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Screw Positive Thinking! Why Our Quest for Happiness Is Making Us Miserable

A new book by Oliver Burkeman paints an alternative path to happiness that has nothing to do with positive thinking.

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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 affimations, because they conflicted with their self-images. 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.

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The arrival of George Bush onstage in San Antonio was heralded by the sudden appearance of his Secret Service detail. These were men who would probably have stood out anywhere, in their dark suits and earpieces, but who stood out twice as prominently at Get Motivated! thanks to their rigid frowns. The job of protecting former presidents from potential assassins, it appeared, wasn’t one that rewarded looking on the bright side and assuming that nothing could go wrong.

Bush himself, by contrast, bounded onstage grinning. “You know, retirement ain’t so bad, especially when you get to retire to Texas!” he began, before launching into a speech he had evidently delivered several times before. First, he told a folksy anecdote about spending his post-presidency cleaning up after his dog (“I was picking up that which I had been dodging for eight years!”) Then, for a strange moment or two, it seemed as if the main topic of his speech would be how he once had to choose a rug for the Oval Office (“I thought to myself, the presidency is going to be a decision-making experience!”). But his real subject, it soon emerged, was optimism. “I don’t believe you can lead a family, or a school, or a city, or a state, or a country, unless you’re optimistic that the future is going to be better,” he said. “And I want you to know that, even in the darkest days of my presidency, I was optimistic that the future was going to be better than the past for our citizens and the world.”

You need not hold any specific political opinion about the forty-third president of the United States to see how his words illustrate a fundamental strangeness of the “cult of optimism.” Bush was not ignoring the numerous controversies of his administration — the strategy one might have imagined he would adopt at a motivational seminar, before a sympathetic audience and facing no risk of hostile questions. Instead, he had chosen to redefine them as evidence in support of his optimistic attitude.