The Power of Negative Thinking

The zeal and zest of motivational speakers can both be inspirational and dispiriting. How is it possible that these people can be positive all the time? What are they eating for breakfast! Where do they buy their shoes from!
Motivational speakers (and others) seem paragons of happiness because they convey the illusion of permanent happiness . We all know that no one is happy all the time. The human disposition is on a sliding scale: sometimes we’re happy, other times we’re not. For the most part, we exist somewhere comfortably in the middle, and only question our state of happiness when someone questions us on it.
Ironically, people will only question your level of happiness when you do not look happy, or you do not meet an arbitrary standard of happiness. The fact that you must show the markers of happiness – such as beaming at everyone as you pass – to confirm your level of happiness is a modern day dilemma. You not only have to be happy but present the image of happiness.
To be happy and to present the image of happiness are two very different things. Motivational speakers present the image of happiness to an audience because it is their job to do so. The audience only see them in this contrived setting. If they were to follow the speaker home after the talk, they would most likely realise that they are no happier than themselves. The speaker would unlikely be as zesty as zealous as they had been previously on stage. They would just be themselves.
We all may not have smiled at colleagues at work, or people in shops, as we had not felt particularly upbeat at the time. This did not result in pangs of guilt and self-loathing, or in another person berating us for being remiss in our duties, or not being happy enough. No, none of these things happened. Life continued on. This is because no one expects anyone to be positive all the time because we all know life is characterised by its contrasts; its vicissitudes of good and bad times. To only focus on the good is to renounce the variety of your lived experience. We must embrace the full advent of our everyday experience.
Motivational speakers may skew the richness of our personalities by goading us into a narrow view of what our lived experience can and should look like. Those who proclaim that we could be happier apply a conditional standard to living. We could be happier if … we earned more, had a healthier diet, were in a long-term relationship etc. The danger with this formulation is that it rejects life as it is now, and only focuses on the future as it might be. There of course is no harm in being aspirational or wanting to better ourselves, but these ambitious should not efface our current circumstances. We instead must say to ourselves I am happy enough as we too might say I am healthy enough or I am rich enough.
It is inevitable that we will meet people who are healthier than us or richer than us, but so what? We are enough as we are. Much work on happiness and positive thinking is predicated on the idea that we could be better and that we’re not good enough as we are. It often encourages us to change who we are or to discard an older version of ourselves despite this version being the person we are now.
The positive changes offered in these books are along such lines as delaying instant gratification, differentiating long and short term goals, and reflecting and repeating patterns of behaviour that reinforce positive outcomes. Any work on happiness will provide these solutions, and then show through studies, graphs or personal anecdote how adopting these solutions have been instrumental in the betterment of people’s lives. The results will be immeasurable , they ironically exclaim, which is certainly true. Given that happiness is an abstract concept, it is difficult to draw a unanimous decision on what it even is, let alone to measure it against an objective standard . There is only an inter-subjective agreement that happiness constitutes X, Y and Z but this is hardly a science – and we all know that one person’s happiness is often at a far remove from another’s despite Tolstoy stating that ‘happy families are all alike.’
These books on positive thinking will also inevitably be coloured by confirmation bias, in that the writers will be drawn to research that confirms the view of happiness that they wish to present in their book. Any counter-argument – such as that negative thinking is as beneficial as positive thinking – will most likely be given short shrift.
Now, no one would argue that the initiatives presented above would not play a positive role in enhancing one’s happiness. However, adamantly focusing only on heightening ones’ happiness can also have the adverse effect. You may reflect so much on what constitutes your happiness that you fail to just be happy or happy enough as you are. Further, by acknowledging the negatives as well as the positives, we may develop empathy for others who also, like ourselves, live a life of ups and downs. We may accept ourselves as we are in the moment rather than anticipating a future period of time where we have envisaged that we will be happier. We may realise and accept that the tundra of emotions that characterise our lived experiences is exactly what it means to be human.
It often comes as a shock when it is revealed in the news that a famous celebrity is in an unhappy marriage or is on medication for depression. With all that money and fame, how can that be, the public often exclaim. It is clear that no amount of cash, good looks or stardom will stall the occasional onset of negative thoughts. It actually is more likely that these bounties will trigger these thoughts given the anxiety that may result from precariously holding on to these ephemeral treasures.
Of course, having huge amounts of money – or even a better socioeconomic staring point in life – can serve as a buffer against the negativity of the world. But to assume that money (or anything else) will result in the eradication of negative thoughts is naïve. Conversely, much religion and philosophy espouses that we are happiest when we acknowledge our suffering, and is a driver to us being better humans. The image of Christ on the cross, for example, motivates believers to be more loving to themselves and others.
It may even be said that negative thinking is more universal. There is an overlap in negative thinking which can be shown in how people love to grumble and moan about trivial issues. More seriously, those who do not acknowledge their negative thoughts (and suffering) may fail to recognise these thoughts in other people, and become more aloof and dismissive in their behaviour. Those who are happy may see others that intrude upon their happiness as killjoys or mood killers rather than realising that they can often be that person too. Acknowledging the negative thoughts that reside in us all can therefore actually make us into better people. As a recent study in The Atlantic shows, those people who saw sad videos showed more generosity to their partners after in an allocation game than did those people who preceded the game with a happy video.*
Being in touch with our negative thoughts can also provide us with the best opportunities to grow and develop. They can empower us to orient ourselves through a world that will not always be sugar-coated. Whereas a sole focus on the positive can blindside us to the full scope of life and actually result in a sharper swing to the negative if we have not already embraced it and become secure in its presence.
Positive thinking can lead us to overestimating ourselves. A study by Sweeny and Shepperd of exam results highlighted that students felt better afterwards if they hadn’t anticipated themselves getting a higher grade.** This does not mean that we should set ourselves up for failure; it means that we should have a realistic outlook and know that life will inevitably have its rises and falls. Research has shown that those with a constant sunny disposition may find it difficult when it gets darker.
We do not have a birthright to happiness. If we are happy then this has often been occasioned by the intersection of several other people in our lives that have made us happy. Our happiness is often motivated by the happiness of others – it sometimes may even be contingent on theirs. We can of course train ourselves to think more positively but why not take life as it comes and be as we are?
“If you’re the kind of person who’s always telling other people to look on the bright side, you might want to reconsider. Whether people succeed is not a matter of thinking positively or negatively, but rather whether they choose the strategies that match their thinking style,” Adam Grant writes in
Psychology Today.*** Thinking often does not make it so. I can think long and hard about being a billionaire but it is unlikely to happen. All that will happen is me feeling more unhappy that I have not yet become a billionaire. Now I can’t get the thought out of my mind! Thinking positive thoughts is unlikely to result in me suddenly becoming a positive person. What I must do is translate these positive thoughts into
positive actions. But this process is meaningless if it is not engendered from the starting point of examining the negative thoughts in your life and wanting to make a change.
The answer is to be happy enough – and to happy with this rather than being unhappy that people seem happier than you. People are often wary of overt exhibitions of happiness, whether these are from colleagues or manifested through the media. Shakespeare’s most watched genre is Tragedy, and the book and movie bestseller lists are typified by stories of woe and suffering. By watching and reading these things, we may feel that we become happier (catharsis) – or instead we may realise the full spectrum of our feelings and acknowledge ourselves as complex individuals who wrestle daily with a plethora of moods and feelings. Positive thinking disallows us full entry into the vast world of ourselves: it only pushes us forward into an imaginary future where happiness reigns supreme and negativity skulks alone in the corner.
People often say it is important not to dwell on the negative and become addicted to one way of thinking, but the same sentiment could be applied to how we choose to approach and digest positive thinking. Neither extreme is suitable. A balance is required so that we accept ourselves and others as we are: not as a performer on a stage, but as a fully realised human with a range of often changing thoughts and feelings.

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