Adventures on the Negative Path

I was listening once again to someone bloviating about how success depends on determination, pushing through, persevering in the face of the array of negative forces arrayed against you when I finally tumbled to what bugged me about it. Success does often depend on those things.

But so does failure.

One criticism of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided is that it identifies the problem with positive thinking but does not offer a solution. Now, I don’t think the two need always come packaged together; just because you’ve identified that things are wrong does not mean that you instantly know how to make them right. In fact, finding a solution is often a team effort predicated on sufficient numbers of people acknowledging a problem exists.

That said, Ehrenreich’s book left me in the dumps. And with “positive thinking” the very target of the book — well, what are you going to do instead?

Oliver Burkeman’s book Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking offers some good suggestions. Starting with the premise that the cult of positivity is not only useless but actually actively harmful, Burkeman examines several cultures and philosophies that meet head-on what positivity tries to paper over.

He starts with stoicism, which is not the joyless, Spock-like logic I imagined it to be, then proceeds through Buddhism, the uncharacteristically selfless New Age thought of Eckhart Tolle, and closes with the practice of Memento Mori — including death in life, instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.

But it’s not all philosophy. He also examines how goal-setting becomes self-defeating and can lead to disaster, as it did on Everest. He visits a museum of failed product design, which is needed and valued because many companies not only refuse to acknowledge their errors, they can’t even remember they’ve made them. And he also explores how constant grasping after security, stability, and safety also locks us out of life (while giving us the TSA).

I recognized little bits of myself and my own thinking throughout the book. Stoicism, for example, is the most effective method I’ve discovered for dealing with air travel. I’ve never been big on goal-setting, either, but now at least I don’t feel like I’m doing life wrong by not having a ten-year plan.

A lot of people will have this experience with the book. It may not actually tell you anything you didn’t suspect to be true already. But it is good to hear someone else say it, to write down in book form that there’s nothing broken with your brain because you fire-walking is a neat physics trick and not proof of the power of focus and determination. Positive thinking is so pervasive, in western spiritual life as well as businesses, that thinking like this can start to feel very isolating. The great value of Antidote is that it argues, effectively, that you are not alone.

And that if trying to Think Positively makes you miserable, well, it would be a small miracle if it did anything else.

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