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<p>Fiona Katauskas</p>

Fiona Katauskas

I Think I Can’t, I Think I Can’t, I Think I Can’t...

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."

Having trouble listening? Try listening on Soundcloud.

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.

Happy now?

Read more of Ellen Fanning’s explorations of our health and well-being, from the art of 'nudging' to problems with doctor-patient communication, and the alarming statistics about global obesity.

12 comments on this story
by helen

Well, a pessimist is just a well informed optimist.

July 26, 2012 @ 8:47am
by Linnet

Burkeman also refers to the calmness and tranquility to be gained from accepting what is, as practised by the Stoics. Perhaps all our constant striving for 'success' in the future interferes with our ability to feel what is going on in the present. Please note - acceptance as I am using the term does not equal 'like' !

July 26, 2012 @ 10:27am
by shane

Can optimists be realistists? Ditto Helen

July 26, 2012 @ 12:46pm
by Rose

Being optimistic about our potential to effect change or positive contribution by our own actions is a virtue as an overall approach to life. Realistic assessment is also; periodic depression is a reality check and Im not proposing mindless optimism. Moreover theres nothing intrinsically about optimism that has anything to do with seeking to be a high paid executive, only in leftist imagination which seeks to reduce all of reality to capitalism versus anti capitalism.i A whingey blame seeking overall outlook to life is to no ones benefit.

July 26, 2012 @ 1:10pm
by Rotha

I Think I Can....
It is difficult to see a role for brainless positivity. But somehow brainless negativity seems to carry more weight.
I was brought up with the idea that a criticism was a gift, a sign that someone cared. It was only after a family tragedy , the suicide of my son that I began to reassess a family culture which held negativity in such high regard. The more I looked the more I saw the inadvertent damage caused by routine criticism and negativity. Dishonest positivity is not helpful, but the problem lies with dishonesty not positivity. Positivity AND honesty is the way to contribute usefully to any group.

July 26, 2012 @ 3:46pm
by Edward

Rose, haven't you ever been in a workplace where management keep screwing up with a constant stream of new "initiatives", but then treating any criticism of their latest stupid idea as being the complaining of "change-fatigued" workers with the "wrong attitude"?

Where no-one wants to ask where all those tens of thousands of dollars went (on consulting fees) for fear of showing themselves to be "culturally incompatible", for maliciously attempting to drain the firm of its positive energies? (Or whatever)

Don't you see any relationship between the sort of mindless, American, clinically-tooth-whitened optimism and the bizarre business decisions that led up to the global financial crisis?

You are right to say that there is no necessary relationship between mindless positivity and capitalism (although no-one ever suggested there was). However, while corporate America might not have birthed it, but it has sure as hell adopted it, with disastrous results.

For what its worth, I am a relentlessly optimistic person; I was raised that way. But in my culture, refusing to criticise an idea, or a person, is almost insulting. One does not criticise the ideas of a small child; one does not lecture one's dog for making a mistake. To criticise an idea is to acknowledge its value. This has not been my experience of American corporate culture.

July 27, 2012 @ 8:09am
by PageTurner

An inspired, thought-provoking piece - thank you very much. Henry Chester wrote: Enthusiasm is the greatest asset in the world. It beats money, power and influence. Albert Camus wrote: To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others. I don’t care about Chester or Camus, but I’m looking forward to tomorrow!

July 30, 2012 @ 9:40am
by Sasha

There is a difference between acceptance as in mindfulness terms, and living with your values and trying not to see everything in the worse possible way and thinking that everything is wonderful and that if you are not screaming ' I am happy all the time' then there is something wrong with you and your life--shame this piece does not tease this out a little better....

July 30, 2012 @ 9:50am
by Richard Murray

"Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory."
Albert Schweitzer

I also find caring and being needed by another person[s] is the best antidote to self absorption and unhappiness.

July 30, 2012 @ 6:44pm
Show previous 9 comments
by Jazz

It's not so much an either-or issue, but rather an awareness of the worst case scenario and the best case scenario, and (a) being able to have a plan to get to the best case scenario, but also (b) having a rough idea or plan for every scenario that could happen.

To me, that's a prepared optimism.

July 31, 2012 @ 2:10pm
by solasaurus

The notion that positive thinking is the cause of the GFC is optimistic to the point of delusional. The GFC was caused by deliberate manipulations of financial instruments on a massive scale with the full knowledge of those who created this fraud that their customers would be ripped off a staggeringly large amount of money. It wasn't positive thinking, it was rampant criminality by intelligent sociopaths in positions of power. Clearly these anti-positive thinking types have a rose-tinted view of reality.

September 3, 2012 @ 5:22pm
by DEB CAMPBELL

Interesting article Ellen which tallies with something I have thinking for a while - Hope is the problem. Do others think hope is a human characteristic or just part of Western 'civilisation'? Is it an artefact of christianity or all monotheistic religions? And/ or of western capitalism - the whole 'improve' comes to equal 'profit' equals 'more' and 'better' and then tied up with the US constitutionally promised 'pursuit of happiness' - or both religion AND capitalism? I am coming to suspect it is all a giant con designed to make us constantly strive for 'growth'. If we give up hope can we begin to learn more from our many failures and be content?

October 6, 2012 @ 9:39am
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