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The Power of Negative Thinking?

December 17, 2012

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CBC Books

What’s the secret to happiness? Many people are seeking an answer to that question, which has intrigued, frustrated and inspired philosophers, poets, writers and thinkers from the dawn of civilization.

oliver-burkeman-125.jpgBut in this day and age, with all our modern conveniences, medical advancements and longer life expectancies, people are still searching for the key to bliss. The self-help industry has become a multi-billion-dollar-a-year enterprise. According to Forbes magazine, Americans spent $11 billion in 2008 alone on self-improvement books, seminars and life coaching.  While the style of every self-help guru is different, author and Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman says the messages are usually quite similar: stay positive.

In his new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Burkeman explores society’s fixation on achieving happiness and argues that things like positive affirmations, intense goal-setting and avoidance of negative feelings actually have the effect of making people feel worse.

“There’s this idea, it’s not always stated as such, but there’s this idea that happiness is really the same thing as a constant state of excitement — very, very upbeat emotions,” Burkeman said on Q recently. “The kind of thing that actually probably irritates a lot of people around you when you’re in that state, and that actually takes an enormous amount of effort to maintain.”

Burkeman isn’t against all forms of positive thinking. He says that earlier positivity champions like Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie “were grounded somewhat in reality” by recognizing that staying optimistic is important but working hard is critical. But a newer generation of self-help writers, he says, are taking it to extremes, suggesting that nearly anything — from making millions of dollars to landing the partner of your dreams to even recovering from illness — just requires more positive thinking.

“[It’s this] complete detachment of the message from reality. So it really is just the idea that if you think the right thoughts, then that’s it, everything will follow. Oh, and by the way, if things go wrong it’s because you weren’t thinking the right thoughts.”

Goal setting, a popular life-planning strategy offered by self-help gurus, can be a valuable practice but only if a person doesn’t lose sight of everything else in their life, according to Burkeman.

“I think the basic problem with goal setting is [that] you take a specific aspect of your life, your wealth, how well you want to do in your professional life, you focus all your energies on maximizing that one thing, and you can never predict how it’s going to distort the other aspects of your life in achieving it.”

In the course of researching the book, he learned about people who had all-consuming goals of being millionaires by the time they were the age of 40. And although they succeeded, their health and relationships suffered. Is this truly the path to happiness, Burkeman asks.

antidote-happiness-book-110.jpg“We have this very great uncomfortableness with feelings of uncertainty, and the reason goals are so popular…is they make the feelings go away. You think, well I know how the future is going to turn out, because I’m going to achieve this ambitious target. There’s a lot to be said for being able to tolerate that uncertainty, to move forward without actually knowing exactly where you’re going to end up, and to exist alongside those feelings of uncertainty.”

Coming to terms with the negativity in your life, the worst-case scenarios, the fears you have, is often a better approach to finding contentment than painting your situations over with positivity, Burkeman says.

As part of his research, Burkeman spent some time in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, where life is tough and often cut short by violence or disease. Yet, as he observes, many of the residents appear to be happy. The people in Kibera can experience joy and sorrow like anyone else, but they’re always aware of the reality of their situation.

“I don’t mean for a second to suggest that they’re better off suffering in that way than people who don’t suffer in that way, but one thing they do have is they are denied the option of deludedly thinking that the next big house, the next pay raise, is going to solve all their problems,” Burkeman said.


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