

    Stupid question. "Why me?" questions always were. She knew that, just as she knew how inevitable those feelings were when life turned topsy-turvy. After the accident she'd been hit by multiple bouts of "why me." Eventually she'd accepted that she wasn't to blame, but neither was she exempt from random tragedy. (147)


    If, if, if. "If only" won't get supper on the table, Grandfather used to tell her. Can't start from where we wish we were. That was what he'd said when she lost her parents and he lost his only child. Start from where you are, or you don't start. (148)

    and then I came across this in Patricia Briggs' Cry Wolf:

    Being a werewolf had taught her - among other things - to ignore the past, live in the present, and not think too much about the future. It worked, too, as long as the present was bearable. (35)

    Briggs, Patricia. Cry Wolf. London: Orbit, 2009.

    Wilks, Eileen. "Inhuman." On the Prowl. New York: Berkley, 2007. 73-187.

  9. I enjoyed this post for a number of reasons. Firstly, it chimes with me on a personal level. We all know that happiness isn't merely a state that you drift in and out of depending on your objective circumstances. Some people have a talent for happiness, and there is an element of will involved too (at least in a person who is not, for example, suffering from depression)

    Secondly, your post helps explain why I love Balogh's really quite understated books (something I've thought about a lot given my general reading preferences). As other commenters have mentioned, many Balogh characters have views that are *like* Vanessa's views. Even quite melancholy characters, like Anne Jewel and Sydnam Butler from Simply Love have positive behaviour, that helps them achieve their HEA.

    As regards centurions, I seem to recall reading a newspaper piece a year or two ago that said that common traits among long-lived people included a positive outlook on life and a propensity for laughter, amongst other things.

  10. This is my second time reading your blog and what a great post! I'm storing up some of these arguments in my head for when someone chastises me for reading such unrealistic romance novels.

    I saw Balogh's First Comes Marriage in great condition at my library's book sale today. Now I'm kicking myself for not picking it up! I haven't read a Balogh in quite some time and reading those quotes reminded me of how great a writer Balogh is.

  11. Here's a Q&A from the Mary Balogh yahoo group on her still to be re-released books:

    Q: You've said there are some of your earlier books for which you now own the rights, but which you wouldn't care to see reprinted (for whatever reason). Since you own the rights, would you consider licensing them for Kindle?

    MB: I can't just make the decision to release any of my books whenever and however I choose. There are contracts to discuss and sign and obligations to publishers with whom I currently have contracts. There are all sort of other things to consider--like flooding the market with too many books. Through my agent I am working to have as many of the old titles back on the market as quickly and effectively as
    possible. I hope that eventually they will all be out again.

    Q: Perhaps you've already answered this, but when's the Julia/Clara/ Harriet trio being re-released?

    MB: They are not included in the current 10-book contract. But they are at the head of my list for the next group. Those contract talks are due in September, 2010

  12. When I was ten, my aunt (then just about 40) married a man who, unbeknownst to her, had fallen in love with her 15 years earlier but waited until two years after his wife died to find the love of his life. *sigh* Such a romantic story for a fat little girl in an unhappy household!

    When I was 42, I married the man I'd fallen in love with 20 years earlier. We had a great marriage, and then we divorced amicably because our happy marriage had made it possible for each of us to be even happier apart. I then married the love of my life, whom Hub 1.0 had introduced me to a decade earlier, and all three of us are good friends.

    Yup -- two HEAs in one lifetime. You don't get that by believing in limitations. But I also don't think you get there through Pollyanna-ish thinking, either. I have no idea what works for anyone else, but for me the examined life has been essential.

    What has been funny to observe, though, are people's cartoonish reactions to the concept of a happy marriage ending because it succeeded. I finally gave up trying to get people to understand -- it either made sense or it didn't, and their minds were either open enough or they weren't. People have to find their own roads to happiness; I don't think Google Maps works for that journey.

  13. What a fantastic, thoughtful post! I absolutely agree with everything here. It makes me think of that old maxim, "you become what you meditate on."

    Oddly, I always say that my life has improved since I got heavy into romance novels. I'd often suspected it was because I stopped looking only for edification in my reading and started valuing pleasure, but this line of thinking of yours adds an interesting dimension to it all.

  14. "there is an element of will involved too (at least in a person who is not, for example, suffering from depression)"

    Tumperkin, there can still be an "element of will involved" when one has depression. Depends how severe it is, but Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which I referred to in my post, has been found useful in treating depression. The NHS's National Institute for Clinical Excellence recommends that for mild depression "Psychological treatment specifically focussed on depression such as brief cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) of 6–8 sessions over 10–12 weeks (low intensity) should be considered." According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, "CBT has been shown to help with many different types of problems. These include: anxiety, depression, panic, phobias (including agoraphobia and social phobia), stress, bulimia, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and psychosis."

    "I'm storing up some of these arguments in my head for when someone chastises me for reading such unrealistic romance novels."

    I hope it helps, Mingqi. At very least it might surprise them, and perhaps it would make them think about the genre in a new way.

    Janet, it seems to me that you're demonstrating realistic optimism about the possibility of more of Mary Balogh's backlist being re-released. ;-)

    "I also don't think you get there through Pollyanna-ish thinking, either. I have no idea what works for anyone else, but for me the examined life has been essential."

    Magdalen, it sounds as though you've found what works for you and makes you happy. But I'm not entirely sure you're being fair to Pollyanna. Admittedly it's been a long, long time since I read the books about her, so I could be wrong about this, but I have the impression that she did examine her life. She played the "glad game" but sometimes she had a hard time finding anything to be glad about, precisely because she wasn't in denial about the sad/difficult aspects of her life.

  15. "I'd often suspected it was because I stopped looking only for edification in my reading and started valuing pleasure, but this line of thinking of yours adds an interesting dimension to it all."

    Carolyn, Alan Boon (of Mills & Boon) once said that "It has been said that our books could take the place of valium, so that women who take these drugs would get an equal effect from reading our novels" (McAleer 2). It seems to me that the people making the comparison between romances and anti-depressants have maybe been acknowledging the way that romance can make people happier, but they've tended to put a rather derogatory spin on it by insisting that this kind of self-medication only produces a temporary, unrealistic kind of happiness.

    The quotes in Balogh's novel, however, and statements to be found in other romances which seem to give advice on positive, yet realistic, thinking, seem to me to suggest that romances may be more like CBT, in that they help a person examine, and then change, their thinking about issues and their approach to them, in a way which doesn't leave the reader at risk of an "addiction" (that seems to be another word that's quite often used when romance readers are being discussed in pitying tones) to the genre.


    Since we are talking about mental health, and since we're exploring this in a way which goes beyond the merely metaphorical, I feel I should add that there are times when anti-depressant medications can be very helpful, and I wouldn't want to suggest that everyone could suddenly get happy if only they'd read romances or undergo CBT.

    McAleer, Joseph. Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.