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Oliver Burkeman: "In order to be truly happy... we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them."
November 4, 2012 8:32 AM   Subscribe

Oliver Burkeman on happiness through negative thinking: "I think many of the techniques that claim to enable us to achieve happiness don’t work. They are too focused on strenuously stamping out any trace of negativity, rather than cultivating the conditions of real happiness... We are all to some extent in its grip, whenever we think that the way to achieve whatever we’re trying to achieve is to go after it vigorously, and that if we believe it will all work out fine then it will." A "five books" interview with the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking.

*an animated trailer for The Antidote (done in a style simliar to RSA Animate)
*Brain Pickings: "...Burkeman argues for a much more sensible proposition — namely, that we’ve created a culture crippled by the fear of failure, and that the most important thing we can do to enhance our psychoemotional wellbeing is to embrace uncertainty."
*Happiness is a glass half-empty: "Be positive, look on the bright side, stay focused on success: so goes our modern mantra. But perhaps the true path to contentment is to learn to be a loser" (an excerpt from The Antidote in the Guardian)
*NYT: The Positive Power of Negative Thinking

Burkeman writes an ongoing series in the Guardian on "social psychology, self-help culture, productivity, and the science of happiness" called This Column Will Change Your Life - full archive here.

*Happy conservatives, unhappy liberals, and the power of "imposed selfishness": "It's a fairly well-established fact, in political psychology, that leftwingers report lower levels of happiness than rightwingers... What's much less clear is why."
*Halloween needs more death: "The notion that we might stand to benefit psychologically from dwelling more on our mortality isn’t a new one, of course... Newer studies, though, suggest that what’s crucial is how you remind people about death: Do it more gently and subliminally, and in the context of topics other than terrorism and war, and it makes people more compassionate, happier, and healthier."

*Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project interviews Burkeman

*a 15 min. RSA talk on The Antidote (description of the event and full podcast)
*an Action For Happiness* talk (video, ~80 min): An alternative path to happiness
*a half-hour RSA talk (video): How to become slightly happier
posted by flex (49 comments total) 119 users marked this as a favorite

 
That's MeFi's own Oliver Burkeman...
posted by Talkie Toaster at 8:39 AM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can get behind happiness through grumpiness. Now, about my lawn...
posted by arcticseal at 8:50 AM on November 4, 2012 [8 favorites]


I have found that by expecting and preparing for the worst, life becomes full of happy surprises when I turn out to be wrong. And when I'm not wrong, I'm not disappointed and I'm prepared.
posted by localroger at 9:03 AM on November 4, 2012 [16 favorites]


Huh, I'm going to add that to my library list. I read Ehrenreich's Bright-sided and found it rather fascinating but more historical than scientific, and I'd love to see the practical side of that.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:15 AM on November 4, 2012


Fascinating stuff. The two skills I've needed to develop in being a happy liberal have been prioritizing my finite nature and living with uncertainty. Really accepting that I can't do everything, and I don't know how any of it will turn out, helps a lot.
posted by meinvt at 9:18 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


The secret to happiness is lowered expectations.
posted by Sokka shot first at 9:27 AM on November 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


See also the first noble truth of Buddhism.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:27 AM on November 4, 2012 [11 favorites]


As a confirmed pessimist, one of the benefits is being genuinely surprised, amazed, and delighted when something does go well. I have a vivid imagination and have found that I am bitterly disappointed when I tried to think positively about something important and it did not work out, much more so than if I expected the worst, or had no expectations.

Plus the idea that positive thinking causes things truly out of one's control to go well is pure bullshit and upsetting in view of all the suffering in the world. Quite a bit of "blame the victim" in that way of thinking.
posted by mermayd at 9:35 AM on November 4, 2012 [18 favorites]


The popularity of blind positivity owes much to the fact that it is easier to wish than it is to reason.
posted by Phyllis Harmonic at 9:44 AM on November 4, 2012 [15 favorites]


Yes, this is Buddhism 101.
posted by twsf at 9:46 AM on November 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


Happy conservatives, unhappy liberals, and the power of "imposed selfishness": "It's a fairly well-established fact, in political psychology, that leftwingers report lower levels of happiness than rightwingers... What's much less clear is why."

I thought this post was about happiness, not reported happiness.
posted by DU at 9:48 AM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm a Jew. Even when I'm happy, I'm miserable.
I just discovered my beloved Taco Bell was open at 8am, and now I'm dealing with the resulting heartburn. Vey iz mir.
posted by jake at 9:50 AM on November 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


Why not neutrality? Avoid positive huffing and bluffing because it's also thought reform.
posted by Brian B. at 9:50 AM on November 4, 2012


I thought this post was about happiness, not reported happiness.

The felicitometer isn't invented until 2016, so the best we can do right now is self-reporting.
posted by griphus at 9:51 AM on November 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


Love the skepticism, DU. Given that we are selecting people based on one systematic difference in the way they view the world (which is obviously the same for both groups), there is every reason to believe that systematic differences in the way they see themselves may also be based on perspective and not actual differences.
posted by Buckt at 9:58 AM on November 4, 2012


I'm so pessimistic I've been told I should enter the Pessimism Olympics, but I don't think I'd win.
posted by cmoj at 10:01 AM on November 4, 2012 [11 favorites]


I wish I remembered who I stole that from.
posted by cmoj at 10:01 AM on November 4, 2012


A pessimist is never disappointed.
posted by bukvich at 10:12 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have found that by expecting and preparing for the worst, life becomes full of happy surprises when I turn out to be wrong. And when I'm not wrong, I'm not disappointed and I'm prepared.

Easiest path to elation is to misplace your keys. Go ahead. Try it. Search everywhere for them, but you can't find them. And then, just as you're seriously considering a trip to a locksmith and all its costs and complications, there they are under that tiny scrap of tissue paper. You suddenly feel so good.

Alternately, you can misplace your wallet, with all your credit cards etc.

Extra points if you devise a system of search where you always save an obvious location for later in the process (the coat you were wearing last night, for instance). Because if you go there first and they're not there (key or wallet), then you really do start to panic, rather than just work the slow brewing anxiety for a while, surf its trepidation.
posted by philip-random at 10:21 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've long been a pessimist on the "it's better to have a happy surprise than a bad one" plan, but it'll be nice to see some theoretical support for my gut instinct.
posted by immlass at 10:35 AM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think Sheryl Crow nailed it: It ain't getting what you want, it's wanting what you got.
posted by meronym at 10:40 AM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Because of my negative mindset I tend to be hyper-aware of where things like my wallet and keys are. I'm getting that way with my reading glasses (never needed them until I turned 45, so don't have the habit nailed down). The one exception is that since getting a keychain USB drive I have on a couple of occasions left the keys hanging off the front of a computer. That happened twice.

As a programmer, I think my pessimism makes me a lot better because I'm always asking what will go wrong and writing code to deal with it. Several times in my career code which I never intended to be introduced to the program counter has saved a bad situation because it was there. I have been routinely shocked in conversations with colleagues at the general blandness and lack of inquisitiveness about failure modes.

Fortunately, it doesn't surprise me when stuff made by other people glitches and doesn't work right.
posted by localroger at 10:48 AM on November 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


I think many people that consider themselves or have been called "pessimists" are actually just realists. It seems common for anyone who isn't of an optimistic mindset to be labeled as negative. That's just my opinion, of course, and I doubt anyone will read this comment anyway.
posted by orme at 10:56 AM on November 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


This concept has been my standard operating procedure for pretty much most of my life.
I also do not plan things down to the last minute. My beef with people who are into 'positive thinking' is that they think they are in control. No they aren't. Neither am I. Neither is anyone else. Once you are clear on that fact, it's all good.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:01 AM on November 4, 2012


...the idea that positive thinking causes things truly out of one's control to go well is pure bullshit and upsetting in view of all the suffering in the world. Quite a bit of "blame the victim" in that way of thinking.

This! It's one of the most insidious aspects of New Age thinking. The delusion that you can just think hard about some desired effect and it will "manifest" in the world, that "the universe will make it happen", is the New Age equivalent of that old standby, prayer (which I think of as "fancy wishing".) It's so passive, really.

It's one thing to be hopeful, but your hopes won't happen with action on your part or someone else's, and, as you note, often even that isn't enough. (Hope itself, by itself, can be an impediment to seeing oneself as an active agent, albeit with limits on one's abilities, rather than as a passive victim. It becomes a substitute for action instead of being an impetus to it. A friend of mine once wore a button that said, "I feel so much better since I gave up hope.") And to beat yourself up when things don't change, because you think you weren't "positive" enough... "Oh, if only I'd wished and hoped [and prayed] a little harder...!" is essentially what such self-blaming victims are saying to themselves.

On pessimism as better preparing oneself to handle what may come (or already is), one can argue that it's just realism:

"I don't consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin." - Leonard Cohen
posted by Philofacts at 11:04 AM on November 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


Isn't there a place for both positive thinking and negative thinking? Or as Brian B. put it, neutrality? Sure, the pendulum may have swung a little far into positive psychology, but it's not like you have to exclusively subscribe to one or another way of thinking.

And terror management theory? Philosophy and "symbolic immortality" stuff aside, I'd leave that alone for all of the failed replications and the extremely small, precise window of death salience that you need to activate within the person in order for it to work properly. The Day of the Dead is just that: a holiday. You can't reproduce all of those cultural benefits by magnifying one component and assuming it as a way of life. If you absolutely have to, get your own death-related holiday and celebrate in a way that's culturally meaningful to you.

It's probably healthy to think realistically (not necessarily pessimistically) every once in a while, but I would treat it like any other diet analogy. Positive thinking may be a nice dessert, but you need to mix it up with the occasional vegetable medley. If anything, terror management would be some kind of medicine or a vitamin supplement.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 11:04 AM on November 4, 2012


localroger, I wish there were more programmers (and engineers in general) like you.
posted by Philofacts at 11:08 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


My best friend died at 27. Before the end, when he caught me weeping, and I admitted it was out of sorrow because I'd be without him, he angrily told me "as long as you can stand, walk, eat and enjoy your food, sing, dance and laugh, you have no right at all to feel sorry for yourself. I will never do any of those things again, and at this moment I would cheerfully kill you for the right to do them again, just once."

That was 27 years ago... I have now lived two of Marc's lifetimes. And when I feel myself slipping into dark thinking, I reflect on this. Works every single time.
posted by kinnakeet at 11:11 AM on November 4, 2012 [27 favorites]


^Oh, man. That's like the "positive thinking, realism, death salience" trifecta, right there. You sound immune to prolonged unhappiness. =)
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 11:17 AM on November 4, 2012


Pessimism doesn't mean unhappiness. I was recently at a customer site which I hadn't visited since 2008, doing a complete new system to replace one that was first installed in 1992, involving a computer, some sketchy comm lines, and several embedded stations scattered throughout the plant. Part of this involved replacing several soldered-on DB25 connectors with DB9's atop a fiberglass box while standing on a ladder. I straight up told my tech assistant "If this thing just comes up and works on the first try, it will be a fricking miracle."

When the system came up and worked, all five stations on the very first try, it was better than sex.
posted by localroger at 11:28 AM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


"And when I feel myself slipping into dark thinking, I reflect on this. Works every single time."

Having lost six members of my family in the past 10 years, this very thing has helped me to focus on the immediate present. Happiness comes in the present- often in those little things that happen spontaneously. No amount of positivity can ameliorate my losses- but a simple joy, recognized and loved for its immediacy and surprise, blunts the heartache, and for a little while, I can feel like I've gained more than I've lost.
posted by Phyllis Harmonic at 11:30 AM on November 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


"It's a fairly well-established fact, in political psychology, that leftwingers report lower levels of happiness than rightwingers... What's much less clear is why."

True believers are promised a greater happiness if they follow their religious path, which is then reported as such, because self-failure induces guilt. A non-religious person would have no guilt about reporting unhappiness.
posted by Brian B. at 11:40 AM on November 4, 2012


I bet this book is crap.
posted by Decani at 12:49 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Can I just say that it was an extremely weird experience to make my regular daily visit to the front page of Metafilter and then see this. (But in a good way!) I appreciate it enormously.
posted by oliverburkeman at 12:51 PM on November 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


Except that last comment, I guess...
posted by oliverburkeman at 12:52 PM on November 4, 2012 [28 favorites]


As a pessimist I'm always happy to be disappointed...
posted by jim in austin at 1:29 PM on November 4, 2012


Happiness is overrated anyway.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:33 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Underrating is happiness.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:34 PM on November 4, 2012


At some places I've worked they wouldn't let us call problems "problems". They're "challenges".

Eventually the inability to recognize the severity of our "challenges" resulted in "executive staff beheadings followed by string of investor lawsuits".
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:45 PM on November 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


There is no "happiness," there are only moments of happiness. --Oscar Levant
posted by kinnakeet at 2:11 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


RobotVoodooPower: At some places I've worked they wouldn't let us call problems "problems". They're "challenges".

Eventually the inability to recognize the severity of our "challenges" resulted in "executive staff beheadings followed by string of investor lawsuits".


A few years ago, the place I worked at suffered through an administrative mania for a management technique called "Appreciative Inquiry." Employees were encouraged to provide evaluation of our organization that came from a place of "appreciating what we already do well and building on that." We weren't supposed to focus on the negatives (e.g. "This is not working well and needs to be changed") but rather the positives. This can be a very effective way for a dysfunctional workplace to keep employees from speaking up about entrenched problems.
posted by Secret Sockdentity at 2:59 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I liked what Jordan Pederson said on a TVO panel, which was along the lines of: "Personal satisfaction in life comes from having achievable goals to work towards. People with an unrealistic world-view have limited hope for happiness." When asked for personal health tips, he said: "I cannot emphasize enough the importance of breathing." Cracked me up. Excellent advice.

(I'm not perfectly happy. I'm not always perfectly realistic either. But this is something that I can work towards).
posted by ovvl at 3:03 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


whenever we think that the way to achieve whatever we’re trying to achieve is to go after it vigorously, and that if we believe it will all work out fine then it will.

Wait, but -- are there a lot of people who believe both of these things? To me they seem almost opposite. We go after things vigorously because we know it's not enough just to believe as hard as we can that it'll work out fine. And then we go after the things we're trying to achieve vigorously because... well, it's kind of hard to achieve them if you go after them languidly, or don't go after them at all.
posted by escabeche at 3:58 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


The secret to happiness is no lowered expectations.

posted by caddis at 5:17 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Barbara Ehrenreich reviews the history of "positive thinking" in the U.S. in Bright Sided, which is a great book. A likely side effect of reading the book: you'll never again unthinkingly donate money to another breast cancer charity!
posted by Currer Belfry at 5:50 AM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


What's the difference?
posted by mrgrimm at 7:12 AM on November 5, 2012


I guess I'd rather stick to being healthily-skeptical-while-cautiously-optimistic. I'm rarely disappointed because I try to remain realistic. And I tried that snarky cynical shit in my 20s, and in hindsight it made me a toxic drain on my relationships and a chore to be around.
posted by lonefrontranger at 9:29 AM on November 5, 2012


Happiness is overrated anyway.

There is no "happiness," there are only moments of happiness. --Oscar Levant

I've come to think that the problem lies in thinking of happiness as a goal when it should really be thought of as a side effect of living well; that is, striving to act well, act effectively, act ethically, etc. That should be one's goal.

In another forum, I expanded on this in a similar discussion of happiness (sorry to be quoting myself, but it beats reinventing my own wheels):

In all of this commenting, I'm a little surprised no-one has interrogated the terms "happiness" or "well-being" a bit more deeply. While I have a certain sense of those terms myself, filtered through my recent studies in philosophy (as in the ancient Greeks' term "eudaimonea"), and I'm also sure that each person has some specific idiosyncratic sense of them, I wonder if there isn't an unsatisfactory vagueness to them, so that there's a certain degree of unrecognized or unacknowledged divergence in meaning between all of our individual particular usages of them: i.e., we think we mean the same thing, but may not.

My first thought is that perhaps the two terms shouldn't be used interchangeably. Let's agree for a moment to define well-being as something including some or all of this constellation: survival; health; longevity; a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment; loving and being loved; belonging; or any of a host of other social and biological needs being met, and last but not least, fulfillment of one's cognitive potential, including what we call rationality, but also endeavours like artistic creativity. (I'm a musician and composer among other things.) Still vague in its encompassment, but at least containing some particulars.

Things that may contribute to one's well-being may not, in the short or even longer term, make one particularly happy. A trivial example is exercise when one is out of shape. I might be happier just staying on the couch. But reason, with its ability to project future possibilities, tells me that my happiness with my status quo is probably irrelevant to my on-going and developing well-being.

When I was a teenager and had run away from the boarding school I was in, and my parents wanted to know what it was exactly I wanted, I said "I want to be happy." In retrospect, I had little idea what that meant or how it was I intended to achieve it. I only knew that I was unhappy with my situation as it was.

Later in life, I've come to the provisional conclusion that happiness isn't so much a goal as it is a side effect of living well, of being engaged with one's work and one's community, among other things, and that happiness or unhappiness are more to be seen as action-motivating emotional states (I have in mind Damasio's work on the role of emotion in cognition and particularly in normative stances and the decisions which flow from them) whether or not those actions contribute to one's well-being. Happiness as a goal makes less sense to me now. To sum up: well-being is teleological; happiness is not. A feeling of happiness by itself may not always be a reliable indicator of well-being. Rationality may sometimes need to override one's feeling of happiness or unhappiness in order for one's well-being to be achieved.

I've experienced many moments of happiness since realizing this, even in the midst of major stresses in my life. They pass, of course, but so do feelings of unhappiness when one just gets on with the activity of life. (Often, if not always.) I suppose one could see this as a tacit endorsement of the Buddhist (or Stoic) stance of non-attachment to one's emotional states. I wouldn't say that it means "don't feel these emotions"; that would be silly. They're part of our wiring.

We weren't supposed to focus on the negatives (e.g. "This is not working well and needs to be changed") but rather the positives. This can be a very effective way for a dysfunctional workplace to keep employees from speaking up about entrenched problems.

Yeah, this resembles the unhealthy & relentless New Age emphasis on positivity; the institutional equivalent, I suppose, of the personal phenomenon on which I commented in (yet) another forum a few years ago, where we were discussing/dissecting a text that claimed that people say "no" way too much and should therefore start always saying "yes":
Just to touch on the New Age thing, one of the things that most annoys me is its tendency to a contextless rejection of the "negative" (emotions, whatever) and insistence on what it characterizes as "positive" - e.g., "anger is bad" (what about the protective anger of a mother whose child is threatened?) This can lead to throwing the baby of useful "negativity" (criticalness, bullshit detection, etc.) out with the bathwater of abusive negativity. It just tends to get so simplistic. Years of observing a lot of New Agers has made me a bit cynical that perhaps the real motivation for the relentless emphasis on staying "positive" is that they don't want to be called on their shit. ("Oh, you're being so critical, so negative!") At times it just seems like teenage immaturity/irresponsibility dressed up in psycho-spiritual robes.

It may well be that the ratio of
useless no's to yes's is unbalanced, but first one has to start clarifying and distinguishing the terms negative and positive and recognize that the value of no or yes is quite context-dependent, before we can have a meaningful discussion. Sometimes saying yes can be just as bad as saying no. It depends...
posted by Philofacts at 10:08 AM on November 5, 2012


griphus: I thought this post was about happiness, not reported happiness.

The felicitometer isn't invented until 2016, so the best we can do right now is self-reporting.
I was going to have corrected your usage of the present perfect, until I realized (1) you are instead (correctly!) using the preferred always-past-present-future of the Greater Gallifreyan Grammar of 2142, and, of course, (2) it isn't.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:24 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


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