Jul 28

Positive Thinking: Not As Great As You’d Hope

Several authors who’ve studied the effects of positive thinking conclude it’s not always so great. On the other hand, negative thinking can be!

I. Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation (2014)

Author Gabrielle Oettingen‘s main thesis is summed up by her publisher: Starry-eyed dreaming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and as it turns out, dreamers are not often doers.

Not that the dreaming part isn’t important—Oettingen’s own scientifically devised visualization technique does make good use of it. Called Mental Contrasting (with Implementation Intentions), it’s otherwise known as the first three steps (of four) of her WOOP—Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan—system.

From her website:

…The Wish, Outcome, and Obstacle part of WOOP build nonconscious associations between future and reality and between the obstacles and the actions to overcome the obstacles. These associations provide energy and foster the mastery of set-backs. The Plan-part of WOOP further helps to overcome difficult obstacles by strengthening the association between obstacles and actions even more.

II. Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (2009) by  Barbara Ehrenreich

As described by New York Magazine writer Kera Bolonik, this book “…was initially inspired by her resistance to the cancer-gives-my-life-meaning trope, which was inflicted on her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. She found that insistent, blind optimism is deeply ingrained in our nation’s psyche, especially in the realms of finance and national security.”

Ehrenreich’s book takes on subject matter that potentially divides many in the mental health field. There are those therapists who regularly advocate affirmations and the type of positive thinking that Ehrenreich calls “delusional” thinking; and there are those (of us) who prefer helping clients learn how to develop more rational thinking versus positive thinking.

III. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (2012) by Oliver Burkeman

Negative thinking helps! Burkeman’s book “explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection.” More from the publisher:

The Antidote is a series of journeys among people who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. What they have in common is a hunch about human psychology: that it’s our constant effort to eliminate the negative that causes us to feel so anxious, insecure, and unhappy. And that there is an alternative ‘negative path’ to happiness and success that involves embracing the things we spend our lives trying to avoid. It is a subversive, galvanizing message, which turns out to have a long and distinguished philosophical lineage ranging from ancient Roman Stoic philosophers to Buddhists. Oliver Burkeman talks to life coaches paid to make their clients’ lives a living hell, and to maverick security experts such as Bruce Schneier, who contends that the changes we’ve made to airport and aircraft security since the 9/11 attacks have actually made us less safe. And then there are the ‘backwards’ business gurus, who suggest not having any goals at all and not planning for a company’s future…

Presented in the magazine Psychologies, here are four ways Burkeman advises using negative thinking. (The parentheticals below are my own paraphrasing of the explanations given in the article.)

  1. Focus on the worst-case scenario, not the best. (You get a clearer idea of what you’re actually worried about.)
  2. Don’t fall victim to “goalodicy.” (That’s the pursuit of idiotic goals.)
  3. Follow a compass, not a map. (A map represents too much rigidity.)
  4. Trying too hard to feel upbeat can make you miserable. (You don’t have to be wonderful in order to accept yourself.)


Aug 14

Self-Help Books That Aren’t Typical

Selected quotes from five different self-help books that offer advice in an atypical way. Not all self-help is about rosy and positive thinking. Self-help can also be down to earth.

I. Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich, 2009.

There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.

What would it mean in practice to eliminate all the ‘negative people’ from one’s life?…Purge everyone who ‘brings you down,’ and you risk being very lonely, or, what is worse, cut off from reality.

Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.

II. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman, 2012.

And here lies the essential between Stoicism and the modern-day “cult of optimism.” For the Stoics, the ideal state of mind was tranquility, not the excitable cheer that positive thinkers usually seem to mean when they use the word, “happiness.” And tranquility was to be achieved not by strenuously chasing after enjoyable experiences, but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one’s circumstances.

True security lies in the unrestrained embrace of insecurity – in the recognition that we never really stand on solid ground, and never can.

A person who has resolved to “think positive” must constantly scan his or her mind for negative thoughts – there’s no other way that the mind could ever gauge its success at the operation – yet that scanning will draw attention to the presence of negative thoughts.

III. Psychobabble: Exploding the Myths of the Self-Help Generation by Stephen Briers, 2012.

It’s not that he’s opposed to self-help books—he just wants us to be more thoughtful and aware of what we’re being asked to swallow. Moreover, he doesn’t want us to fall for the oft-perpetrated self-help lie that life doesn’t have to be a struggle. Or for psychobabble.

Briers lists the top five myths of self-help books on New Humanist. They’re listed below :

1. The root of all your problems is low self-esteem.

2. You can control your life.

3. You can never be too assertive.

4. You should let your feelings out.

5. We must all strive to be happy.

IV. F*ck Feelings: One Shrink’s Practical Advice for Managing All Life’s Impossible Problems by Michael Bennett, MD, Sarah Bennett,  2015.

Put doing good over feeling good, and you will get good results.

Accept that there are some losses that never stop hurting, so you can stop delving into them, get used to living with a heavy heart, and try to build a better life.

Working hard at managing love doesn’t mean becoming supremely unselfish and generous in a totally unconditional, nonjudgmental way; it means becoming very judgmental about what you can expect from people and yourself and putting conditions on whom you allow yourself to get close to, love be damned.

V. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson, 2016.

Unhealthy love is based on two people trying to escape their problems through their emotions for each other—in other words, they’re using each other as an escape. Healthy love is based on two people acknowledging and addressing their own problems with each other’s support.

Don’t just sit there. Do something. The answers will follow.

The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.

VI. You are a Badass (Deluxe Edition): How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero, 2017.

If you’re serious about changing your life, you’ll find a way. If you’re not, you’ll find an excuse.

What other people think about you has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.

Making a big fat deal out of anything is absurd. It makes much more sense to go after life with a sense of, “Why not?” instead of a furrowed brow. One of the best things I ever did was make my motto “I just wanna see what I can get away with.”

Interested in any of the above self-help titles? Click on the various links for further info.