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Negative Reality Norm Theory OR What's Wrong with Happy Endings?

Do you like happy endings? You know, the and-they-lived-happily-ever-after kind of endings? I don't like "sappy" endings but I like it when stories turn out well.

It's probably no surprise to hear that not everyone feels the same way. Movies with happy endings are often considered boring or unrealistic. Unless somebody dies, or even better, a whole lot of people die, or relationships are ended tragically, and people lose their jobs and the planet becomes uninhabitable except by mutant life forms it's just not a very good movie.

And then the country music industry would have died in its infancy if it hadn't been for songs where some guy loses his girlfriend, his dog, his truck and his bass boat. OK, maybe losing the bass boat is going too far, but you get my point.

I've always had a nagging sense that reality is more positive and hopeful than what many people think. I read something recently that gave me a glimmer of hope.

Carol Painter, a management consultant and corporate trainer in Sheffield, England, coined the phrase, Negative Reality Norm Theory. Describing it, she says, "An accurate picture of reality, according to our society, is considered to be a negative one. Society teaches us that to be positive is to be naive and vulnerable, whereas to be critical is to be informed, buttressed and sophisticated." She goes on to say, "In most cases, there is, in a complete picture of reality, far more good than bad."

In her excellent book, Time to Think, Nancy Kline argues that "reality requires a balanced perspective, including the positive truths about a person, group or situation. The mind needs this whole and accurate picture of reality in order to work well."

This is true when we're thinking about news and world events but it's especially true in relationships and that's where most of us can have the greatest influence.

If we are honest, most days, for most people, more things go right than wrong. It is not naive to notice that while tragic accidents happen, most people make it home safely every day. It is not naive to admit that most of the events in our days are relatively unremarkable and not very "newsworthy." More things go right for us than go wrong.

Still, we seem to be more susceptible to bad new than to good. Think for a minute about the last 10 complements you received. Can you remember them? I sure hope so. Now try to remember someone who criticized you. I bet that memory is still strong, even if it happened years ago. I vividly remember a teacher in junior high who told me that I would never amount to anything when I presented him with a paper transferring out of his class into another. I remember what he said and how it made me feel. Of course, it's possible that the verdict is still out on his prediction. :-)

And back to the topic of relationships. While it is true that we all do boneheaded things, more often than not, we do OK. We do even better when we're with people who recognize our "OK-ness." Others in our families and workplaces also respond when we recognize their positive natures. It is not naive to focus on what they do well. It's not naive, it's just being honest. We need not overlook or ignore their boneheaded acts. But a true picture of reality requires us to admit that more often than not, we do pretty well.

Writing in Psychology Today, Hara Mariano offers some thoughts on how to put this into practice.

Even couples who are volatile and argue a lot stick together by balancing their frequent arguments with a lot of demonstrations of love and passion. And they seem to know exactly when positive actions are needed.

Here's the tricky part. Because of the disproportionate weight of the negative, balance does not mean a 50-50 equilibrium. That magic ratio is five to one. As long as there was five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there was negative, researchers found, the marriage was likely to be stable over time.

Other researchers have found the same results in other spheres of our life. It is the frequency of small positive acts that matters most, in a ratio of about five to one. Occasional big positive experiences-say, a birthday bash-are nice. But they don't make the necessary impact on our brain to override the tilt to negativity. It takes frequent small positive experiences to tip the scales toward happiness.

So, the next time someone notices your optimistic disposition and accuses you of avoiding "reality", remember that there's more to the story. Don't be afraid to let the ending be a happy one.

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