Trying to think your way to wealth and happiness? It may not have the intended effect.

Credit: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

The Power of Negative Thinking

April 20, 2013

Can optimism be a stumbling block on the road to happiness? Oliver Burkeman, author of "The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can't Stand Positive Thinking," shares his theory on the limits of optimism and the power of negative thinking.

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Maybe you’re an optimist — someone who tries to walk through life seeing the glass half full. When you encounter a setback, say the end of a relationship, you tell yourself that the experience isn’t that bad. And when you find success, like a promotion, you attribute the good fortune to the power of an optimistic life.

If this sounds like you, you might not like what Oliver Burkeman, author of "The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can't Stand Positive Thinking,” has to say. For years, Burkeman has approached what he calls the “happiness industry” — including everything from self-help books to motivational speakers — with a skeptic’s eye.

Beware motivational speakers like Tony Robbins who tell you that positive thinking is the only way to happiness, Burkeman says.
Photo Credit: jurvetson / Flickr Creative Commons

The Limits of Positivity

“There seems to be something about the human mind such that when you really focus on having a certain thought, it has the opposite effect,” Burkeman explains. “This all goes back to the old parlor game where you say to someone, ‘Can you not think about a polar bear for a whole minute?’ And of course when you try to do that, all you can think about is polar bears.”

It may have started as a parlor game, but the idea of thought subversion has borne out in psychological studies as well. People who suffer bereavement and try not to grieve take longer to recover from their sadness, Burkeman says. And repeating positive mantras may not help those with low self-esteem. In fact, it can make them feel worse.

“Over and over again you get this problem that if you really try to aim directly at happiness and positivity, the effort is actually a very stressful one, not a happy one, and it backfires,” he argues.

Burkeman doesn’t think that we should all just surrender to unhappiness, however. He just hopes we stop working towards it so single-mindedly because, as it turns out, we’re really bad at predicting the things that will make us happy. Warmer weather? A higher salary? Job security? These aren’t likely to bring you daily bliss.

“The things that we think will make us happy are not the things that make us happy. These things that bring certainty and security are not as happiness-inducing as we think,” Burkeman explains. “The things that are actually much more to do with uncertainty and unpredictability, like meeting new people, experiences and travel…relationships that go through downs as well as ups. These are the things that people look back on as far more fulfilling.”

Looking for happiness? Take a cue from the nation of Denmark.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Managing Expectations

So what’s the solution? How can we find happiness without looking for it? Burkeman suggests that we take a cue from Denmark, whose population reports a high rate of happiness. The secret to their emotional bliss is simple, he says — they just don’t expect that much. So whether reality exceeds their low expectations or merely matches them, they aren’t disappointed. 

Who knows — if you stop seeking happiness, you may find that it sneaks up on you without any conscious effort.

“There’s something about happiness that you can only glimpse out of the corner of your eye,” Burkeman explains. “Where you look back and say, ‘Oh, I was happy yesterday.’ But when you try really hard to be happy, it seems to defeat the purpose.”

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