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When Negative Thinking Becomes Positive

Pessimistic Positivity – The Myths of Happiness Revealed  

When Negative Thinking Becomes PositiveIs it possible to be happy all the time?

In truth, the answer to the question depends on your definition of happiness.

Martin Seligman, a leader in the positive psychology movement, has a real dislike for the word “happiness” because, as he notes, to the modern ear, “happy” means “buoyant mood, merriment, good cheer, and smiling.” The problem isn’t with any of these attributes arising as part of the natural course of life. But this type of hedonistic experience isn’t what the word “happiness” has met historically. Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that we have the “right to pursue happiness” comes to mind when I think about historical happiness.

This expanded definition of “happiness”  has more in common in modern culture with the words well-being or flourishing.

The modern understanding of “happiness” as led to a whole industry – the “happiness industry.”  There’s nothing wrong with being happy; this is after all the “end goal” for everything we do. The problems arise when we “believe” or we’re being told we “should be” happy (the modern definition) all the time – that’s dysfunctional behavior.

This disconnect between the historical and the modern understanding of happiness has led to misconceptions and myths.

Enter Oliver Burkeman and his new book “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” to debunk these “happiness” myths.

Oh, and one quick note, lest people get the wrong idea, Burkeman’s concepts are deeply rooted in spirituality.

Here are 5 Myths of happiness and positivity from the pen of Oliver Burkeman on the site, or you can check out the video below:

1. MythIt’s critical to maintain a positive mindset: Like turning off your thoughts altogether, it a near impossibility and frequently backfires, generating stress.

One culprit is the mind’s susceptibility to “ironic effects“: attempting not to think about certain negative things only renders them more salient.

Research underlines the point: bereaved people who try not to feel grief takelonger to recover; experimental subjects who were told to try not to feel sad about some distressing news felt worse. Much more fruitful is the Buddhist-inspired notion of “non-attachment:” learning to let negative emotions arise and pass, resisting the urge to stamp them out.

In any case, it’s often more productive to focus on behavior, not internal states.” 

2. Myth – The key to success is to pursue ambitious goals restlessly:

Another self-help dogma that’s being further undermined every year.

A too-vigorous focus on goals, research suggests, can trigger a variety of unintended consequences: it can degrade performance, and encourage ethical corner-cutting. Moreover, it can badly distort an organization, or a life, by singling out one variable for maximization, regardless of how it’s connected to all the others.

“Deep down, what may explain our obsession with goals is the fear of uncertainty–the craving to know for sure how the future will turn out–whereas in fact it’s only amid uncertainty that true creativity can occur.”

Psychologist Erich Fromm wrote, “The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.”

3. Myth – Work is better when the managers are fun:

The idea isn’t that the workplace can’t or shouldn’t be fun. When the fun is genuine and authentic it’s wonderful for all concerned because nobody wants to work in an office filled with misery and stress.

But enforced positivity and “feeling obliged to maintain a sunny facade actually imposes a cognitive burden on employees–it’s a form of affective labor-sapping resources that could be more productively deployed. Inauthentically “fun” workplaces can be deeply alienating environments.

4. Myth – greater self-esteem means greater happiness:

The late psychotherapist Albert Ellis called self-esteem the “greatest emotional disturbance of them all. Yes it’s generally better to have a higher degree of self-esteem than to feel like you’re unworthy or insignificant.

But a dissenting minority of psychologists have long suspected there’s a problem with the notion of “self-esteem” itself. It rests on the idea of giving your whole-self one universal grade-and once you’ve done that, it’s a constant struggle to stop that grade slipping from high down to low.  

5. Myth – Avoid pessimist at all cost:

I believe there are those people that show up in your life who do not serve you and are “toxic;” that does not mean that all people who are optimistic are right for you either.

It is my belief, however, that it’s possible to maintain an overall optimistic demeanor while still allowing, what the psychologist Julie Norem calls “defensive pessimism,” to play a part in our lives.

The idea of “defensive pessimism” has its roots in the Stoics of ancient Greece.

“Thinking carefully about how badly things could go, the Stoics Seneca and Epictetus both recognized, saps the future of its anxiety-producing power; once you’ve figured out how you’d cope if things went wrong, the resulting peace of mind leaves you better primed for success.”

Oliver Burkeman’s “Antidote” is for a modern society that’s fixated on the modern, hedonistic definition of happiness. We’ve needed a new definition of happiness that moves us beyond the superficial-self to a deeper and truly more spiritual understanding of who we are as individuals and how that contributes to the greater well-being.

“Antidote” by Oliver Burkeman

“The you-can-do-it, life-is-one-big-smiley-face ethos of our contemporary culture has its value: Aggressive positivity helps many triumph over addiction, say, or build previously unimaginable businesses, even win elections and wars. But according to Oliver Burkeman, this relentless pursuit of happiness and success can also make us miserable.”

There is a perspective offered by Oliver Burkeman on the “darker” side of happiness and while that seems an oxymoron there is a deeper truth to be discovered.

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