Friday, June 22, 2012

The power of negative thinking?

I've been thinking about this video since yesterday.  I found it via Maria Popova's blog, Brain Pickings. It's the trailer for a book called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking.  It won't be out here in the U.S. until late fall, so I'm left to wonder about the author's thesis -- that the happiness we seek comes from embracing the negative -- without getting to read the book.  Always interesting.

Here's the video...check it out:

Part of me finds this concept scrumptiously brilliant.  The idea that constant positive thinking tricks your brain into thinking that you've already achieve the goal, thus keeping you from feeling the hunger that propels you forward to actually get stuff done, makes sense to me.  I've lived it. And he's right: I've read THOUSANDS of self-help/actualization/pep talk books, and they're like scarfing down a huge mound of ice good when you start, a bit overwhelming toward the middle, and by the end you just feel vaguely nauseous, a failure with no clear sense of what to do next.

For all the babble about "being not doing," it's doing that gets stuff done.

BUT, I think perhaps (again, I haven't read the book) he might swing too far in the opposite direction with his suggested embrace of negativity.  I don't want to "bathe in insecurity and uncertainty and failure in order to confront my mortality."  Not because I resist these things; they're part of life.  But I don't buy that I'll find "enormous potential for happiness" lurking therein, anymore than I believe that I can make myself more loved because I give myself a hug or say, "Wow Trish, you sure are beautiful!" in the mirror.  Attitude matters...but effort does, too.  (And self hugging is just plain silly.)

And yet, the idea of embracing uncertainty (rather than negativity) intrigues me.  In my experience, being okay with uncertainty (along with its fab partners risk & potential failure!) opens life up in interesting, unexpected ways.  It gives me permission to look at impossible circumstances and wonder what else might be possible. I don't have to pretend to know for sure that I'll succeed or declare my intentions to the universe.  I just have to start, try... and pray.

The idea of positive thinking comes from the Bible. But the distinction that's often lost in translation is that God wants us to have our absolute faith in Him, not ourselves, our human potential, or our decisions about the next grand adventure.  With absolute faith in God can come days and months (years even) of uncertainty.  We can freak out about this, or we can trust and keep asking, "Okay, this the mountain you want me to climb? Is today the day I should start?" 

If we ask, He'll answer. Not right away, necessarily.  There's still uncertainty around the details, which may be what this author is suggesting we make peace with.

All this said, I am SO EXCITED to read this book.  The trailer did exactly what it was designed me thinking about this book months ahead of time.  Nicely done, Mr. Burkeman!

What do you think of this idea that negative thinking has it's benefits?


kim said...

It seems particularly in the U.S., we swing the extremes from it's all about happiness or negativity (I say the U.S. b/c my European friends cringe at this kind of stuff) and often while leaving God out of the equation (which in my experience makes life feel hollow). These polarities seem to be an effort to deal with uncertainty and vulnerability (or in psychological terms defenses). I agree with what you said regarding embracing uncertainty. I once heard someone say one's quality of life is based on the ability to embrace uncertainty (something like that). In my new agey days I remember a line from a Pema Chodron book which said, we shouldn't indulge or repress our experience, rather we should let the energy of our experience puncture us (something like that). I actually like this idea as we don't have to jump on the happy or negative bandwagon, but just be in our experience. Of course doing this without God didn't get me very far.

Sarakastic said...

I don't remember where I heard this but in a study people who thought that weight loss would be easy actually were less successful than people who thought weight loss would be hard because the later group would really work for it. I've read a lot of positive thinking books too and thought that it would've been exactly the opposite. Finally my sarcasm comes in handy.

Craig Price said...

If you want to check out a book that deals with using negativity in positive ways, Half a Glass: The Realist's Guide, get it for free right now at It's not the typical rah-rah fluff but a more practical approach.