Why Negative Psychology Is Good for You
The opposite of positive psychology may be better for your mental health
Posted Sep 21, 2020
Positive psychology is everywhere: at the workplace (especially in big multinational corporations), in schools, and definitely on the pages of this magazine. While it is difficult to pinpoint any rigid definition of positive psychology, the general idea is that it is positive because of its emphasis on positive experiences, events, and character traits.
I want to question all this positivity and argue that focusing on the negative is better for our mental health. And I take my inspiration from an author who has been widely used or rather abused, as a poster-boy of positive psychology in the popular press: Marcel Proust.
Proust's novel, In Search of Lost Time, has many anti-heroes (including the narrator) and no heroes at all, but one character who probably comes off the best is the painter Elstir. Hidden away in the second volume of this long novel, there is a monologue where Elstir talks about wisdom. It is a long speech, but the gist of it is that real wisdom comes from making mistakes and then recognising that they were mistakes. Nothing revolutionary so far. But Elstir goes further. He says that a wise person, as a result, should not regret their old mistakes, because these old mistakes that made them who they are. Wisdom is not just a result of making mistakes but also thinking of yourself as the person who made these mistakes. In some sense, this means embracing your mistakes.
This is the opposite of the positivity of positive psychology. You just can't do this if you are focusing only on positive experiences and character traits. Embracing your own negative experiences and character traits is the exact opposite of positive psychology. It is Negative Psychology.
Proust's endorsement aside, we have solid empirical reasons to prefer negative psychology to its positive counterpart. The main reason for this is cognitive dissonance. We all have done things we wish we hadn't. And alas we can't just forget about these episodes. The question is: What do we do with them? How do we process the highly inconvenient information that we have behaved in a way that is less than ideal?
As erasing this information is not an option, one might think that ignoring it is the second-best option. And this is indeed what seems to follow from positive psychology's emphasis on positive experiences and character traits. If we focus on these, this entails that we focus away from anything negative, including the negative episodes in our past. The problem is that these inconvenient pieces of information about your past keep on resurfacing when you least expect them. And this makes it difficult to have positive thoughts about yourself as part of your mind knows that you are not as superb as you make yourself out to be. And this conflict leads to cognitive dissonance, with all its known downstream problems.
A much better option is to avoid sweeping the inconvenient past under the carpet and even make a point of revisiting some of the things you are not proud of. Will this lead to a positive self-image? Not at all. It will lead to a more honest self-image though and this is the only thing that could lead to accepting yourself for who you are.
Positive psychology has had a good run. But in the midst of all the negativity that this year has brought, focusing on the positive is just plainly delusional and not something that can be maintained in the long run. Even for the most ethical and virtuous ones of us, accepting ourselves implies accepting all the vanities, pettiness, procrastination, anger, jealousy in our past (and present). Focusing on these leads to a healthier and more sustainable self-image. This is why we are better off with Negative Psychology.