I Think I Can’t, I Think I Can’t, I Think I Can’t...
By Ellen FanningJuly 26, 2012
Could it be that optimism is a curse, that the pursuit of happiness just makes us miserable, and that positive thinking caused the global financial crisis? There is a case for expecting the worst of life. Then if it doesn't prove to be a total disaster ... that's a positive, right?
It was probably always going to take a Brit to piece together a book about the upsides of negativity. The steadying influence of uncertainty. The rewards of failure.
Oliver Burkeman seems a happy enough chap. An Englishman in New York, he writes a weekly column for The Guardian newspaper about "social psychology, self-help culture, and the science of happiness" which he boasts "make unprovoked attacks on The Secret."
To be honest, I don't know what The Secret is. Nodody's whispered it to me.
I've never joined Anthony Robbins for a "Date with Destiny", otherwise known as a seminar ("Get Instant Success!" "Unleash The Power Within!" and "Coming soon to the Gold Coast", which seems appropriate somehow).
And frankly since middle age kicked in, I've been preoccupied with the inevitability of death, if not the futility of life. And can I say, it's not all bad.
"Pessimism, when you get used to it, is just as agreeable as optimism," said the English novelist Arnold Bennett, who first noticed the gap in the market for serialised fiction for women's magazines. Enough said.
That is rather the point of Oliver Burkeman's new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking.
He quotes experimental psychologists, terrorism experts, Buddhists, philosophers and business school academics who argue that it is the pursuit of happiness — our (well actually your) obsession with trying so hard to be positive — which is the problem, not the solution.
And if you look around, he says, it has become quite a problem.
Burkeman quotes the social critic Barbara Ehrenreich's 2010 book, Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, to argue that the global financial crisis arose out of "an American business culture in which even thinking about the possibility of failure — let alone speaking up about it at meetings — had come to be considered an embarrassing faux pas."
It's a world view which emerged in 19th century America to replace the gloomy, solid, Puritan notion that life was just relentless hard work and even that wouldn't save you from eternal damnation if you were predestined to burn in Hell.
"New thought," writes Burkeman "proposed that one could achieve happiness and worldly success through the power of the mind." If you scrunched your eyes shut and hoped enough, you could change the world. It's the basis of all New Age religions. Think Scientology, and remember the spectacle of Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's couch.
Furthermore, "new thought" says that if you just decided to, gee willikers, you could go to bed tonight and throw off the person you are today, waking up fresh, and new and optimistic. Ready to take on the world.
It's been a very powerful idea in the corporate world, this belief that setting goals and striving to achieve them is a way to power the engine of economic growth. It's in the DNA of politics (Winners say "Yes We Can!" Losers say "Life wasn't meant to be easy.")
And frankly, what's the alternative to setting goals? Staring out the window and hoping for the best?
You hardly ever hear about anyone focussing on failure.
Burkeman takes his reader to the Museum of Failed Products, a warehouse near the airport in Ann Arbor Michigan where the shelves are lined with products that bombed.
There's Clairol's "A Touch of Yoghurt" Shampoo, caffeinated beer, TV dinners branded with the logo of the toothpaste manufacturer Colgate and Fortune Snookies, "a short lived line of fortune cookies for dogs," write Burkeman.
The museum's curator believes it serves a serious educative purpose for visiting consumer product manufacturers who, Burkeman notes, have traditionally been "so focussed on their next hoped-for-success and so unwilling to invest time or energy in thinking about their industry's past failures." On their visits, they often discover their failed ideas have failed before!
Then there's just looking on the dark side.
Burkeman recalls the maverick psychotherapist, the late Albert Ellis who revived the Stoic notion that "our judgements about the world are all that we can control, but also all that we need to control in order to be happy".
It's not that hoon tailgating you in the traffic that's upsetting you. You're upset because you think tailgating is wrong.
For Ellis, this meant that rather than getting his patients to look on the bright side, he'd get them to imagine the worst case scenario and in this way, he believed he could "turn infinite fears into finite ones", writes Burkeman.
The author watched Ellis deliver one of his famous Friday night New York workshops, during which hauled onto the stage a hapless woman who was vacillating about whether to leave a job she hated move across the country and marry a man who might not be right for her.
Burkeman recalls Ellis in full flight, shouting at the woman ("because he was deaf but also I suspected because he enjoyed shouting," writes Burkeman).
"So maybe he turns out to be a jerk and you get divorced! That would be highly disagreeable! You might feel sad! But it doesn't have to be awful! It doesn't have to be completely terrible."
But is there is a downside to all this downside?
In this audio interview with Oliver Burkeman, we debate whether in dismissing the idea of optimism, of hoping for a better tomorrow, of setting goals and being motivated, we are left with little more than fatalism.