Could positive thinking have negative outcomes? A specialist in social psychology has set out to investigate, writes Ainsleigh Sheridan
Many self-help books will tell you that wealth and health – or happiness of any definition – is just a matter of applying the right attitude and outlook.
But British journalist Oliver Burkeman, who specialises in reporting on social psychology, has written a book on how relentless positivity can be a negative.
Burkeman writes a weekly article, This Column Will Change Your Life for The Guardian, in which he challenges the self-help industry with rigour, yet humour.
So it is ironic to discover his latest book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, in the self-help section of bookshops.
“I’m resigned to this!” Burkeman jokes. “Actually, I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically bad about self-help, per se. The urge to seek out help from a book is a perfectly noble one and plenty of books that meet that urge are excellent ones.”
Rather, Burkeman’s intent is to show how a relentless focus on positive thinking can be counter-productive and actually obscure rationality and overlook opportunities.
“For me, the crucial point is about trying too hard to eliminate negativity. It’s often more fruitful to coexist with it and it can even be useful to harness it.”
The Polar Bear Challenge illustrates the point. The challenge is, for 60 seconds, to not think about a white bear. As Dostoyevsky wrote of the parlour game, “Try … not to think of a polar bear and … the cursed thing will come to mind every minute”.
Or, as Burkeman writes of this self-fulfilling prophecy, “a person who has resolved to ‘think positive’ must constantly scan … for negative thoughts … yet that scanning will draw attention to the presence of negative thoughts”.
Burkeman’s alternative to positivity is not a default to pessimism, but to accept thoughts and feelings such as uncertainty and insecurity, and to live with them.
It is a philosophy as old as philosophy itself, and Burkeman looks to a range of philosophers and thinkers, such as Stoics and Buddhists, to support his argument.
“They’re very different, but they both share this basic insight that if you’re feeling uncertain or anxious or sad, that doesn’t automatically mean there is something wrong in the world and you need to try to change it,” Burkeman says.
Goal-setting can be a way of trying to quell feelings of uncertainty, but a more Buddhist-influenced way might be to try letting them be; to coexist with them.
“Once you shift focus from trying to feel good about everything, you’re more empowered to act.”
Should management schools be teaching philosophy as business practice, then?
Burkeman says people “in most walks of life”, including management, would benefit from studying Stoicism and Buddhism. He thinks management’s esoteric nature exposes it to self-help “of the more spurious variety”.
“If you’re designing computer games or building dining tables or running a dairy, the information you want is, first and foremost, practical,” he says.
“While it’s obviously true there are many such practical aspects to business … there’s also a lot of room in fields like management for the belief that practices like goal-setting or ‘inspiring your people’ might be the key to success.”
“I’m certainly not saying that’s all useless but (to be aware of ) charlatans or even just well-meaning people with untested theories.”
Burkeman tested his theories with somewhat unusual methodologies: attending a motivational lecture, a week’s silent retreat, visiting slums and a cemetery. He also visited a “memorial to humanity’s shattered dreams”, The Museum of Failed Products in the US: a warehouse of botched goods nobody wanted to buy.
In the opening chapter, he admits to his “British” discomfort at the motivational lecture, surrounded by swooping spotlights, rock anthems and pyrotechnics.
The whole self-help industry, estimated to make $10 billion a year, is “heavily skewed” towards American writers and American ideas, Burkeman says.
“There are a handful of very British books mocking the whole idea of self- help, but I flatter myself I am doing something different than that in The Antidote.”
The book critiques positive thinking, exploring alternatives to what doesn’t work, rather than merely criticising it. In contrast to the ideas he critiques, The Antidote is not a grab bag of tricks or top tips on what to do, but a thoughtful reflection on positivity as a modern, rising trend.
Why is it rising? Is this striving for positivity a backlash to overwhelming, around-the-clock media exposure through mainstream and social channels?
“That sounds intuitively quite persuasive to me, that we are more and more exposed to reminders of how very fragile and insecure life is, and that we respond by trying even harder to deny that truth,” Burkeman says. “There’s a danger in taking the news as representative of daily life – of course, the news media is designed to find and bring us the most non-typical stories of the day – but overall I’d say we’d be better off looking that fragility in the face instead of trying to drown it out with positive thoughts.
“There’s also the problematically over-positive side of social media: the way you only see the highlights of your friends’ lives and conclude that they’re always that happy.”
Yet, having taken a dose of his medicine, Burkeman says he is happier.
“Not in some huge moment-of- realisation way, but in a multitude of smaller ways which are probably more sustainable and ultimately more powerful. It’s not that I never get irritated or sad or apathetic or distracted, but that when I do, I’ve got more ready access to tools and ways of thinking that mean it doesn’t last.”
His tools include meditation (“I’m far from the world’s most diligent meditator,” he admits, “but when I manage it, the difference in how the day unfolds is absolutely noticeable”) and setting “process” rather than “outcome” goals.
“The biggest insight for me, in writing this book, was a very Buddhist notion itself: that I didn’t have to psych myself into a state of ‘feeling like’ getting on with writing it every time I sat down to do so; that you don’t have to feel like doing something in order to do it.”
Still, the New York-based author is “constantly tweaking and experimenting with my methods of self-management” to combat the loneliness of long-form writing.
Writing is “fairly solitary work, so one of my most essential breakthroughs was renting a desk at Brooklyn Creative League, a co-working space. Having someone to talk to in the kitchen over coffee makes an astoundingly big difference”.