The Negative Path to Happiness

Why to be a "defensive pessimist"

Posted Dec 19, 2012

The holiday season is upon us again and it poses a psychological paradox. Its essential emotion, of course, is joy—yet the laborious effort to be joyous seems to make many of us miserable. Indeed, as noted in Oliver Burkeman’s new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, this is because it's hard to be happy in holiday traffic jams; in overcrowded airports and stores; or in times of financial strain when buying gifts is expected; or while trying to stay civil with co-workers and relatives who stretch your patience to the breaking point.

So to cope with the holidays, the popular media is advising us, as usual, to "think positive"—the same, old advice that Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, was dispensing sixty years ago. During holidays, Peale once suggested, people should make "a deliberate effort to speak hopefully about everything." Thus, Peale advised the deliberate suppression of all but “hopeful” thoughts. The result, not surprisingly, probably lead to more negative ideation because the more one tries to block specific thoughts, the more one is likely to have them.  And the harder one tries to keep a specific thought in mind, the less one will think it.

Hence, despite Peale’s philosophy still running deep in current psychotherapeutic culture, studies suggest that repetitive, up-beat affirmations, and frequently visualizing happy futures, don’t buoy up mood but often achieve the opposite effect of intensifying dissatisfaction. Ah, another paradox.

Fortunately, as Burkeman writes, both ancient philosophy and contemporary psychology point to an alternative: a counterintuitive approach that can be termed "the negative path to happiness." (This approach might help to explain some interesting and unexpected data such as the fact that citizens of economically poorer countries often report greater happiness than citizens of wealthier ones.)

One pioneer of the “negative path” was the late, psychologist Albert Ellis who, in rediscovering some of the key insights of the ancient Stoic philosophers, counseled that the best way to deal with an uncertain future is to focus on the worst-case scenario instead of the best-case scenario.

To overcome a fear of public humiliation, for example, Ellis often advised his clients to deliberately do things that would draw negative attention to themselves such as breaking into song in the grocery store, or randomly announcing the time of day to strangers—therapeutic challenges Ellis called “shame attacking exercises.” By doing this, people find that their overblown fears are drastically reduced because all they get is a few strange looks, not verbally abused or physically assaulted.

Just thinking in vivid detail about worst-case scenarios—a technique the Stoics called "the premeditation of evils"—can help to diminish their anxiety-producing power. A method that Dr. Arnold Lazarus has termed “emotional fire drills” and psychologist Julie Norem calls "defensive pessimism." Positive thinking, in contrast, is the effort to convince oneself that things will turn out fine, which can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn't. And, let’s be real, often things do not turn out well.

Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that positive thinking is always a bad idea (pun intended) or that it doesn’t have some real, and sometimes powerful, benefits. Rather, it seems to simply boil down to the rational and balanced worldview of “cautious optimism.” So, go ahead and “hope for the best” but don’t forget to really be “prepared for the worst,” because this is where most people fall short by failing to adequately gear up for worst-case scenarios.

Therefore, remember to anticipate strife at family gatherings; crowds on the roads and in stores; financial pressure; and other holiday stressors.  But try to remain connected to the parts of the season, and life in general, that can still bring fun, love and joy.

For more on this subject, please check out my previous post “why optimism can be bad for your mental health” through the link below:

Remember:  Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus

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