Oliver Burkeman | The Antidote to Positive Thinking (Episode 556)
Oliver Burkeman (@oliverburkeman) is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking; he joins us to explain why it’s healthier to accentuate — rather than ignore — the negative.
The Cheat Sheet:
How does a pessimistic skeptic of positive thinking culture find himself pumped up with 12,000 other people at a motivational seminar in Texas?
How can the avoidance of negative thinking make us unhappy?
Are the tenets of the Ironic Process Theory slowly driving you insane?
Negative Visualization: a healthier way to worry with purpose.
Affirmations often go beyond just being silly — they can actually be harmful.
And so much more…
If someone tells you that, no matter what, you must avoid thinking about a purple poodle under a peach-colored parasol, it suddenly becomes all you can think about. In the same way, a person who has resolved to always ‘think positive’ must constantly scan his or her mind for negative thoughts — there’s no other way that the mind could ever gauge its success at this endeavor. Yet this very scanning will draw attention to the presence of negative thoughts.
As well-intentioned and efficacious as the best self-help gurus might be, it’s hard to deny the motivational marketplace is saturated with generous portions of substance-free hoopla. For every genuine beacon of inspiration who devotes themselves to improving the lives of others, there are dozens of unqualified charlatans in the game purely for the benefit of self-interest dispensing nothing but placebo positivity. But is there a legitimate benefit to this placebo? Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, had to find out more about this phenomenon.
“I decided I wanted to write this thing,” says Oliver. “And I had some sense of what I thought was wrong with positive thinking culture, but I needed to experience it up close at the sort of height of it. So I went to this thing called Get Motivated! — which has an exclamation point in the name — in a basketball stadium in San Antonio in Texas. This is kind of a weird setting for anybody to be in, but it’s so against everything that I am as a kind of slightly pessimistic, slightly reticent, downbeat Brit…to be in this room with 11-12,000 people leaping out of our chairs on an instruction from the people on the stage and fireworks going off around the place and huge, pumping music as we were told to express how motivated we were.
“But I kind of got into it, weirdly, which I think happens at these huge events. You catch the atmosphere. It was an all-day thing, so there were a whole lot of veteran self-help people on the stage and a few celebrity guests. The keynote speaker was former president George Bush, which was kind of weird to see him doing his post-presidential thing. The person I write about in the book is a guy called Dr. Robert Schuller, who actually passed away in the last few months. But he was a real veteran of the self-help industry and he really put forward this message that if you want to succeed, all you need to do is eliminate the word ‘impossible’ from your vocabulary.
“And that was really the whole ethos of the day. You just decide to be incredibly successful…and there’s an implication there as well that if you don’t do that, things are going to go wrong because you’re not thinking positively enough. But it was a strange experience because I probably did go in there a little bit cynical — certainly skeptical. But as the months went past afterwards, I discovered research and talked to people who broadly supported my skepticism. But in the moment in that huge arena setting, it’s pretty hard not to be part of the thing.”
But is positive thinking on this level actually counterintuitive? It turns out that when we try to exude positivity at the exclusion of all negativity, we open ourselves to the very negativity we’re attempting to avoid. In fact, trying to avoid negativity is a big part of what is making us unhappy — not only because it raises our expectations and devastates us when we don’t succeed, but because trying not to think about something is a surefire way to ensure that we do think about it. Psychologists even have a term for this: Ironic Process Theory.
And then there’s the problem of comparing ourselves to others. It’s something we all do — even when we’re trying to force ourselves into a state of overall positivity. “We compare ourselves with other people,” says Oliver. “We have access to our own insides, and we don’t have access to anybody else’s insides. So if somebody’s coming across as confident, we take that as meaning they’re confident. If we’re coming across as confident but inside we’re telling ourselves all these negative messages or we’re feeling bad or scared, we think we’re doing less well than them because we can’t hear the voice in their head.
“So all of this stuff is there to begin with. And then if you start putting all this effort into getting the right mindset and feeling motivated, I think it just adds another hurdle…you want to take some action, but instead of just getting yourself to take the action, you tell yourself you have to feel like taking the action. That’s a higher bar to reach — to say ‘I’ve got to get my mind exactly right; then I can do this thing.'”
Coming to terms with the way you really feel — maybe that you’re not all that motivated to do something, but you’re going to power through it anyway — is more honest and a better use of time than trying to pump yourself up with some false sense of positivity.
Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about the joy of uncertainty, how the subprime mortgage crisis of the mid-2000s is indicative of positivity run amok, why The Secret is the self-help book Oliver likes “beating up on the most,” why being able to endure more negative emotions serves us better on the road to happiness than blind positivity, how this all relates to the fixed vs. growth mindsets we’ve talked about on the show before with Dr. Carol Dweck, how visualizing success can actually reduce motivation, the power of negative visualization, and lots more.
THANKS, OLIVER BURKEMAN!
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AJ Harbinger - author of 1164 posts on The Art of Charm
AJ Harbinger is one of the world’s top relationship development experts. His company, The Art of Charm, is a leading training facility for top performers that want to overcome social anxiety, develop social capital and build relationships of the highest quality.
Raised by a single father, AJ felt a strong desire to learn about relationships and the elements that make them successful. However, this interest went largely untapped for many years. Following the path set out for him by his family, AJ studied biology in college and went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology at the University of Michigan. It was at this time that he began to feel immense pressure from the cancer lab he worked in and began to explore other outlets for expression. It was at this point that The Art of Charm Podcast was born.
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