‘The Power of Negative Thinking’ Misses The Mark

It’s not surprising that a a New York Times piece entitled ‘The Power of Negative Thinking’ would be a litany of negations. What is surprising is how easily the fallacies of those negations are revealed.

“Positive Thinking” is a widely misunderstood topic, and Oliver Burkman’s article reflects popular misconceptions. Oliver quickly dismisses a laundry list of positive thinking tools:


Visualization: “visualizing a successful outcome, under certain conditions, can make people less likely to achieve it”. That’s an ambiguous statement. Such a low threshold of guilt indicts most things. Driving, ‘under certain conditions’ can be fatal, yet we all still drive. A higher threshold is required before indicting a thing.

Affirmations: “Psychologists at the University of Waterloo concluded that such statements make people with low self-esteem feel worse”. Were percipients instructed with an emphasis on the requirement of feeling the affirmation, not just saying it? Were they allowed to select which affirmations they wanted to use, or did the experimenters select the affirmations? Were they allowed to craft their own? If feeling makes a difference, did they measure that? Faulty methodology can yield meaningless results; publishing meaningless results can perpetuate ignorance.

If you rub a small rust spot on your car only to watch it grow, do you blame the rubbing for the rust? If repeating “my friends love to help me” makes you feel worse, do you blame the affirmation for your feeling? I’ve written more about this elsewhere.

Goal Setting: “Fixating too vigorously on goals can distort an organization’s overall mission”, and “research by several business-school professors suggests that employees consumed with goals are likelier to cut ethical corners”. Fair enough. But what is the takeaway here? To not set goals? Burkeman doesn’t say, but prefers to leave you with a vague sense that goal setting is dangerous. While he doesn’t provide details with his examples, his anecdotes support tenets of positive thinking: goal setting needs to be done carefully. Poorly considered goals cause problems… consider your goals wisely, and re-evaluate them frequently!

Considering Worst-Case Scenarios: or rather his (incorrect) assumption that positive thinking mandates against doing that. “when you soberly picture how badly things could go in reality, you usually conclude that you could cope. Besides, they noted, imagining that you might lose the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy increases your gratitude for having them now.” Yes, Burkeman is quite right here, but somehow he goes on to a confounding conclusion: “Positive thinking, by contrast, always leans into the future, ignoring present pleasures”. Simply, no, positive thinking does not “always lean to the future”. I don’t know what “ignoring present pleasures” even means, but I think he’s trying to say that positive thinkers are not grateful for present circumstances, which nothing could be further from the truth. Nor do positive thinkers avoid considering worst case scenarios; it’s just flat out not the case. Quite the contrary— whining comes from ignorance of how good my life really is. Considering just how bad my life isn’t is powerful, and positive thinkers realize that.

Buddhism: (or Buddhism as a counter-point), “Buddhist meditation, too, is arguably all about learning to resist the urge to think positively”. I don’t know where Burkeman gets this claim from. There are many types and schools of Buddhist meditation, I haven’t found any of them to be about, “learning to resist the urge to think positively”. Burkeman can’t be referring to Mindfulness of Breathing (anapana sati)1, as it is not arguably about resisting the urge to think positively, it is unarguably about resisting the urge to think (resist is the wrong word, but the point still stands). Nor can he be referring to Loving Kindness Meditation (metta bhavana)2, as the name alone tells us it surely is not about resisting the urge to think positively.

Burkeman has it backwards when he implies Buddhism would favor the negative over the positive. Here’s what His Eminence Choje Togden Rinpoche has to say about the goal of the yogis of Tibetan Buddhism [emphasis mine]: “What a yogi or yogini strives to do is to put an end to the suffering that exists in cyclic existence. In order to do that, a yogi or yogini has to train his or her mind. Simply stated, a yogi or yogini will strive to counter all the negative emotions and try to generate positive energy.”3

“Very brief training in meditation, according to a 2009 article in The Journal of Pain, brought significant reductions in pain — not by ignoring unpleasant sensations, or refusing to feel them, but by turning nonjudgmentally toward them.” Yes, yes! That’s right on. And positive thinking encourages that exact same strategy. But Burkeman refuses to consider that. Instead he reveals his own bias: rather than attributing that same benefit to positive thinking, he concludes positive thinking is, “a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity”.

Finally, “A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in.” Again, Oliver misunderstands positive thinking, otherwhise he wouldn’t be saying such nonsense. Nor is positive thinking is about “telling yourself that everything must work”; Oliver’s argument here is a classic straw-man: he creates his own definition of positive thinking that he may strike it down.

While I’m a fan of the discipline, I’m not a fan of the term. “Positive thinking” is a problematic word coupling: people assume it means never-be-negative. It doesn’t, the same way athleticism doesn’t mean never-relax. Like any discipline, it is complex. If you wanted to learn karate, you wouldn’t seek out a non-practicing self-proclaimed karate-hater for guidance. The discipline is evolving. Positive thinking encompasses a wide array of topics, and adopting any one can yield results: basic psychology (self-fulfilling prophecy, putting your best foot forward), Buddhist mindfulness and the science of how the mind works to name a few. Some proponents also dabble in more esoteric topics (universal interconnectedness, karma, thoughts are things, divine fulfillment of our expectations), but such conversations often serve to muddy the waters of an already complex topic, and successful outcomes can be had without going there.

Mr. Burkeman shows his ignorance of an important mental discipline and a deep topic, and does a disservice by attempting to legitimize his bias through quick conclusions and associating his opinions with a well respected news organization. His ignorance is understandable: most middle-aged Americans’ main exposure to this complex topic is Jack Handy. Burkman is a non-practitioner of a misunderstood and maligned discipline, and his book on the subject “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” will be held up by other non-practitioners as why it is for fools. But—just like Burkeman himself— his readers won’t be looking to learn about positive thinking, they will be looking for material to buttress their own misconceptions.

Citations

  1. How many types of meditation are there? Buddha Dharma Education Association & BuddhaNet []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. His Eminence Choje Togden Rinpoche, Yogis Of Tibet []
This entry was posted in Positive Thinking. Bookmark the permalink.