Oliver Burkeman: The Power of Negative Thinking

“Think Positive.”

That’s what magazines and friends advise us to do in order to cope with the stress of the holiday season.

That’s the same advice that Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, was dispensing six decades ago. It turns out that thinking positive might not be the best way to cope with our stress.

In The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman argues that we should explore an alternative to the “think positive” mantra: a counterintuitive approach that might be termed “the negative path to happiness.” The heart of this approach is to embrace uncertainty.

Burkeman writes in the WSJ:

This approach helps to explain some puzzles, such as the fact that citizens of more economically insecure countries often report greater happiness than citizens of wealthier ones. Or that many successful businesspeople reject the idea of setting firm goals.

Albert Ellis, who died in 2007, rediscovered a key insight of the Stoic philosophers: sometimes the best way to address the future is to focus on the worst-case scenario, not on the best.

Seneca the Stoic was a radical on this matter. If you feared losing your wealth, he once advised, “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ ”

To overcome a fear of embarrassment, Ellis told me, he advised his clients to travel on the New York subway, speaking the names of stations out loud as they passed. I’m an easily embarrassed person, so in the interest of journalistic research, I took his advice, on the Central Line of the London Underground. It was agonizing. But my overblown fears were cut down to size: I wasn’t verbally harangued or physically attacked. A few people looked at me strangely.

Just thinking in sober detail about worst-case scenarios—a technique the Stoics called “the premeditation of evils”—can help to sap the future of its anxiety-producing power. The psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy, which she terms “defensive pessimism.” Positive thinking, by contrast, is the effort to convince yourself that things will turn out fine, which can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn’t.

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.