Positive Thinking Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be, Author Says


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Positive thinking may be powerful—but not in a positive way, according to the author of a book espousing the benefits of “defensive pessimism.”

In a column for the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.), Oliver Burkeman writes that “peppy affirmations designed to lift the user’s mood through repetition and visualizing future success often achieve the opposite of their intended effect.” Trying to convince yourself that things will turn out fine “can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn’t,” he says.

Burkeman suggests an alternative—contemplating worst-case scenarios as a way to “sap the future of its anxiety-producing power.”

A person who worries about losing money, for example, might try living below his or her means for a while to see how bad it can be. Or a person concerned about embarrassment might ride the subway and call out the names of the stations as they passed. The author tried the latter tack in the interest of journalistic research and found a few people looked at him funny, but there were no further adverse consequences.

“The ultimate value of the ‘negative path’ may not be its role in facilitating upbeat emotions or even success,” Burkeman concludes. “It is simply realism. The future really is uncertain, after all, and things really do go wrong as well as right.”

Burkeman wrote The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. The SBM Blog noted the article and studies on lawyer pessimism.

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