Aug 07 / Simcha

The Power of Negative Thinking (O. Burkeman)

In a recent New York Times piece, Oliver Burkeman, author of the forthcoming book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, takes a look at the recent event in San Jose, CA, called Unleash the Power Within, starring motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Twenty-one people, committed to the belief of Mr. Robbins and his acolytes that “it’s all a matter of mind-set: cultivate the belief that success is guaranteed, and anything is possible,” were treated for burns after walking barefoot over hot coals.  The following is a selection from Burkeman’s piece.

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Psychologists at the University of Waterloo have concluded that affirmative statements and cheery slogans (such as “I am a lovable person!” “My life is filled with joy!”) that are intended to lift the user’s mood by repeating them, in fact, make people with low self-esteem feel worse — not least because telling yourself you’re lovable is liable to provoke the grouchy internal counterargument that, really, you’re not.

Even goal setting, the ubiquitous motivational technique of managers everywhere, isn’t an undisputed boon. Fixating too vigorously on goals can distort an organization’s overall mission in a desperate effort to meet some overly narrow target, and research by several business-school professors suggests that employees consumed with goals are likelier to cut ethical corners.

Though much of this research is new, the essential insight isn’t. Ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, optimism with pessimism, a striving for success and security with an openness to failure and uncertainty. The Stoics recommended “the premeditation of evils,” or deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario. This tends to reduce anxiety about the future: when you soberly picture how badly things could go in reality, you usually conclude that you could cope. Besides, they noted, imagining that you might lose the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy increases your gratitude for having them now. Positive thinking, by contrast, always leans into the future, ignoring present pleasures.

Buddhist meditation, too, is arguably all about learning to resist the urge to think positively — to let emotions and sensations arise and pass, regardless of their content. It might even have helped those agonized firewalkers. Very brief training in meditation, according to a 2009 article in The Journal of Pain, brought significant reductions in pain — not by ignoring unpleasant sensations, or refusing to feel them, but by turning non-judgmentally toward them.

From this perspective, the relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity. Mr. Robbins’s trademark smile starts to resemble a rictus. A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t. You can try, if you insist, to follow the famous self-help advice to eliminate the word “failure” from your vocabulary — but then you’ll just have an inadequate vocabulary when failure strikes.

The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has persuasively argued that the all-positive approach, with its rejection of the possibility of failure, helped bring on our present financial crises. The psychological evidence, backed by ancient wisdom, certainly suggests that it is not the recipe for success that it purports to be.

And also….. it really isn’t such a good idea to walk on hot coals.

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See also:  Rethinking Positive Emotion