Friday, May 15, 2009

Act as you would like to be

Certainly if there is any worldly talent worth cultivating, it's a sense of humor. To possess a cheerful outlook may be the greatest gift of the gods, the distant second best being a taste for irony. Such temperaments allow one to step back from painful situations and view them with a little detachment. Why else do we live, concluded Jane Austen, but "to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in return"? To the genial-spirited anything that happens can be shrugged off as yet another part of "life's rich pageant."

But how can one acquire such an upbeat attitude? In the same way we acquire all our habits--through practice. Psychologist William James discovered that if one pretended to be happy, this "going through the motions" would by itself lead to an improved mood. In other words: Act as you would like to be. It pays to picture the sort of character you present to the world. Do you want to be regarded as a whiner, a self-pitying hypochondriac, a man without backbone, a woman without pride? We all admire those who can control themselves, who--to use cliches--look on the bright side or possess a sunny disposition. The world, it's said, may be a tragedy for those who feel, but it can be a comedy, or at least of comedy of errors, for those who think.

--Michael Dirda, Book by Book: Notes of Reading and Life

6 comments:

J.S. Peyton said...

I completely agree with Dirda. Maintaining a sense of humor in the face of tragedy and hard-times is a very valuable trait I inherited from my mother. Our family has been known to have some of the worst luck ever so we've had to use our brand of humor many, many times. And it's worked too. Sometimes laughter is the only thing that keeps you from crying, ya know?

I've been meaning to read "Book by Book" for too long. I hope you're enjoying it!

SFP said...

I am enjoying it! I read Dirda's review of Jayne Anne Phillips' Lark and Termite--one of the most thought-provoking books I've read this year--a week or so back and he was so dead-on the money I knew I had to read more than an occasional changed-upon review by him.

I so wish more members of my family were able to develop a sense of humor that would see them through. . .

Lisa said...

Great quote! And I agree wholeheartedly. Although I'm not an AA person, I've always liked their concept of "acting as if" -- just manifesting the outward aspects of a way you want to be in the world can sometimes push you over into that zone. Bravery, humor, good grace -- they're not always immediately forthcoming, but they can be coaxed.

Now I want the Dirda book too. I do like him.

Jeanne said...

I find that, in a crisis, geniality is harder to achieve than hysterical laughter.

Jenny said...

Dirda's my favorite paid reviewer. Bound to Please has given me more wonderful recommendations than any other single source. I think I'll have to find this one, too.

Sarah said...

I love Michael Dirda's work. He writes so joyously and knowledgeably about books that you can't help but want to read EVERYTHING he mentions. Check his Classics for Pleasure if you haven't already.