The headline was enough to spark my interest: The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.
Is that a sign of heresy these days? Exhibiting negativity, and even extolling it?
Then again, I believe in the negative power of positive thinking – in certain circumstances.
As one who practices pragmatism and what I consider “moderated optimism,” I was drawn to Oliver Burkeman’s article in The New York Times, where he takes potshots at our pop cultural propensity for positive thinking.
You know the sort I mean, or the sort Mr. Burkeman means:
…cultivate the belief that success is guaranteed, and anything is possible…
So what if we were to dismantle the naiveté of this mindset, or at least to illustrate that it isn’t globally valid? Might the article’s reference to incidents of walking over a bed of hot coals (yielding badly burned feet) be sufficient to convince you?
Mr. Burkeman offers a variety of examples of well entrenched positive thinking programs in contemporary life, including team-building exercises and Robbins-esque seminars. He also presents credible psychological findings showing that negative thinking can result in a better outcome.
Citing specific research, the author points out:
Though much of this research is new, the essential insight isn’t. Ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, optimism with pessimism, a striving for success and security with an openness to failure and uncertainty.
Admitting to Struggle, Admitting to Failure
If we never admit to struggle or failure, how do we face our mistakes and learn from them? How do we enlist assistance? How do we find the desire – at times the desperate desire – to get back up and keep on fighting?
Mr. Burkeman goes on to say:
… telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t.
Poor preparation, indeed. To me, admitting to life’s challenges is essential if we are to express the reality of an authentic life – the reality of human experience with its ups and downs.
Definitions of Success and Failure
For many in these economic times, life is a struggle. For many, family issues or health issues require extraordinary feats of everyday heroism.
Does positive thinking help these courageous and persevering individuals, or is positivity one more “must do” on a tiring checklist? Is the brave face they maintain the only means to be accepted in a broader social setting? Why must we judge those who honestly express suffering or the consequences of their failures – insisting instead that they spin it to suit our Success Culture?
Then again, why do we assume that “failure” is always personal – a matter of actions taken or actions omitted, and not some collective social failure in which we should all take ownership?
The Fallacy of Positive Denial
In another example of the destructive power of positive thinking (might I call this “the fallacy of positive denial?”), Mr. Burkeman writes:
The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has persuasively argued that the all-positive approach, with its rejection of the possibility of failure, helped bring on our present financial crises.
I readily concede that I put a positive spin on situations when it serves me to do so, but I’ve made my position clear that I believe we’ve created a Happiness Industry and it is a false god.
I will joyfully celebrate life’s surprisingly sweet moments. I will not sugar coat its harsh realities. All that can accomplish is to perpetuate problems, judge those who battle their consequences, and never open the discussion to possible solutions.
And I for one intend to purchase Mr. Burkeman’s upcoming book. Once again, the title incites (and delights) me: “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.”
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