Use Follies as a springboard for community enthusiasm

10 Apr 2009 - 6:15pm

Special to the Bonanza, by Ed Gurowitz

Ed Gurowitz

Ed Gurowitz

Tough times notwithstanding, it’s hard not to be optimistic after attending the Incline Star Follies.

It’s silly — an amateur hour of local people in outlandish costumes, dancing with varying degrees of imprecision and lip-syncing to loud music in a showroom that is a shadow of its former self.

It’s a group of people — adults and children — having the time of their lives working their tails off to support our schools, and having such an infectious good time that you can’t help but enjoy it.

This being Incline, I’m sure there are people who subscribe wholeheartedly to the first view — fortunately those folks don’t come to the show and spoil it for the rest of us.

I think Star Follies has an importance to this community that goes beyond what it does for the schools. Since the early 90s, a group of writers, researchers and educators has been re-examining the profession of psychology’s focus on pathology and trying out the study of what can go right with people and institutions. These thinkers don’t claim to have invented anything new or created a new profession; rather they distinguish themselves by their perspective. The value of positive psychology lies in its uniting of what had been scattered and disparate lines of theory and research about what makes life most worth living, according to Dr. Martin Seligman, a leader of the movement.

This research suggests that optimism actually affects the quality of our lives. Not an unquestioning, “glass half-full” positive thinking, but a healthy optimism, grounded in reality. Not being Pollyanna and thinking everything is wonderful, but making the best of things that happen. To use Star Follies as an example, we can bemoan funding cuts to the schools, blame the government and the economy and be unhappy, or we can seize the opportunity to create a great community event, have a lot of fun, make new friends and raise a bunch of money in the process. Does that make it right or OK that the schools are underfunded? Of course not. But it gives us something positive we can do in the face of an unpleasant situation.

To use a formula developed by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, a positive psychologist at Harvard, we can give ourselves permission to be human — to be unhappy about the situation, to feel powerless. Then we can reconstruct the situation — glean learnings from it and search it for opportunities. Then we keep it in perspective — look at how the problem fits into the great scheme of things with respect to the quality of our lives, and, in the case of Star Follies, shift our perspective from “the state and federal governments should do something” to “we as a community can do something on our own.” PRP — Permission, Reconstruction, Perspective — is at the heart of positive psychology.

I think we’re ripe for a revolution in our perspective. Whatever the economic factors, one thing that got us through the Great Depression was American optimism. Optimism became unfashionable after that, for some reason. It came to be called boosterism and cheerleading.

As the country got more “sophisticated” after World War II, as the pseudo-sophistication of pessimism came into vogue, optimism came to be seen as naïve and “Midwestern.” As much as we may make fun of the French with their veneer of boredom and existential angst, their relationship to the world became our model, at least for those of us who wanted to appear “smart.” Optimism was relegated to the realm of the quaint, and as early as 1949 in South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein poked fun at the “cockeyed optimist, immature and incurably green”

Well, maybe we lost something in “growing up” as a country, and maybe a lot of the ills and malaise of our culture are the national equivalent of a depressive neurosis.

Maybe being “stuck like a dope with a thing called hope” is not such a bad thing. In fact, research in positive psychology shows that pessimism may put people at risk for chronic physical and mental illnesses and an earlier death than their optimistic counterparts.

So let’s give ourselves permission to be human — scared, worried, discouraged; let’s reconstruct — rather than hoping against hope that things will get back to where they were, let’s look for a reset to a more reasonable, sane level; and let’s keep things in perspective — we live in the most beautiful place on earth, we are alive and thriving and we have in our midst people like the producers, directors, cast and crew of Star Follies who are working to make our community a better place and not waiting for “them” to fix it.

Ed Gurowitz has a doctorate in psychology and is a management consultant. He has lived in Incline Village since 1995 and is active in the Democratic Party. He can be reached for comment at egurowitz@gurowitz.com. His columns can be found at www.egurowitz.blogspot.com.

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