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5 Big Happiness Myths Debunked—And The Power Of Negative Thinking

Oliver Burkeman, author of the book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, has spent years studying what makes people happy. It's not what you think.

Editor's Note: This story contains one of our 11 New Years resolutions you can actually keep in 2014. For the full list, click here.

It sometimes feels as if the "happiness industry"—the self-help books, motivational speakers, corporate consultants and the rest—makes its money by being useless.

It's an ingenious business model, when you think about it: promise to help people think positive, then when your techniques fail, conclude that they weren't thinking positively enough—sending them back for more. Among the many myths and misconceptions dogging the subject of happiness, here are five of the worst, along with some suggestions for what to do instead.

1. It's crucial to maintain a positive mindset

Good luck with that. Though it's the founding principle of the positive thinking movement, trying hard to focus on upbeat thoughts and emotions 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 take longer 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. Next time you're feeling unmotivated about starting some daunting project, allow yourself to feel unmotivated—and at the same time, open up the file and begin. Doing meaningful work is challenging enough without the burdensome demand that you feel like doing it, too.

2. Ambitious goals, relentlessly pursued, are the key to success

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. (Consider the hypothetical entrepreneur who vows to become a millionaire by 35 and succeeds—but only at the cost of alienating his family and friends, and ruining his health.) Even the 1996 Mount Everest disaster has been blamed on the "overpursuit of goals."

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. "The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning," wrote the psychologist Erich Fromm. "Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers." Besides, isn't there something dubious about a philosophy of happiness that locates it entirely in the future, which never seems to arrive?

3. The best managers are those who make work fun

This won't surprise anyone who's encountered managers in the mold of David Brent—but the hazards of enforced positivity get worse when it's a matter of trying to make other people, not just yourself, feel cheery. 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: if the famous ping-pong tables and meditation pods of Silicon Valley do keep workers happy, that's probably because they reflect a commitment to letting people relax when they need to—not because anyone feels forced to use them. The quality that's really appreciated in managers, one recent study suggests, isn't fun; it's fairness, which proved much more important as a source of stress than an overwhelming workload.

4. Higher self-esteem equals greater happiness

It's better to have high self-esteem than low self-esteem. (Within limits, anyway: history's most horrifying dictators thought pretty highly of themselves, too.) 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. Suddenly, your everyday failures—the things that go wrong for everyone, every so often—become far more consequential: instead of merely being regrettable in themselves, they threaten your overall grade.

The late psychotherapist Albert Ellis called self-esteem the greatest emotional disturbance of them all. Rate your individual acts as good or bad if you like, he advised, and by all means try to perform more good ones. But leave your self out of it.

5. Avoid pessimists at all costs

"Toxic people," "energy vampires": whatever labels the positivity police like to give them, it's a solid plank of conventional wisdom that people who dwell on worst-case scenarios are best avoided. Yet a particular kind of pessimism is well worth cultivating. It's what the psychologist Julie Norem calls "defensive pessimism," though its origins stretch back to 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.

A similar focus on downsides informs the Principle of Affordable Loss, part of the business philosophy known as "effectuation." Instead of asking how likely some venture is to succeed, ask whether you could tolerate the consequences if it failed. That way, you'll take the interestingly risky steps while avoiding the stupidly risky ones.

Oliver will be in Fast Company's office tomorrow, November 8, at 12PM ET for a live chat on happiness, productivity, uncertainty, and the power of negative thinking. Check out our conversation—and feel free to chime in with your own thoughts, questions, and ideas on all things happy. It'll improve your mood!

Oliver Burkeman is a writer for the Guardian, based in Brooklyn. His book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking is published in paperback this week by Faber & Faber, Inc. Find him on Twitter @oliverburkeman.

[Image: Flickr user Morebyless]

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  • One of the major problems I have with the "positive thinking" brigade is how they lump valid criticism and outrage (in response to their malicious or thoughtless actions) with their "negative" pile so they can dismiss it and continue imposing on others.

    I've noticed women are always telling me to think positive and it's incredibly creepy because what is the world's problem with thinking realistically or accurately? I'm aware our emotional state distorts our individual perception of reality, so I can understand why people promulgate advice such as "fake it till you make it" but it just sounds like cosmetic emotional fraud.

    It's a bit like the creepy advice we received from our mothers; "if you have nothing nice to say, then don't say anything at all" and "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil". Along with "positive thinking", it all seems impossibly deceptive, manipulative and conducive to evil.

    I think the whole world needs to get real.

  • Ana Ferreira

    entirely agree - although, as a woman myself, it rather undermines the gender-specific nature of your comments...

  • Chris Tar

    I highly recommend Shirzad Chamine's talk and book on 'Positive Intelligence' which is not about an airy or empty optimistic spin on everything, but about limiting overly negative thinking which does nothing to advance our goals or help our creative thinking and actions. Some of it is (intentionally or unintentionally) repackaged mindfulness practices, but it's supremely focused, simplified, and presented as a practical method.

  • Tom Liu

    1. Agreed, part of the modern Positive Psychology (the science, not the thought) movement is the "permission to
    be human" - which means allowing yourself the range of human emotion -
    sadness, depression, happiness, joy, optimism. When you are told NOT to
    feel a certain way, (and not how) you are in fact made to feel worthless
    for feeling the way you feel. A psychologist should never tell their
    client to they can't feel bad, because sadness is a part of life, it's
    how you deal with it that matters. This doesn't mean positive thinking
    is bad, it only means that telling someone to do the opposite of how
    they feel, makes them feel bad for feeling the way they currently do,
    and in fact makes them feel worse. But action does speak louder than
    words at times, if you're feeling unmotivated, actually spending 5
    minutes DOING your work does make you more motivated and productive. 2.
    Having ambitious goals and pursuing them can absolutely yield success.
    However, winning the rat race means you're still a rat. Again, Positive
    Psychology doesn't go against the notion that ambition + action =
    success. What the movement does do is differentiate the difference
    between being "successful," and "flourishing" in life. In order to truly
    Flourish in this life, one must have positive relationships, positive
    emotion, meaning and engagement in their work and a certain level of
    achievement. The author Oliver Burkeman doesn't differentiate between
    the two ideas, and uses the definition of "success" here very loosely.
    3. I haven't heard this headline at all "the best managers are the ones
    that make work fun" in positive psychology - The best managers are the
    ones that doesn't blame, but holds people accountable (in his article he
    describes "fairness" - which is dead on), that leads by example. So
    yes, I absolutely agree with him. 4. The tagline is actually true,
    higher self esteem does have a linear positive correlation with
    happiness. First of all, he mentions that history's dictators probably
    had high self esteem and that's a bad thing, however there's been zero
    evidence to suggests that the dictators he is mentioning are not happy.
    Yes dictators are seen as bad, but that doesn't support his argument
    that high self-esteem doesn't equal happiness. So that argument is not
    valid. He mentions a minority of psychologists who disagree - and the
    cause of their disagreement isn't the idea that self-esteem doesn't
    equal happiness, it's that those who rate their self-esteem based on the
    outside world, can be unhappy because of their perception of negative
    events in the outside world. The people he is describing are actually
    pessimists - pessimists have a over-tendency to believe that problems in
    the world are permanent and pervasive. They are the ones more likely to
    believe that "everyday failures are far more consequential." - thus
    he's actually arguing against his first point (thinking optimistically
    doesn't matter), because thinking optimistically is one of the main
    lines that divide optimists and pessimists. This one is false. 5. I
    partially agree with his point, a healthy dose of pessimism is necessary
    in order to avoid danger, you're not gonna walk through a dangerous
    neighborhood late at night because you're optimistic bad things won't
    happen. HOWEVER his example is quite awful. "Thinking carefully about
    how badly things could go 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." - Lawyers
    are the number one people who have this tendency - to imagine the
    counterarguments before it happens in order to counter it. Lawyers also
    have the HIGHEST depression and anxiety rates in the country!!! Thinking
    negatively absolutely doesn't not equal lower anxiety. Once again, the
    author uses the word "success" loosely. Didn't he just make an argument
    that "success" is bad in point #2? - Hi, my name is Tom Liu and I study Positive Psychology.

  • meh

    Such a non article .... extreme forms of management practice are bad ...... management practices that ask for unrealistic personal responses are bad ....

  • Purrpy

    Was having a good day until I read this article. Positive thinking does not mean you forgot about things - it helps you to focus on finding options. Maybe not exactly what we want or the way we want them - but there are options. That is just LIFE <3

  • meh

    You get the feeling that Fast Company wants "positive": responses to the article leading the comments ..... which of course says it all about the value of the article ....

  • Valerie Alexander

    I don't think it's helpful to tell people how they should be thinking (positively or otherwise) without giving them the tools to do so. If you grew up in a house where nobody spoke Greek, you wouldn't expect to decide to start speaking Greek and just do so naturally, by instinct. The same is true for happiness.

    Most of us did not grow up in environments where happiness was the natural order. For this reason, if we want to be happy, we have to actively train our brains for happiness, not just default to the most natural state. Positive thinking has a lot of value, but unless you actively force yourself to do it -- especially when it feels unnatural, then you are just going to revert to the same negative synapses that always fire in your gray matter in any given situation.

    Actively teaching yourself happiness, like you'd learn any new skill, has tremendous benefits. It just takes work, time and practice.

    Valerie Alexander
    author, Happiness as a Second Language

  • glorrierose

    There's optimism. There's pessimism. And then there's being realistic.

    The realistic thinker is able to anticipate actual negative things happening -- because they will, no matter how positively you think, because you can't control other people's actions with your thinking and you can't "mind meld" them to do your bidding. Because the realistic thinker is able to anticipate a negative turn of events, he or she is NOT "disappointed" when they do, but rather PREPARED to make something positive out of them.

    Eternal optimism is eternal delusion, and guaranteed at some point to produce disappointment and depression.

  • Kenneth Benjamin

    Regarding the pursuit of goals, the problem isn't with the pursuit of goals generally, but rather with asking "What goals?"

    If you want to make a million dollars, you have to ask, why? What's the life-purpose for that goal?

    Happiness is when your life fulfills your needs. What is essential to understand is what your needs are. Maybe you do need something that it takes a million dollars to realize but, more likely than not, you don't. You're after something else, like love, fame, family, health, etc.

    Properly used, any of the rejected techniques mentioned can be helpful. It's just essential that you don't think they are a one-size-fits-all, all-encompassing solution. Take the holistic approach to fulfilling your needs and understand that it isn't achieving the goal that makes you happy, it's the pursuit itself.

    Make that pursuit meaningful and you'll have the happiness you desire.

    Kenneth Benjamin
    Founder & Chief Happiness Officer

  • Joshua Cuyos

    I knew it was necessary to have a bit of negativity in life. Otherwise, you may end up destroying yourself due to not releasing your inner darkness at least once in a while......

    "You all sensed your weaknesses, but trusted your strengths to help you overcome them"
    "Every person contains light and shadow within. I am the warrior who embodies that concept. White and black, combined together. The ashen color... Gray."
    "You have no weakness. Thus, you can grow no stronger."
    - Tessai/Kyoryu Gray, Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger

  • Maria C

    Dear Oliver,

    Thank you for showing us how poorly you understand positive thinking. Each point you make it is very bad founded and do not truly reflects the spirit of positive thinking. For example, Point 1: not at any point positive thinking theory talks about avoiding feelings of sadness or grieve. Positive thinking talks about how certain circumstances can make you stronger if you have the right mindset for it. Point 2: positive thinking goes hand in hand with values so it does not equal to corner-cutting. Is that what you do? 3 You said it, its about allowing people to be relaxed, nobody is forcing fun in anybody 4 how can low self stem make you happier? There might not be direct relationship of high self stem with happiness but high self stem makes people more likely to achieve their objectives in life which ultimately make them happier. 5 positive thinking is not about living in the clouds, look ing at all possible scenarios to make a decision, that does not make one a negative thinker. On the other hand, if you stay too long with people with negative thinking you run the risk of ending there....which it's clearly where you are.

  • Andrew Bassett

    What I've come to learn is when a post starts with "Dear" and ends with a name, you just know it will be a crusty, sarcastic, self-righteous knee-jerk reaction from a senior citizen.

  • KingJolt

    Try being yourself and if people can’t
    handle it then they can go choke on a box of dicks.

  • theirmind

    Ah, to me, or to maintain appropriate flexibility is not optimistic nor pessimistic force.

  • DadoTrips

    For a brief piece, this is soundly and firmly grounded. Too much "positive thinking" is based on abstract idealism, and not on practical, "wisdom-based," real-life actions and behaviors. While having a generally "positive attitude" rather than being cynical makes sense - the shallow notion that positivity will overcome most everything is dangerous and unrealistic. The author here concisely attacks five statements/myths with solid analysis - I'm even more convinced than I was before. And I'm very positive about that!

  • Tracy

    I think you need a balance of both neg and pos thinking. They each have their advantages. The point raised here is that you need not FORCE any positive emotions as pointed out that suppression usually lead to worst outcomes. We all feel negative at times, it's ok to use to emotional management strategies to replace our negative feels but keep in mind that it will serve us to recognize them, feel them, then move forward.