Ignore all those motivational speakers that say you need to stay positive to be successful. Turns out, those with a more pessimistic outlook have certain advantages.
Daily affirmations, appreciation, and a generally positive outlook are the usual prescriptions for success, according to a small army of self-help experts.
Bah humbug! where does that leave the significant proportion of the population that naturally tends towards a darker frame of mind? If you're an inveterate worrier or bit of a pessimist are you out of luck when it comes to success?
Not at all, according to University of California at Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, which studies happiness and well-being.
"A growing body of research suggests that negative thinking, if strategically pursued, has a role to play in happiness, too," reports Oliver Burkeman in the Center's newsletter. He goes on to suggest several ways you can put your tendency towards gloom to productive use.
Pessimism Has Its Place
No doubt you've been told to visualize what you hope to achieve by some smiley (and perhaps irritating) self-help type. But actually, Burkeman writes, picturing the worst-case scenario can be more helpful.
"Negative visualization can be an excellent antidote to anxiety. The Stoics called this 'the premeditation of evils,' while modern-day researchers call it 'defensive pessimism,'" says Burkeman. Apparently, between 25% and 30% of Americans regularly use this strategy, author Tim Ferriss among them. Why does it work?
"When you try to persuade yourself that everything will work out for the best, you risk reinforcing your unspoken belief that it would be utterly catastrophic if they didn’t. Instead, try soberly working through how badly things could really go. You may find that your fears get cut down to manageable size," says Burkeman.
Ditch Your Goals
Goals are great, right? Not for everyone, explains Burkeman.
"Among management scholars… the pro-goal consensus is breaking down. Recent research suggests that the 'overpursuit of goals' can prompt employees to cut ethical corners. Meanwhile, studies of successful entrepreneurs, undertaken by the business professor Saras Sarasvathy, reveal that they rarely stick rigorously to detailed, multi-year business plans. Instead, they just start, and keep correcting their course as they go," he says.
What works instead? The GGSC suggests a practice adopted from Buddhist meditation and now backed up by science: "treating thoughts, whether negative or positive, more like smells, sights, tastes and sounds: things that arrive in your awareness, rather than things that constitute the essence of who you are. This stance of 'non-attachment'… embodies what you might define as the opposite of positive thinking: learning, instead, to resist the urge to manipulate your inner states."
JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel