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.

Positive thinking

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.

He even dedicates a chapter to Memento Mori, and Mexican rituals and customs that encourage regular reflections on mortality. And, he agrees with psychologist Ernest Becker, who argues that religions, political movements, national identities, charitable activity and artistic pursuits are a search for immortality.

The book is, well, an antidote for anyone sceptical of the power of positive thinking. “There is an appetite for this perspective. It resonates with people and it’s satisfying for me to put into words something that people have already been thinking about,” says Burkeman, who traces the origins of positive thinking to 19th century America and a quasi-religious movement known as New Thought.

This was a reaction to the dominant gloomy message of American Calvinism which believed in relentless hard work.

As a parent, I found he had a fascinating take on self-esteem and perfectionism. The latter, he says, is a fear-driven striving to avoid the experience of failure at all costs.

And on self-esteem, he quotes the theories of psychologist, Paul Hauck:

“Inculcate high self-esteem in your children and you will be teaching them arrogance, conceit and superiority – or alternatively, when their high self-esteem falters, guilt, depression and feelings of inferiority and insecurity.”

Instead, he recommends you focus on performing good acts and leave your personality out of it.

Wasted energy

And, while positive thinking still permeates much of psychology today, Burkeman has found psychiatrists and psychologists who don’t subscribe to it. The early 20th century Japanese psychologist, Shoma Morita was one.

“People . . . think that they should always like what they do, and that their lives should be trouble-free. Consequently, their mental energy is wasted by their impossible attempts to avoid feelings of displeasure or boredom,” she wrote.

And while there are lots more stories in the book worth writing about (such as the American museum of failed consumer products, how aviation security is a charade), it is interesting to see that Burkeman concludes by giving the reader some nuggets of how the research experiences influenced his own life.

He now meditates for five or 10 minutes most mornings, takes what he refers to as a “stoic pause” to deal with moments of irritation or fury about heavy traffic, annoying colleagues, burnt food, whatever . . . and, perhaps most importantly, he points out, “in friendship and in my relationship with my girlfriend, I came to understand more deeply that happiness and vulnerability are often the same thing”.

The Antidote – happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking by Oliver Burkeman (Canongate Books) is out in paperback.