Positive thinking can make you miserable
Exploring the dark side of happiness
“For a civilization so fixated on achieving happiness,” writes Oliver Burkeman, “we seem remarkably incompetent at the task.”
Why is that, and how can we gain some competence? Burkeman, author of the just-released book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, champions a modern psychological perspective that says too much positivity is a problem, not a solution.
The “backwards law” of happiness is neatly summed up in a metaphor from philosopher Alan Watts that appears as an epigraph in Burkeman’s book: When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float.
Our culture not only advertises happiness and contentment but very nearly insists on it. If you don’t drink the cultural Kool-Aid, you’re in desperate need of help, they tell us, and there’s a rich industry of motivational speakers and self-help publishers eager to have you drink up. Never mind that the people most likely to purchase a self-help book are those who bought one 18 months prior. Just keep buyin’ and tryin’.
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For many — not just the clinically depressed, but the chronically pensive — the Pollyanna positivism and you-can-do-it attitude doesn’t keep happiness afloat for long. Yet we’re still bombarded with the message that “there’s something terribly, terribly wrong with not feeling incredibly excited and cheerful every moment of the day," as Burkeman told NPR.
The author steeped himself in that happy-face culture while researching The Antidote and also traveled around the world to learn from cultures that aren’t so entangled in a positive bias. He deduced that relentless optimism is a pretty terrible path to happiness. The worst thing you can do is subscribe to a doctrine of positive thinking that demands you banish all sadness and disappointment rather than embrace negativity as half, or at least a necessary part, of life’s whole.
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“The negative path to happiness” seems like a radical concept but is in fact ancient. In the yin-yang of Buddhism, forces of shadow and light are co-reliant and interactive. One has no power or potential without the other.
“Positive thinking demands that you change unwelcome thoughts and feelings,” Burkeman told TheHairpin.com “[I]t 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.”
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