The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman

Prize quotes,

The first benefit of dwelling on how bad things might get is a straightforward one. Psychologists have long agreed that one of the greatest enemies of human happiness is ‘hedonic adaptation’ – the predictable and frustrating way in which any new source of pleasure we obtain, whether it’s as minor as a new piece of electronic gadgetry or as major as a marriage, swiftly gets relegated to the backdrop of our lives. We grow accustomed to it, and so it ceases to deliver so much joy. It follows, then, that regularly reminding yourself that you might lose any of the things you currently enjoy – indeed, that you will definitely lose them all, in the end, when death catches up with you – would reverse the adaptation effect. Thinking about the possibility of losing something you value shifts it from the backdrop of your life back to centre stage, where it can deliver pleasure once more. ‘Whenever you grow attached to something,’ writes Epictetus, ‘do not act as though it were one of those things that cannot be taken away, but as though it were something like a jar or a crystal goblet . . . if you kiss your child, your brother, your friend . . remind yourself that you love a mortal, something not your own; it has been given to you for the present, not inseparably nor forever, but like a fig, or a bunch of grapes, at a fixed season of the year.’ Each time you kiss your child goodnight, he contends, you should specifically consider the possibility that she might die tomorrow. This is jarring advice that might strike any parent as horrifying, but Epictetus is adamant: the practice will make you love her all the more, while simultaneously reducing the shock should that awful eventuality ever come to pass.

The second, subtler, and arguably even more powerful benefit of the premeditation of evils is as an antidote to anxiety. Consider how we normally seek to assuage worries about the future: we seek reassurance, looking to persuade ourselves that everything will be all right. But reassurance is a double-edged sword. In the short term, it can be wonderful, but like all forms of optimism, it requires constant maintenance: if you offer reassurance to a friend who is in the grip of anxiety, you’ll often find that a few days later, he’ll be back for more. Worse, reassurance can actually exacerbate anxiety: when you reassure your friend that the worst-case scenario he fears probably won’t occur, you inadvertently reinforce his belief that it would be catastrophic if it did. You are tightening the coil of his anxiety, not loosening it. All too often, the Stoics point out, things will not turn out for the best.


If a person sees danger telling them to think positive shows no real concern for them.  A problem that is not identified will only prolong and get worse.

"Everything happens for a reason" would make for an interesting study if we could get a proper picture of the damage it does.  How many walk past their suffering neighbour saying whatever comes to be is for the best?  Plus it is so rife that those who would admit that things are getting worse for them are reluctant to say.  They blame themselves.  They doubt themselves thinking, "Maybe things are better and I am too self-centred or stupid to see it?"

Truth and reality are not about you and it is cruel to be led to think that you can stave off pain by thinking nice thoughts or even that thinking nice thoughts magically can change things.

By the way talk of Heaven and eternal life is just another form of, "Everything happens for a reason."  It is akin to telling somebody who is starving that you won't share your bread with them for you are confident they will have all the bread they want in the afterlife.

Now let us quote the book on affirmations - attempts to use upbeat statements to change how you feel about yourself so that you will be more positive and confident.

Most affirmations sound pretty cheesy, and one might suspect that they would have little effect. Surely, though, they’re harmless? Wood wasn’t so sure about that. Her reasoning, though compatible with Wegner’s, drew on a different psychological tradition known as ‘self-comparison theory’. Much as we like to hear positive messages about ourselves, this theory suggests, we crave even more strongly the sense of being a coherent, consistent self in the first place. Messages that conflict with that existing sense of self, therefore, are unsettling, and so we often reject them – even if they happen to be positive, and even if the source of the message is ourselves. Wood’s hunch was that people who seek out affirmations would be, by definition, those with low self-esteem – but that, for that very same reason, they would end up reacting against the messages in the affirmations, because they conflicted with their self-images. Messages such as ‘Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better’ would clash with their poor opinion of themselves, and thus be rejected, so as not to threaten the coherence of their sense of self. The result might even be a worsening of their low self-esteem, as people struggled to reassert their existing self-images against the incoming messages. Which is exactly what happened in Wood’s research. In one set of experiments, people were divided into subgroups of those with low and high self-esteem, then asked to undertake a journal-writing exercise; every time a bell rang, they were to repeat to themselves the phrase ‘I am a lovable person.’ According to a variety of ingenious mood measures, those who began the process with low self-esteem became appreciably less happy as a result of telling themselves that they were lovable. They didn’t feel particularly lovable to begin with – and trying to convince themselves otherwise merely solidified their negativity. ‘Positive thinking’ had made them feel worse.

MY COMMENT: If that is bad, trying to be God with affirmations is far worse.  Religion plays the following trick.  "Just because I don't think I am God and don't think I can command the universe I am humble."  But control is control.  You can think you are God of your mini-universe, the room you never leave with all the things you want.  If you were the creator that might be all you would make.  So you don't have to aspire to run all creation or make an unimaginably big universe to self-deify and be riddled with pride.  Everybody controls something and takes pride in it.  Pride is pride.  Our hypocrisy does not like obvious pride so that is how we get away with it.


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