The Antidote: Hating Optimism

Negative thinking as a path to happiness?

Posted Nov 13, 2014

"So many tangles in life are ultimately hopeless that we have no appropriate sword other than laughter," said Gordon Allport, an American psychologist and one of the founders of the study of personality. Scientists have studied the effects of mirthful laughter, positive thinking and optimism on feelings of self-worth, mood disorders and depression since the 1970s.

In The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking British author and Guardian feature writer Oliver Burkeman takes issue with "the cult of optimism," the convention that phony smiles, jovial laughter and positive thinking is a surefire path to happiness. Positive thinking is the problem, not the solution, Burkeman teaches us. He believes people have come to trust that a "Don't worry. Be happy" attitude toward life is the only route to contentment. People seem to be of the conviction that if you have negative thoughts and see your own limits, you cannot be happy. So to be happy we must set out on a journey that changes your mindset from negative and inhibited to enthusiastic, fervent and animated. We are told to visualize our dreams and goals, eliminate the word "impossible" from our vocabulary and put a big fabricated smile on our physiognomy. All that actually can lead to unhappiness, Burkeman says.

Negative thinking, in Burkeman's sense, is not exactly the opposite of positive thinking. It involves turning toward our insecurities, flaws, sorrows and pessimism and finding ways of enduring those episodes by embracing them. We should acknowledge that because we are human, we sometimes fail. By admitting that we sometimes screw up and that some things really are impossible for us or are as inevitable as is death, we will feel more content. This is the basic premise of the book.

Burkeman’s Antidote contains countless staggering insights that I could write many pages about. But it suits the situation to engage in a bit of negative thinking, in this case about the book. I have three main concerns about The Antidote. First, it does not accommodate scientific evidence that suggests that positive thinking can have vital effects on stress, anxiety and depression. Second, it perpetuates the old mistaken belief that stoic philosophy consists in negative thinking. And third, despite claims to the contrary, the book really isn’t all that different from many trade books advocating positive thinking or exposure therapy in the cognitive-behavioral therapeutic tradition. I will deal with these issues in turn.

A good laugh and a positive mindset work wonders for the immune system

Not forcing a positive attitude to life, as recommended by Burkeman, could have unintended consequences for psychological, physiological and neurological function. For example, there is evidence to suggest that a good laugh and a positive attitude can regulate distress. Dr. Lee Berk, an immunologist at Loma Linda University's School of Allied Health and Medicine, has studied the effects of mirthful laughter and a positive mindset on the regulation of hormones since the 1980s. Berk and his colleagues found that a positive outlook could help the brain regulate the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. The team has also discovered a link between a happy attitude and the production of anti-bodies and endorphins, the body's natural painkillers. Even the expectation that something positive, entertaining or funny is coming suffices to bring about worthy effects, reports Dr. Berk.

Burkeman doesn’t spell out how his negative path can make up for the psychological, physiological and neurological effects of positive thinking or whether not gleaning these benefits from being positive could have detrimental health consequences.

The stoics on stretching the soul

Throughout the book Burkeman covers a wide range of spiritual philosophies and practices, such as Hellenistic stoicism, Zen Buddhism and Memento Mori, philosophies and practices that often are said to focus on negative thinking. He takes these philosophies to support his negative path. "If you go back through the history of philosophy, spirituality, the stoics of ancient Greece and Rome, the Buddhists, and then also linking up with contemporary approaches to psychology, you find something else, which is actually that trying to let those feelings be and not always struggling to stamp them out is a more fruitful alternative," he told NPR on November 13, 2012.

Ascribing negative thinking to these indomitable practices, however, is—if not astucious—then misleading. Though often parodied as apathetic, the stoics thought of the goal of life as engaging in a process of rational decision-making (Baltzly, D., "Stoicism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Zalta, ed.). The stoics’ utmost virtues are rationality and self-sufficiency. Unruly passions, such as bodily pleasure, fear, lust and distress, are “excessive impulses which are disobedient to reason” (Arius Didymus, 65A). They are to be dealt with accordingly. Though contemporaries of the stoics often described them as men of stone, the stoics did not shy away from pleasurable and gratifying feelings. Tranquil emotions and sentiments, such as joy, wonder, kindness, generosity and warmth, were perfectly acceptable from their point of view. These more quiet emotions and sentiments are consistent with a rational mind and are not in any way excessive. They are a natural stretching or expansion of the soul.

Unlike Burkeman, the stoics did not focus on negative thinking but on rational thinking and action. Extreme passions are things we undergo. The calmer sentiments are results of things we do. Negative thinking is perfectly acceptable from a stoic point of view, as long as it is something we do, and not something that happens to us. But negative thinking is by no means a requirement, as far as the stoics are concerned. What’s important is that we don’t let our passions take possession of our agency. It is in this sense that you ought to be "apathetic." You should be the owner of your agency. Being in control, however, does not rule out being a warm, generous and kind person who has mostly positive thoughts. 

So the stoics advocate a path through life quite different from that defended by Burkeman. According to him “efforts that involve struggling very, very hard to achieve a specific emotional state" is counterproductive. But struggling to achieve a specific emotional state was exactly what the stoics were encouraging. The stoics considered it a part of life to struggle hard to achieve an emotional state void of outrageous and disgraceful passions but not void of tranquil delights of the soul, positive imagery or reasonable optimism. You should not go on a "character holiday" by getting in the grip of lust or by acting in ways that are out of character for you. You should temper your affective states to ensure that you remain in character.

Exposure theory on the subway in London

In the end, what Burkeman has to offer isn’t all that different from standard cognitive-behavioral therapeutic practices, which include the positive thinking methods he so strongly criticizes.

Cognitive-behavioral approaches to resolving unsettled emotional conflicts and soothing the passions seek to break the connection between memories and fear, worry and distress by changing the way you think about past events. Cognitive processing therapy, for example, seeks to change your emotions and beliefs after a trauma or a series of upsetting events. When you go through distressing events, your beliefs about trust, control and safety change. One of the main components of cognitive processing therapy is to compare your beliefs before and after your disturbing experiences. When successful, the method can help you alter your frame of mind. For example, you can reprogram the way you remember a stressful past event by associating the memory with more constructive beliefs, “It was not my fault that I was assaulted.” “I deserve to be with someone who doesn’t treat me as badly as my ex.” “I am safe now.”

The idea that we should accept negative feelings, thoughts and experiences as essential aspects of life and not as something that must be avoided is also a common theme of the philosophies behind cognitive-behavioral approaches. Burke himself recommends a commonly used approach for dealing with fear: Exposure theory. He recommends that his London-based readers take the subway and say the name of each station out loud just before the train arrives at the station. Embarrassing? Sure. But the lesson is that people get to experience that doing something humiliating is not nearly as bad as they thought it would be. Sure, they have to suffer through some incredulous stares. But they won't get arrested or tackled to the ground by fellow train riders. 

This sort of method for becoming friends with your negative thoughts is the bread and butter of exposure therapy. Instead of making you process the scary events cognitively, exposure therapy makes you face your fears. By facing your uncertainties, this type of therapy helps you break the connection between negative memories and the returning feeling of dread. Edna Foa, Professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, invented a variation on the old classic, which she calls “prolonged exposure therapy.” Prolonged exposure therapy requires that you gradually get closer and closer to the appalling situation. The exposure can break the connection between your negative memories and your angst. When you disassociate negative memories from torment, the memories will continue to be perceived as negative but they will no longer cause actual dread and worry.

Setting aside the sophistications of Foa's variation on classic “abrupt” exposure theory, what Burkeman is recommending is akin to these types of therapy. Accept your fear and your failure, don’t repress them or hide them under a bogus positive mindset.

Despite its scientific and philosophical shortcomings, Burkeman's Antidote is well worth a close read. It contains many of the gems we know so well from the Guardian writer’s popular Saturday column “This Column Will Change Your Life,” a personal favorite of mine. Like the column, The Antidote offers a spirited and witty account of some of the best ways to get through periods of distress or sorrow or sheer annoyance and shows you how to deal with your negative feelings and pessimism without burying them underneath a fake ten-thousand dollar smile.

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