Questioning Positive Thinking

Behind all of the most popular modern approaches to happiness and success is the simple philosophy of focusing on things going right. But ever since the first philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, a dissenting perspective has proposed the opposite: that it’s our relentless effort to feel happy, or to achieve certain goals, that is precisely what makes us miserable and sabotages our plans. And that it is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, sadness – that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy in the first place.
Extracted from The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman. See The Guardian article Happiness is a glass half empty.

The above article was linked in a comment recently. I’ve found the message so compelling and true I’ve thus elevated it to the front page.

And if that wasn’t enough about questioning happiness I came across this video animation titled Smile or Die which takes a critical look at positive thinking! The method of conveying the argument using words and images on a white board suits me down to the ground.

As I see it the underlying issue in both the article and the video is a common mistaken view about the use of the mind. But this is a tricky subject when you get right down to it. Magical thinking and the like is one thing however there is the power of the good which benefits beings. We would call that spiritual merit.

I’m deeply sorry if questioning positive thinking has left you disturbed. My way of seeing through this positive/negative is to re-affirm the wisdom of looking up which is too often confused with thinking positively. Looking up is a direction which has no goal.

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4 thoughts on “Questioning Positive Thinking”

  1. Not disturbed, no. In fact you’ve cheered me up.
    I don’t like the simple concept of ‘positive thinking’ because it smacks to me of pretending all is well when it isn’t. Looking deeper all is well, full stop!
    There’s an element of the ‘look on the bright side’, ‘it will all turn out alright’ etc etc to the positive thinkers. Ignoring sadness in the hope it will leave our conscious mind. Ignoring the realities of life where stuff happens & there are things which cause unhappiness.
    I like this quote from the article you cite too – & loving the museum of failed products!

    But reassurance is a double-edged sword. In the short term, it can be wonderful, but like all forms of optimism, it requires constant maintenance: offer reassurance to a friend who is in the grip of anxiety, and you’ll often find that, a few days later, he’ll be back for more. Worse, reassurance can actually exacerbate anxiety: when you reassure your friend that the worst-case scenario he fears probably won’t occur, you inadvertently reinforce his belief that it would be catastrophic if it did. You are tightening the coil of his anxiety, not loosening it.

  2. As a matter of fact the same section jumped out at me too. Glad this has cheered you up. Reading the article has been most enlightening. (I might invest in the book actually.) And the museum is a blast, I wonder if we have anything over here like that. We should.

  3. From J Med Ethics, 1992 (I don’t think it was 1st April), the following paper:

    A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder.

    R.P. Bentall

    It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains–that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant.

    via ‘Wood’s Lot’

    I suggest taking this with a grain of salt…

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