Oh, brainz. So crazy, right? So crazy that the stuff in your brain—the invisible thought stuff—can affect the stuff in your body—the fleshy stuff stuff! Like, how if you're stressed out about finals week, your skin will be like "HERE, FRIEND, MAYBE THESE HIVES WILL HELP." Or like if someone gives you a small jelly bean or pebble and tells you it's a U4EA, your body will be all, "I'm sooooooo hiiiiiiiiiiiigh!" and then burn down the parade float. Write whatever you want on your brain's cue cards and your body will read them. This whole brain/body conversation is pretty fucking weird. So it's no wonder that all kinds of self-helpy gurus/aspiring sorcerers have tried to capitalize on it.
The most famous one, probably, is the Power of Positive Thinking. PPT is a lot like The Secret, except that you don't get a magic Lamborghini at the end—you just get face cramps and a creeping sense of disappointment. But people swear by it—think happy and you'll BE happy!—and, really, it's not a particularly sinister idea. A few happy thoughts couldn't possibly make the world worse, right? Except...maybe...if they do.
The more rigid we are in our expectations and goal-setting—prizing optimism above realism at all cost—the more likely we are to be disappointed, obsess over failure, and cut ethical corners in order to achieve our goals. In an essay in the Wall Street Journal, Oliver Burkeman suggests an alternative: "the power of negative thinking."
Fortunately, both ancient philosophy and contemporary psychology point to an alternative: a counterintuitive approach that might be termed "the negative path to happiness." This approach helps to explain some puzzles, such as the fact that citizens of more economically insecure countries often report greater happiness than citizens of wealthier ones. Or that many successful businesspeople reject the idea of setting firm goals.
...Just thinking in sober detail about worst-case scenarios-a technique the Stoics called "the premeditation of evils"-can help to sap the future of its anxiety-producing power. The psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy, which she terms "defensive pessimism." Positive thinking, by contrast, is the effort to convince yourself that things will turn out fine, which can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn't.
Makes perfect sense to me: You're less likely to work your ass off to ensure that things turn out okay if you've already convinced yourself that things are going to turn out okay. I wonder how this overlaps with "the power of prayer" and everything (even the horrors of life) being part of "God's plan." There's a certain abdication of responsibility that, it seems, could be counterproductive.
I wonder, also, if there isn't a connection between pessimism and worry and actually getting shit done. Head-in-the-clouds, take-no-prisoners happiness doesn't exactly lend itself to shitty tasks like filing one's taxes and cleaning out the litter box. Like, I'm pretty happy all the time, but I'm also an irresponsible idiot. I often wonder if I actually got more important stuff done—stuff that makes me grumpy just thinking about it—I'd blast through some happiness ceiling and become extra-double-secret-explosion happy. I don't know. I MAY NEVER KNOW. Ugh, I'm grumpy now.
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