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Gus Cairns
Published: 01 September 2009

“I disagree with arguing whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. The point is it’s the same glass.”

Who’s right about the state of the world? The sunny optimists who greet every reversal with a smile and a chorus of “Things will only get better”? Or the grumpy pessimists who, while never happy, will never be disappointed?

As psychotherapist Tom Warnecke says in our piece on positive psychology and the art of happiness (Walking back to happiness), it’s not about arguing whether life is a bowl of cherries or a vale of tears. It’s about whether your mental attitude is working for you.

Studies show that an optimistic attitude towards life and the future brings good health and a better quality of life. In the case of people with HIV, researchers have chosen typically to measure our depression rather than our happiness, and there’s good evidence that unhappiness and anxiety impact negatively on our health.

So developing ‘happiness skills’ might especially benefit HIV-positive people. It’s not that having HIV has to be inevitably depressing. It’s more to do with the way that living with the virus can be so medicalised and politicised that we stop smelling the roses along the way.

Even good news in the world of HIV tends to be presented as a triumph over overwhelming odds and looming disaster, and there is always something new and terrible to get angry about. HIV treatment programmes in Africa are starting to have a sizeable positive impact on public health (see HIV treatment is working in Africa. Will it be sustained?). Fantastic news. So what do we AIDS activists do? Get furious because people aren’t getting CD4 and viral load tests.

What a struggle. But life is about more than a disease one happens to have. Can we also start cultivating the art of living life as if it were fun?

Speaking of which, people sometimes talk about something they enjoy being “the most fun you can have with your clothes on”. This hints at the fact that, for many people, the most fun they have usually involves sex.

People with HIV sometimes have to battle against disapproval from others or conquer their own feelings of unworthiness and unattractiveness in order to get sex and enjoy it.

For women with HIV, the social attitude seems to be that ideally, they shouldn’t have sex at all. If they do, they absolutely must use a condom and deserve to be prosecuted if they don’t.

This is why Roger Pebody’s piece about contraception for women with HIV (Contraceptive choices for women with HIV) is quietly revolutionary. It acknowledges that there are HIV-positive women out there who do have sex and might just be doing it for pleasure and love, not only because they want a kid, thank you very much. They might be having sex because it makes them happy. There’s a revolutionary idea. However you achieved it, we hope you had a happy summer.

Issue 189: August/September 2009

This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.