Screw Positive Thinking! Why Our Quest for Happiness Is Making Us Miserable
Continued from previous page
But could there be a third possibility, besides the futile effort to pursue solutions that never seem to work, on the one hand, and just giving up, on the other? After several years reporting on the field of psychology as a journalist, I finally realized that there might be. I began to think that something united all those psychologists and philosophers — and even the occasional self-help guru — whose ideas seemed actually to hold water. The startling conclusion at which they had all arrived, in different ways, was this: that the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy. They didn’t see this conclusion as depressing, though. Instead, they argued that it pointed to an alternative approach, a “negative path” to happiness, that entailed taking a radically different stance towards those things that most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death. In short, all these people seemed to agree that in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions — or, at the very least, to learn to stop running quite so hard from them. Which is a bewildering thought, and one that calls into question not just our methods for achieving happiness, but also our assumptions about what “happiness” really means.
Which is how I came to find myself rising reluctantly to my feet, up in a dark extremity of that basketball stadium, because Get Motivated!’s excitable mistress of ceremonies had announced a “dance competition,” in which everyone present was obliged to participate. Giant beach balls appeared as if from nowhere, bumping across the heads of the crowd, who jiggled awkwardly as Wham! blared from the sound system. The first prize of a free trip to Disney World, we were informed, awaited not the best dancer but the most motivated one, though the distinction made little difference to me: I found the whole thing too excruciating to do more than sway very slightly. The prize was eventually awarded to a soldier. This was a decision that I suspected had been taken to pander to local patriotic pride, rather than strictly in recognition of highly motivated dancing.
* * *
One of the foremost investigators of the problems with positive thinking is a professor of psychology named Daniel Wegner, who runs the Mental Control Laboratory at Harvard University.
This is not, whatever its name might suggest, a CIA-funded establishment dedicated to the science of brainwashing. Wegner’s intellectual territory is what has come to be known as “ironic process theory,” which explores the ways in which our efforts to suppress certain thoughts or behaviors result, ironically, in their becoming more prevalent. I got off to a bad start with Professor Wegner when I accidentally typed his surname, in a newspaper column, as “Wenger.” He sent me a crabby email (“Get the name right!”), and didn’t seem likely to be receptive to the argument that my slip-up was an interesting example of exactly the kinds of errors he studied. The rest of our communications proved a little strained.
The problems to which Wegner has dedicated much of his career all have their origins in a simple and intensely irritating parlor game, which dates back at least to the days of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who reputedly used it to torment his brother. It takes the form of a challenge: can you — the victim is asked — succeed in not thinking about a white bear for one whole minute? You can guess the answer, of course, but it’s nonetheless instructive to make the attempt. Why not try it now? Look at your watch, or find a clock with a second hand, and aim for a mere ten seconds of entirely non-white-bear-related thoughts, starting … now.