Negative effects of positive thinking
A new book on living a happier life advocates embracing insecurity, uncertainty and even death, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON
New Year’s resolutions are a bad idea, according to New York-based journalist and writer on psychological matters, Oliver Burkeman.
“It’s widely recognised now that trying to make a raft of huge changes all at once is a bad way to go about it. Setting yourself tiny goals throughout the year rather than as a way to get motivated and transform your life completely is better,” he says.
Burkeman has gained a bit of a reputation for issuing advice through his weekly column for the Guardian’s Weekend magazine, This Column Will Change Your Life.
“It’s broadly about psychology and self-help; a critique of what works and what doesn’t.
“I write about the useful ideas and there’s a bit of open mockery about the rubbish and misleading stuff that’s out there,” explains the British graduate in social and political science turned feature writer.
Now Burkeman has gone one step further and written a book, The Antidote – happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking (Canongate Books). In it, he argues that positive thinking and relentless optimism aren’t the solution to happiness but part of the problem.
For the book, Burkeman sat in on an American business motivational seminar (in which George Bush contributed), met a modern-day stoic, took part in a six-day silent meditation retreat, travelled to the slums of Nairobi and Mexico City and interviewed psychologists who question the underlying culture of positive thinking.
He also digs deep into ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and Buddhism to find alternative approaches. But, thankfully, he writes in a light, often humorous style that is easy to read.
“I discovered that some kind of positive thinking is the most common problem about self-help approaches that don’t work. Trying to make your emotions or situations different to what they are will backfire,” he says.
“So I decided to investigate what would happen if, instead, you turn towards failure, insecurity and pessimism.”
Embrace our demons
When individuals set out to think positively, they must scan their minds for negative thoughts – the very thing that, Burkeman argues, will draw attention to all their negative thoughts. He quotes Aldous Huxley who said: “The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we will succeed.”
He concludes that the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable, and the converse – that struggling to escape your demons is what gives them power.
Instead, like the Stoics of Ancient Greece and many Buddhists, we must embrace insecurity, uncertainty and yes, even death, to live happier lives, Burkeman says.