The Power Of Negative Thinking

Oliver Burkeman deconstructs self-help books in his recently released, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. In an interview with NPR he describes his approach to human flourishing:

I think the premise from which I start is this idea that … relentless positivity and optimism is exactly the same thing as happiness; that the only way to achieve anything worthy of the name of happiness is to try to make all our thoughts and feelings as positive as possible, to set incredibly ambitious goals, to visualize success, which you get in a million different self-help books. Whereas, actually, there's a lot of research now to suggest that many of these techniques are counterproductive, that saying positive affirmations to yourself in the mirror can make you feel worse and that visualizing the future can make you less likely to achieve it. And so what I wanted to do in this book was to explore what I ended up calling 'the negative path to happiness,' which involves instead turning toward uncertainty and insecurity, even pessimism, to try to find a different way that might be more durable and successful.

In a separate interview, Burkeman touches on the history of negative thinking, going back to Seneca and the Stoics:

There’s a wonderful Stoic technique called “the premeditation of evils”, which involves deliberately visualising the worst-case scenario, instead of the best one. One benefit of that is that you replace limitless panic and fear – which is how we often respond to problems – with a sober analysis of exactly how badly things could go wrong. The answer might still be “really bad” – but not infinitely bad, as the Stoic-influenced psychotherapist Albert Ellis would say. That’s something I put into practice every day, and find helpful.

Edith Zimmerman asked Burkeman whether people can really change. His answer:

[T]he go-to fridge-magnet quote here is from Carl Rogers: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Positive thinking demands that you change unwelcome thoughts and feelings. Whereas it seems to me that something like Buddhist meditation, and some modern forms of therapy, are focused much more on learning to observe thoughts and feelings without giving in to the urge to try to manipulate them. So that’s the paradox: perhaps the best change you can make is resisting the compulsion to change.