I recently finished a book called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can?t Stand Positive Thinking by journalist Oliver Burkman. It’s a book which looks at something slightly controversial, how positive thinking can actually lead to us to become even more sad when life throws something unexpected and less awesome in our path. No matter how many positive thoughts we send out into the universe, life will still be outside of our control.
For someone who’s a control freak and would gladly like to make sure nothing bad ever happens, this book was actually something of a relief to read. It’s OK if things aren’t always awesome, it’s OK if you can’t handle life sometimes, it’s OK to have bad thoughts and hide under a duvet.
Image via Luisahr.
The book begins with a polar bear.
Try no to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.
The same goes for all those pesky negative thoughts. We try to suppress them. We’re told that they can even be harmful, since our thoughts supposedly become things. We’ve had several years of US new age philosophy telling us that if we only want something bad enough, if we can only stay focused and positive things will fall into our laps. That basically the universe revolves around us and our wishes. When I was younger I used to think this was pretty amazing. I don’t anymore.
In the US, which is a country filled with positivity gurus, churches and life coaches, people are unhappy.
Increased economic growth does not necessarily make for happier societies, just as increased personal income above a certain basic level, doesn’t make fore happier people. Nor does better education, at least according to some studies. Nor does an increased choice of consumer products. Nor do bigger and fancier homes, which instead seem mainly to provide the privilege of more space in which to feel gloomy, writes Burkeman.
Self-help books aren’t exactly helping either. Burkeman writes that some self-help publishers refer to something called the eighteen month rule, which states that the person most likely to purchase any self-help book is someone who, within the last previous eighteen months, purchased a self-help book.
Why are we so focused on happiness anyway, asks the book. Happiness itself has never been the goal of any major religions or philosophical movements. It’s only recently that we’ve become obsessed by being happy.
Burkman argues that it’s our struggle to feel happy that often makes us feel miserable. Instead of focusing on something we can’t force, we should embrace uncertainty, insecurity and failure. Or to quote sci-fi writer Aldous Huxley “the harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed”.
How happiness became compulsory
Where did all of this positive thinking come from anyway? Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her (excellent) book Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World that it all started as a reaction against Calvinism in the States in the nineteenth century.
John Calvin. Image via Wikipedia.
According to the Calvinists happiness was a bad thing, life should be full of toil and work and if you were really lucky (and had contemplated your sins a lot) you might end up in heaven (but that wasn’t a given because god had already decided who went where and nothing you did could change things). Perhaps not surprisingly this religion actually made people ill. The condition was called religious melancholy, or neurasthenia, and affected mainly women who became withdrawn and complained of various physical maladies.
Then New Thought came along and said man and god where the same and therefore thoughts could have an affect on the physical world, they were even able to heal. Now they couldn’t heal polio, but they were able to heal neurasthenia and suddenly lots of people started flocking to this new way of thinking. But instead of constantly having to examine their thoughts for any hint of sin, positive thoughts became obligatory to the believers. Negative thoughts became the path to illness and failure with only yourself to blame.
But what about visualisation?
Burkeman quotes some scientific studies that have shown that positive thinking and visualising a perfect future actually makes us less inclined to get there. Instead we relax into our everyday life thinking we’ve already achieved what we wanted to achieve and we stop doing the hard graft we need to do in order to get where we want to be. Compulsive positive thinking about the future also sets us up for a fall.
Reassurance can actually exacerbate anxiety: when you reassure your friend that the worst-case scenario he fears won’t occur, you inadvertently reinforce his belief that it would be catastrophic if it did. You are tightening the coil of his anxiety, not loosening it … But … when things go wrong, they’ll almost certainly go less wrong than you were fearing.
But it’s OK anyway. Life is life. We just have to make the best of it. And perhaps even more importantly we need to realise it’s not just about ourselves and our dreams, but about the people around us. It’s about finding contentment in each day. It’s about relaxing into it. And this is something I’m still learning.
Finally, in the chapter about stoicism, Burkeman writes:
If your strategy for happiness depends on bending circumstances to your will, this is terrible news: the best you can do i to pray that not all that much will go wrong, and try to distract yourself when it does. For the Stoics, however, tranquility entails confronting the reality of your limited control.