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.

Positive Thinking Can Backfire

Turns out that Saturday Night Live may have been right about the absurdity of "you're good enough, you're smart enough, and doggone it, people like you," style positive thinking. "Tell yourself you’re a winner, and you might end up feeling worse," says Burkeman. "When researchers in Canada tested the efficacy of self-help affirmations—specifically the phrase "I am a loveable person!"--they found that those who already had low self-esteem experienced a further decline in their mood."

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."

Feeling better about your inability to unfailingly eliminate your negativity as recommended by the peddlers of positivity? Then check out the rest of Burkeman's article for more details on how negative thinking has its uses too.

What's you response to the cultural obsession with positivity--is it inspirational or just plain annoying? 


Published on: Nov 13, 2012