Discover the positive power of negative thinking
“Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life,” So The Song Goes, And Who Would Argue With That?
Quite a few psychologists and philosophers actually. Here we explore how harnessing the power of negative thinking may lead to the good things in life.
If you really want something in life, the way to increase your chances of achieving it is to think positively, and we all know that high expectations and self-confidence get you everywhere, right?
Not necessarily. In fact, research is showing that the opposite could be true.
So what would happen if you started thinking about all the things that could go wrong instead?
According to the science, when you think less positively about a goal you’re more likely to take action, to work harder and to try harder overall to get what you want. The result is that you’re more likely to succeed than if you were to sit back and convince yourself you’re going to get what you want just by wanting it hard enough. As Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote, says, “Reassurance is a double-edged sword.”
In his book about the positive power of negative thinking, Burkeman explores the idea that the more we strive for happiness, and other life goals like security and self-esteem, the less likely we are to achieve them. He believes that by thinking more about the negative side of life – like the inevitability of death and suffering, and our lack of control over what happens to us – then we are more likely to achieve something close to happiness. Happiness, he says, has to be a mix of the rough and smooth, the aches and pains as well as the joys of life.
If you’re the kind of person who bristles each time you’re told every cloud has a silver lining, then you’ll relish the thought that your tendency to take more of a glass-half-empty view of the world from time to time isn’t so off the mark. But if you’re more inclined to ignore the negatives and always focus on the positives, finding out how to achieve a healthier balance could lead to a more fulfilling existence. Here are five unconventional but effective recommendations from Burkeman:
Don’t visualise successful outcomes
Recent research shows that picturing a successful result when tackling a difficult task can backfire. Study participants who did so were less likely to achieve their goal than those with more realistic expectations because imagining they already had achieved it reduced their motivation.
Feeling insecure is okay
Helen Keller once said, “Security is mostly a superstition.” Meaning we can crave security as much as we like, but the reality is that we have little control over whether or not we achieve it. The experts believe that striving too hard to feel safe is precisely what causes feelings of insecurity in the first place. Not knowing what the future holds is what keeps us working towards our life goals.
Don’t make detailed plans
Taking more of a learn-as-you-go approach to a new project can lead to a better outcome. A study of successful business owners found that they just get started and keep modifying their course as they go. Devising an ambitious plan and striving to make it work doesn’t appear to lead to the successful outcomes we would expect.
Self-acceptance not self-esteem
Repeating affirmations like “I am lovable”, studies show, can often make people feel worse. Don’t make self-acceptance conditional on believing you’re a ‘good person’, or you’ll revert to low self-esteem when you do something less than good, which you inevitably will at some point.
Live by the backwards law
The 1960s philosopher Alan Watts coined the term “the backwards law” to describe the principle at the heart of negative thinking. He wrote: “When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink, but when you try to sink, you float.” In the same way, trying really hard to be happy can make you miserable and struggling to eliminate anxiety makes you anxious.