Have you ever had the sneaking suspicion that ‘positive thinking’, as a lifestyle choice, is a little bit mental? You know the one, it’s the world of goal setting, positive visualisation and endless 10 point plans for success and happiness as expounded by a whole industry of happy clappy optimism gurus. I have and this stuff can be truly terrifying to someone from Sheffield. Personally, I have always felt it to be a bit forced, a little desperate, and a lot unsustainable. But hey, each to his/her own. I was always content to let the happiness hippies get on with their thing while I got along with my, shall we say, alternative outlook. And all was well. Until, that is, I began to feel the spectre of ‘positivity’ begin to encroach on my life in that unavoidable capture net, the workplace.
It seems that, as the recession bites, positive thinking has become ubiquitous in the workplace. Desperate Senior Managers increasingly incorporate its teachings into our everyday lives, often in an effort to convince us that doing 3 people’s jobs as well as our own is a sensible way to run a business. I have observed previously sane colleagues become infected with ‘positivity’ and make increasingly irrational decisions in fear of being perceived as ‘being negative’. Meetings, once the forum for problem solving and debate, have become little more than motivational seminars and an exercise in self-congratulation as staff are encouraged to go around the table and tell everyone “one positive thing that has happened this week”. By the time it gets to me I’m usually too busy vomiting to contribute.
Having experienced the feeling of being devoured by this insane cult of optimism and seen, at first hand, how its overvalued doctrine can override reason and common sense, I was desperate for someone to come along and save me from the positive thinking Nazis. And they did, in the form of Guardian columnist and psychologist, Oliver Burkeman, with his book ‘The Antidote – Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. And what an antidote it is.
What Burkeman doesn’t do is offer an alternative 10 point plan for happiness. Thank God. What he does do is take you on an exploration of what is actually wrong with the positive thinking industry and the one-size-fits-all definition of happiness. His journey takes him across the globe, literally, but also into the minds and worlds of people who have really thought about the stuff of happiness. I mean REALLY thought about it, not just nipped into WH Smith for the latest ‘Path to Delirious Joy ’ best seller to give them a boost when they’re a feeling a bit pissed off. He delves into the philosophical teachings of Stoicism and Buddhism; offers us psychological research; insightful interviews with a diverse range of free-thinking individuals and imaginative case studies. Then he lays it on a plate and invites the reader to actually think for themselves, something which, it seems to me, is the antithesis of the positive thinking agenda.
Burkeman’s travels take him from a motivational conference where George W Bush is a speaker (need I say more to convince you ) to a silent Buddhist retreat; from the slums of Nairobi to the ‘Museum of Failures’. It’s a fascinating mission to redefine what we mean by happiness and how we achieve it and is packed with interesting and funny anecdotes and findings. Here are just a few of the questions that he explores:
Can ‘chasing’ happiness be bad for us?
Why do companies set goals then throw everything at achieving them even when it’s apparent that they are not working?
Why do people in the slums of Nairobi achieve a higher happiness rating than people in the affluent West?
Can constantly boosting your child’s self-esteem turn them into a self- absorbed brat?
Can setting goals be at best, unhelpful, and at worst dangerous?
Can changing our ideas on death and dying help us lead more fulfilling lives?
Burkeman puts his ideas across in a non-preachy, balanced way with plenty of wit and bags of common sense. He doesn’t dismiss positive thinking in its entirety. He acknowledges that there are situations where it can be useful, for example, getting into the right frame of mind for an interview. He does, however, challenge the unrelenting doctrine of positive thinking as an all-encompassing means of achieving happiness and success. He invites the reader to consider the idea that embracing a ‘negative’ path and all that this entails: uncertainty, facing fear and failure head on can help us toward a more contented life. In short, shit happens, let’s deal with it. But more than that, it confirms everything that I ever suspected about the gospel of positive thinking but was too thick to put into words myself, and for that I will be eternally grateful.
For an excellent video on the perils of positive thinking by Barbara Ehrenreich please click below