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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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George Bush, then, was standing in a venerable tradition when he proclaimed the importance of optimism in all circumstances. But his speech at Get Motivated! was over almost as soon as it had started. A dash of religion, a singularly unilluminating anecdote about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, some words of praise for the military, and he was waving goodbye — “Thank you, Texas, it’s good to be home!” — as his bodyguards closed in around him. Beneath the din of cheering, I heard Jim, the park ranger in the next seat, emit a sigh of relief. “OK , I’m motivated now,” he muttered, to nobody in particular. “Is it time for some beer?”

“There are lots of ways of being miserable,” says a character in a short story by Edith Wharton, “but there’s only one way of being comfortable, and that is to stop running around after happiness.” This observation pungently expresses the problem with the “cult of optimism” — the ironic, self-defeating struggle that sabotages positivity when we try too hard. But it also hints at the possibility of a more hopeful alternative, an approach to happiness that might take a radically different form. The first step is to learn how to stop chasing positivity so intently. But many of the proponents of the “negative path” to happiness take things further still, arguing — paradoxically, but persuasively — that deliberately plunging more deeply into what we think of as negative may be a precondition of true happiness.

Perhaps the most vivid metaphor for this whole strange philosophy is a small children’s toy known as the “Chinese finger trap,” though the evidence suggests it is probably not Chinese in origin at all. In his office at the University of Nevada, the psychologist Steven Hayes, an outspoken critic of counterproductive positive thinking, keeps a box of them on his desk; he uses them to illustrate his arguments. The “trap” is a tube, made of thin strips of woven bamboo, with the opening at each end being roughly the size of a human finger. The unwitting victim is asked to insert his index fingers into the tube, then finds himself trapped: in reaction to his efforts to pull his fingers out again, the openings at each end of the tube constrict, gripping his fingers ever more tightly. The harder he pulls, the more decisively he is trapped. It is only by relaxing his efforts at escape, and by pushing his fingers further in, that he can widen the ends of the tube, whereupon it falls away, and he is free.

In the case of the Chinese finger trap, Hayes observes, “doing the presumably sensible thing is counterproductive.” Following the negative path to happiness is about doing the other thing — the presumably illogical thing — instead.

Excerpted from “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” by Oliver Burkeman, published in November 2012 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by Oliver Burkeman. All rights reserved.


Oliver Burkeman is a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York.