The Power of Negative Thinking

Deep Thinking by Wissam Shekhani, ink on paperOlivier Burkeman uses his new book “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” as the basis of this essay claiming that ancient philosophy and modern psychology suggest darker thoughts can make us happier, writing in the Wall Street Journal:

The holiday season poses a psychological conundrum. Its defining sentiment, of course, is joy—yet the strenuous effort to be joyous seems to make many of us miserable. It’s hard to be happy in overcrowded airport lounges or while you’re trying to stay civil for days on end with relatives who stretch your patience.

So to cope with the holidays, magazines and others are advising us to “think positive”—the same advice, in other words, that Norman Vincent Peale, author of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” was dispensing six decades ago. (During holidays, Peale once suggested, you should make “a deliberate effort to speak hopefully about everything.”) The result all too often mirrors the famously annoying parlor game about trying not to think of a white bear: The harder you try, the more you think about one.

Variations of Peale’s positive philosophy run deep in American culture, not just in how we handle holidays and other social situations but in business, politics and beyond. Yet studies suggest that peppy affirmations designed to lift the user’s mood through repetition and visualizing future success often achieve the opposite of their intended effect.
Fortunately, both ancient philosophy and contemporary psychology point to an alternative: a counterintuitive approach that might be termed “the negative path to happiness.” This approach helps to explain some puzzles, such as the fact that citizens of more economically insecure countries often report greater happiness than citizens of wealthier ones. Or that many successful businesspeople reject the idea of setting firm goals.

One pioneer of the “negative path” was the New York psychotherapist Albert Ellis, who died in 2007. He rediscovered a key insight of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome: that sometimes the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst…

[continues in the Wall Street Journal]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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40 Comments on "The Power of Negative Thinking"

  1. BuzzCoastin | Dec 10, 2012 at 12:12 am |

    it’s one thing to know that thought shapes reality
    it’s quite another to actually shape thought

    most of what passes for thought
    is actually the impression of cliches

    • fuck thought.

      • BuzzCoastin | Dec 10, 2012 at 8:07 am |

        that’s a thought

        • Exactly. That’s why I’m so angry. No way to escape thought, so fuck it. Fuck all the contemplative religions and traditions that try to quell thought. Trying to quell thought is a thought itself. it’s a vicious and unbreakable cycle.

          • Maybe it’s a matter of trying to quell the more destructive thoughts. Alan Watts has a lot of interesting things to say about it.

          • If destructive thoughts originate from thought itself it means it (thought) is also destructive. Thought produces both the positive and negative, they both originate in the singular source of thought. One cannot get rid of destruction or the negative because that would also render it’s opposite “the good” without meaning or use.

          • Yeah, I get the Hegelian dialectic thing. But, the ‘destructive’ thoughts are those that would take us out of the present, I think. At least that’s what Watts seems to say. Applying this to my own life, I approach things differently when I push thoughts that encourage me to focus on anything but Now away from me. So when I feel frustrated by bills or other frivilous worries, focusing on the importance of Now gives me great solace.

          • But you understand why the “good” thoughts are there?… Because of the “bad” thoughts that are set up in comparison to the good thought which establishes the framework for what constitutes whether a certain thought is “bad” or “good” in the first place. Therefore the problem is not “good” or “bad” thoughts, the problem is thought. “Good” and “bad” are simply two sides to the same coin.

            This solace you speak of is at best a tenuous situation, in constant opposition to what is deemed “bad”. It is a life of immense struggle, pain, and effort, this is what thought produces. Whether thought is “good” or “bad” one is always in the trap of opposition.

            This is a vicious and unbreakable cycle, and there is no solution. No religion, no philosophy, no science provides a solution to this dynamic. This conundrum is easy for people to perceive, but impossible for them to end…at least while they remain alive.

          • I agree with you regarding the inevitability of vicissitudes. Your description of a life of pain and struggle seems to correspond to the popular Buddhist conception of Samsara. But some people seem to exhibit much more calmness in regards to external stimuli than others. Thus, there is a technique that can be put to use to modulate the good versus the bad. (I think it’s frivilous to use quotation marks around these concepts, since they are inherently personal values.) The fact that such a modulating technique can be put to use posits a user that stands outside of that which is being modulated. You are not your thoughts, even though they may seem inescapable.

          • Buddha got the pain and suffering aspect right, but was wrong in the remedies he formulated for such troubles. I have to respectfully disagree with you about the “not your thoughts” comment. The thoughts whizzing around the electrochemical highways of the neurons are just as real as the neurons they inhabit or stimulate. Your comment is along the lines of we are not our bodies because the cells of our bodies continually change and shed, therefore allowing the inclusion of the immaterial basis of man argument.

            However, the program and directive (DNA) that spurs such turnover of the entire physical structure, itself remains constant. So there remains a physical foundation for human existence and without that foundation human beings can’t even come into existence. We may not be literally our thoughts, our thoughts may not be our own or “original”, our thought can change and be reformulated, but the physical foundation of thought itself is intractable and cannot be removed. There is no way to escape and be removed from thought(s), it is a myth and fantasy propagated by the likes of Buddha and his adherents, and more recently popularized by figures such as Alan Watts.

          • I understand the objectivist-materialist approach you are communicating here; but, I don’t think you have properly addressed my assertion that there is a modulator that stands outside of that which is modulated. I do understand the foundation of thoughts–indeed, the neurological basis for our thoughts is required for us to function in a material world, but something other than our (observably) material selves mediates the ebb and flow of thought. This mediator/modulator plays a role in the push to accumulate more knowledge of the material world. M. Polanyi (I’ve been referencing him a lot lately!) referred to this as ‘tacit knowing’.

            Objectivism has its limits (self-imposed for the most part), but it seems to function best when it ignores intention. It also seems to orient itself to proactively negate free will. While, scientifically, that seems like a harmless consequence of materialism; I feel that there are profound political consequences to removing the ‘chooser’ from our cultural interpretation of politics. I’m a ‘social scientist’ (I shudder everytime I use that term), and my understanding of epistemology has convinced me that science cannot be separated from the scientist. This is especially the case in the social sciences, where structuralist arguments–viewing culture (or natural selection pressures)–as strictly objective in nature and the formative force on human behaviour tends to disempower people by convincing them (at best) that their opinions don’t matter, or (at worst) that they are at the mercy of forces completely out of their control. This is objectivism applied wholescale…..very troublesome.

          • Nietzsche saw that problem coming a long ways off.

            Paragraph 207:


          • Indeed the conclusions drawn forth from materialism and science are disconcerting. But it is as close to the “truth” as we have gotten. The real question is: are we more than our material bodies? Is there a “person”, a “self”, an “I”, a “being”, that transcends the deterministic, input-output chemical signaling, and the predictable stimulus response actions of the body? The answer is unfortunately, at least for you, no.

            There are no forces that remain detached from the happenings of the body whether within it or outside it. This truly means that there is no “freedom”. Indeed this is a profound political consequence, because human beings are nothing more than mere automata, albeit orders of magnitude more refined and advanced than any automaton human beings have yet produced from their imagination.

            I keep coming back on the paradox of the vicious cycle of thought. We are so hopelessly imprisoned. The universe itself is a closed system. The body is a single enclosed unit further enclosed by it’s surroundings and must respond instantaneously in lock step to the uncertainty of it’s environment. Think of this paradox. The brain that entertains thoughts of change and rebellion, is a hierarchical and highly ordered system. The body is hierarchical and highly ordered. The brain operates in a specific fashion, bacteria inhabits specific regions of the body, proteins break down and form at fine tuned intervals ,the mitochondria which scientists believe was once it’s own independent organism, is now an integral part of the cell. It produces ATP, the energy currency of the body, if the mitochondria were to “rebel” and leave the cell, the body would collapse. Indeed, if any of the bodily functions or components were to fall out of lockstep or be displaced from it’s station, the entire body is quickly doomed.

            These are scientific and physical realities, that reveal core paradoxes inherent in ideas about “freedom”, “revolution and “independence”. These do not exist, have never existed, and will never exist. The realities of our physical world do not correlate to the strange imaginings of our thoughts, which once again is paradoxically and fundamentally entrenched in physical matter, ruling out any such notions of a modulator or detached autonomous agency. There are no “ghosts in or out or “the shell” which if one understand the body as a single unit, there really is no shell, or “inside” “outside” to the body.

            I suggest you read Sam Harris’s book “Free Will”. Watch his videos on the subject on youtube. Also, here’s an op-ed piece attempting to rebut determinism and Sam Harris’s work. The writer’s arguments are flimsy, to say the least. He is soundly and carefully refuted in the comments section below the piece:

          • mannyfurious | Dec 10, 2012 at 9:06 pm |

            First off, I apologize for what is surely going to turn into, with any luck, at least a semi-comprehensible rant.

            The problem with your argument is that by that logic, “determinism” or “fatalism” do not exist as well. And we haven’t even gotten into the limits of using all of this language, anyway. The failure is in the words to convey “reality.” Language serves us just fine when we’re pointing out concrete nouns (e.g. “chair”, “hammer”, “woman” etc.) and for most verbs (running, cycling, swimming, writing, etc.), but it fails us utterly and wholly and truly when we try to speak of things which aren’t concrete. “Freedom”, “determinism”, “Beauty”, “art”–these words only have meaning so far as the people communicating agree to their terms, which is rarely the case. This is why people cannot agree whether abortion is “murder” or “free choice.” They’re not agreeing on meaning and therefore they cannot truly communicate. And I’m not even getting past the tip of the iceberg on this topic. I haven’t even begun to speak of physical modalities and language games, etc. (for the interested, read Wittgenstein… more than once).

            The problem is when we try to attribute human-idea-paradigms on a world that isn’t, well, human. Determinism is a human idea that some people try to apply to the universe. But because of that, it doesn’t quite fit. Either do things like “free will” or “independence.” I mean we can say that because we are products of the universe that our thoughts are of the universe, and this is certainly true. But our minds are limited, and the universe may not be, which makes it difficult to understand the universe on a universal scale. Even something as basic as causation, which seems to be undeniably true, really only makes sense from a mind that perceives the world like that of a human. I believe that the universe has a “mind” of its own, for a lack of a better word, but even if you don’t, it’s not that difficult to imagine the mind of a universe. It certainly doesn’t experience time and space like human experience time and space. Time and space probably don’t exist to the universal mind. All things simply “are”, existing outside of the realms of what the human mind perceives as space/time, and this “are” has nothing to do with causation. Of course, that’s just my human mind still trying to make sense of a universe that is incomprehensible to my human mind.

          • Indeed your well thought out “rant” (it really isn’t) continues to show how the vicious cyclic and paradoxical nature of thought is really THE fundamental problem. There seems to be no way out, no solutions. Maybe it is impossible to really understand anything.

          • mannyfurious | Dec 11, 2012 at 11:17 am |

            The “fundamental problem” is language. Not thought. The trick isn’t to try and shut down the thought process, the trick is to try to stop thinking in words. It’s very difficult and after years of practice, I can only do so for a short period of time, but it’s very clarifying.

          • But err… where do words come from…??? Thought. Try to stop thinking in words? That’s a neat little experiment for me to try. Even though I feel it doesn’t really accomplish anything. Even animals have vocalizations for specific events and objects. Not thinking in words seems like a meaningless endeavor.

          • mannyfurious | Dec 12, 2012 at 12:25 pm |

            Just try to experience things, not label them. Don’t say to yourself, “It’s cold outside” just experience the coldness. Don’t say “This soup is salty” just experience the saltiness. It takes some practice, but it’s worth it. I would also argue that our language creates our reality. If you say to yourself something “doesn’t accomplish anything” then it probably won’t. Just give it a shot and see what happens.

            Birds have a language to communicate mating times and locations and flying patterns. Again, concrete things. They don’t have a language to discuss whether or not free-will exists.

          • I don’t think I could disagree more. However, citing Sam Harris lowers the bar for me. There have to be more profound thinkers to draw on than a pop-science writer/neurologist to make an argument against free will. I’m an anarchist, so I disagree with most of what he argues purely on the grounds of social assumptions. He writes in a very condescending and derogatory manner towards many groups of people for simply the beliefs they hold in their minds. He’s a very confused man, in my opinion.

            Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by his newest ‘philosophical’ chicanery in debunking free will, so I’ll watch the videos. Perhaps I can get back to you later about my thoughts on it (maybe on another thread).

          • Well…that’s unfortunate. Disregarding the intellectual activities of a man becasue of his personality is unfortunate. I didn’t need to cite Sam Harris, indeed I didn’t even cite him, more like name-dropped him. I have synthesized many works of philosophy that I have read such as the Tao Te Ching, Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Socrates, and reflecting upon my own experiences and examining the world at large, I have arrived at the conclusion that humankind as a whole is comprised of individual biological machines on repeat, and that there is no way we can escape the directives of nature and the universe which is progressively headed for irreversible destruction (entropy). I enjoyed this little discussion, I have nothing more to write.

          • Why did he drink so Goddammed much? Is that immaterial. I don’t think so.

          • mannyfurious | Dec 10, 2012 at 8:49 pm |

            It’s not immaterial at all. It’s a great question. It’s one I had to deal with myself, because Watts’s writing changed–perhaps even saved– my life. At the very least, the fact that he was a drunk who essentially drank himself to death suggest that he was disingenuous about what he wrote. At worst, it suggests he was a complete and utter fraud.

            My conclusions is that he believed that certain “eastern” philosophies that he identified with gave him permission to indulge in his passions. He believed that because there wasn’t a “puritanical” morality associated with these lines of thought, that it was perfectly healthy to fuck and drink to his heart’s delight. And in the end he became a living example of why indulging the passions is not actually all it’s cracked up to be. Drinking and fucking are fun. Very few people can honestly deny that. But, like anything else, there exists too much of a good thing, and he became an alcoholic. It’s called “the middle path” for a reason. Having too much fun is just as dangerous as not having enough fun. It was one of the few aspects of far-eastern mystical thought that he got wrong, in my opinion.

          • Thanks for that thoughtful response. I will say I have a lot more respect for Him than Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Lama/guru that was contemporary with Watts and also drank himself to death.

            I give Watts more credit because he didn’t hold himself up as a cult leader but as more of a fellow traveler. Also it could be that he was treating his existential depression with both alcohol and Buddhism at the same time, and not necessarily thinking they go together.

            You sound like you have read more of him than I have but the books I read really did resonate with me.

          • Definitely. That’s the the thing I especially like about Watts. He did not proclaim himself to be a guru, or master, or cult leader, he simply presented himself as a man. He frequently said that he was simply an entertainer. The fact he died of alcoholism does not bother me, it simply shows he was like any flawed individual with foibles.

          • Whats your opinion on Eckhart Tolle? Have you read him. Don’t let the Oprah tag throw you.

          • I’m going to be polite and simply say I do not like Eckhart Tolle. He is trying to be something he is not and trying to make human beings into something they can never be. At least Watts was honest and said he was “an entertainer”.

          • Well, considering Tolle looks like a Hobbitt and is a horrible speaker and an OK writer. I think he has something going for him on the “transcendent front”. Otherwise what could possibly explain his success? I also will say that he has given me some good insights into the Tao Te Ching and the Bagavahd Gita. Not saying you are saying this, but I have heard people try to compare him to slick Tony Robbins types and I just don’t buy it.

          • mannyfurious | Dec 11, 2012 at 11:19 am |

            Yeah, I think you’ve nailed it. Guys like Rinpoche present themselves as, essentially, demigods. They present themselves as someone with some secret, esoteric knowledge and presence and they proceed to exploit others by taking advantage of people’s…idiocy? naivete? ignorance? vulnerability? Probably all of the above.

            Watts was very much self-deprecating and tried to, I feel, genuinely present himself as just another moron trying to figure everything out.

          • BuzzCoastin | Dec 10, 2012 at 8:05 pm |

            there’s an off switch

          • Trust me I’ve been looking for a long time now and I aint find one.

          • BuzzCoastin | Dec 10, 2012 at 9:46 pm |

            there are a lot of different methods of finding & using the off switch
            if you’re looking for it
            it will find you

  2. the trick is not to think of anything.

    • VaudeVillain | Dec 10, 2012 at 12:29 am |

      Easiest to perform by turning on a television.

      • or masturbating. but in more serious note, the only way i find that i can break negative thinking is by checking to prove if my reasoning is correct or if im vacillating . Dont just think positively or negatively think correctly.

    • Trying not to think of anything…is still thinking.

    • Niels Vandamme | Dec 11, 2012 at 4:57 pm |

      Yes, and if your left brain half gets naughty and does its thing, just strain your brow a little further. Bad, bad thoughts.

      Why can’t we just accept who we are? Isn’t the whole problem inacceptance in the first place?

  3. Gregory Wyrdmaven | Dec 10, 2012 at 8:54 am |

    There’s a lot of wisdom in this. I can attest that for example in my job…the employees who are actually doing the work realize the company is in decline and that the policies of management are like a pillow over its face…yet management thinks everything is moving in the right direction.

    I think trying to always think positive and to be optimistic is an indication of not really being in touch with reality. I think trying to think the best of a situation and having this optimism may also be an indication of someone just trying to buttress their ideology. Take climate change for example. It’s a VERY serious issue and it may already be too late to do anything about it, mostly because I believe people just couldn’t entertain the idea of it, because they considered it an impossible scenario, or their politics for some reason won’t let them consider it…and they think positively in general that “it can’t happen here.” The presidential election showed that a great percentage of the population didn’t think Obama would be elected, when it really never was going to be close. Even now, many of these people haven’t been able to deal with the election or the political realities because they have positive thoughts about their culture, their ideologies, etc. It’s like a fan who believes in his favorite sports team, no matter how bad they are.

    I think the idea some religious folks have, of “God is in control, or everything happens for a reason,” that these are very dangerous ideas because they imply that some good must come from a situation, no matter how bad. It is when we try and “rule” the world by expecting a good or a bad outcome that we are hamstringing our ability to actually address reality as it is, not what we want it to be. But the solution is not to react to positive thinking with negative thinking…we just need to be thinking objectively. Pessimism is of no value itself, either.

    It’s about allowing the past to color your future and being anxious about the future rather than being in the present and being able to see the world for what it is and to be able to react in a meaningful way to it. Having some sort of “plan” to use the “power” of positive or negative thinking only prevents an objective reaction to reality.
    Fiat lux.

  4. I consider myself a realist – I don’t expect anything, good or bad. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. I find I’m never disappointed when something goes poorly and I’m pleasantly surprised when something goes well. Same for when I’m dealing with people. I never expect the best or the worst from anyone.

  5. Niels Vandamme | Dec 11, 2012 at 5:01 pm |

    Come over to the dark side.

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