Mr. Personality

A personality expert talks character and destiny.

Why We All Need an Antidote to Optimism

Our quest for self-esteem is out of control, one expert says. Time for a reboot?

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I write for several popular publications. They are all interested in psychology. Unfortunately, these days that tends to equate to promoting positive psychology—albeit in its contemporary, distorted, and watered down version:

  • "Don't worry about problems, just focus on the sunny side of life and the world will shine back to you."
  • "Who cares what other people think of you - the only thing that matters is how you feel about you."
  • "If you think you are great, you are great."
  • "The most important thing in the world is to feel good—everything else is trivial."

The above quotes are made up, but you will find millions of similar statements in magazines and blogs devoted to anything psychological.

To be clear, I have little against the original positive psychology movement. Back in the 1970s, some scholars noted that 99% of academic psychology focused on problems that concern 1% of the people, so they started to promote the study of self-improvement, growth, and positive emotions, if only to provide a more balance account of human behavior.

Good for them.

We have since learned a lot about the positive effects of creativity, flow, and employee engagement. We have also come to understand the importance of emotional and psychological well-being (which depend more on personality than situational factors).

In recent years, however, our obsession with positive aspects of thought and behavior may have gone too far, especially since the hijacking of positive psychology by the self-help movement.

Fortunately, there is light—or shall we say "darkness"?—at the end of the tunnel. An antidote to all the anti-intellectual nonsense promoted by popular positive psychologists has started to emerge. This counter-movement has managed to infiltrate the spheres of popular media, including bestselling books, newspapers, and even TED talks.

  • In SHAMSteven Salerno detailed the true effects of the American self-actualization movement, especially for serial consumers of self-help books and motivational speakers like Tony Robbins.
  • Jean Twenge's research demonstrated how the mindless quest for higher self-esteem has led to unprecedented increases in narcissism and depression. 
  • Susan Cain exposed the perils of living in a world led by overconfident and self-important extroverts.
  • Barbara Ehrenreich showed how America's relentless obsession with optimism undermines rationality and self-knowledge while promoting intellectual and cultural decline.
  • Oliver Burkeman explained how the constant quest for happiness tends to backfire, especially if you are not dispositionally designed or pre-wired for optimism—something most Brits, but few Americans, understand. As Alan Watts and 3rd-generation cognitive therapies, like ACT, have noted, "When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float."
  • Adam Grant, a smart observer of trends in psychology, highlighted the various benefits of negative thinking (see also my recent TED talk on this).
  • And my own latest book, which is considered pretty heretic by the American self-help industry, highlighted the many dangers of high confidence and the multiple benefits of low confidence, insecurity, and self-doubt.

Of course, there's nothing especially new about promoting the positive aspects of negativity and exposing the detrimental effects of positivity. Psychologists are late to the game, particularly compared to philosophers and novelists. Three centuries ago, Voltaire and Schopenhauer devoted a considerable amount of their time to ridiculing Leibniz's idea that everything in the world was as good as it could possibly be:

“Optimism," said Cacambo, "What is that?" "Alas!" replied Candide, "It is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.” (Voltaire

Schopenhauer regarded Leibniz as “a miserable little candlelight” and optimism as "not merely absurd, but also as a really wicked way of thinking, and as a bitter mockery of the unspeakable suffering of humanity.”

This resistance to sheer positivity is also captured nicely in James Branch Cabell's quote: "The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true."

Ultimately, negative psychology may not appeal to everyone—just those who are repelled by the mindless positivity of the self-help movement. In that sense, the degree to which we can tolerate positivity and negativity is in itself a reflection of our personality, values and culture.

But cultures change, and with them, values and personality. Moreover, some values, personalities, and cultures are less harmful than others.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D., is a Professor of Business Psychology at UCL and NYU. He studies online dating, entrepreneurship, and consumer preferences. more...

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