It’s sixty years this year since Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking—and though his message may have been radical back then, it’s the conventional wisdom now. Self-help gurus, motivational speakers, businesspeople, presidential candidates, and many psychologists agree: optimism is the foundation of a happy life, and negativity is for losers.
Those of us who consider ourselves naturally cantankerous and gloomy have always felt left out of what the philosopher Peter Vernezze calls “the cult of optimism.” But now there’s a reason for us to feel more hopeful… in an appropriately downbeat way, of course.
A growing body of research suggests that negative thinking, if strategically pursued, has a role to play in happiness, too. Ancient philosophical and spiritual traditions, from the Stoics to the Buddhists, recognized the life-enhancing potential of trying less strenuously to be happy. Here are four ways to benefit from their approach.
1. Focus on the worst-case scenario, not the best
Visualizing your ideal future is a staple of self-help bestsellers—but vividly picturing success can backfire badly. In one series of experiments, when thirsty experimental subjects were asked to visualize drinking an icy glass of water, their energy levels actually dropped: apparently, they were less motivated to find real water because they’d already imagined drinking some.
Besides, negative visualization can be an excellent antidote to anxiety. The Stoics called this “the premeditation of evils,” while modern-day researchers call it “defensive pessimism”—a strategy deployed regularly by between 25 and 30 percent of Americans, according to the researcher Julie Norem.
Consider the logic: when you try to persuade yourself that everything will work out for the best, you risk reinforcing your unspoken belief that it would be utterly catastrophic if they didn’t. Instead, try soberly working through how badly things could really go. You may find that your fears get cut down to manageable size.
2. Consider getting rid of your goals
For many years, the popularity of goal-setting rested, in part, on something known as the “1953 Yale Study of Goals.” Reportedly, this showed that among members of Yale’s graduating class of 1953, those who had specific, written-down goals for the future ended up, twenty years later, immensely wealthier than the rest.
But when the journalist Lawrence Tabak, searching for an original source, got in touch with the gurus who relied on the study, they all pleaded ignorance, and suggested asking other gurus—because the study, as a Yale archivist confirmed, almost certainly never existed.
Among management scholars, too, the pro-goal consensus is breaking down. Recent research suggests that the “overpursuit of goals” can prompt employees to cut ethical corners. Meanwhile, studies of successful entrepreneurs, undertaken by the business professor Saras Sarasvathy, reveal that they rarely stick rigorously to detailed, multi-year business plans. Instead, they just start, and keep correcting their course as they go. Their philosophy isn’t so much “ready, aim, fire” as “ready, fire, aim”—and then to keep on re-aiming.
3. Don’t get too attached to “positive thinking”
Tell yourself you’re a winner, and you might end up feeling worse.
When researchers in Canada tested the efficacy of self-help affirmations—specifically the phrase “I am a loveable person!”—they found that those who already had low self-esteem experienced a further decline in their mood.
Trying to control your emotions, as the Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner has shown, can be an invitation to “ironic effects”: struggle too hard to eliminate negativity, and you risk generating more of it. As in the old parlor game, when you try not to think about a polar bear, you may find that being hyper-vigilant about stamping out unhappy moods merely puts unhappiness center stage.
By contrast, early Buddhist psychology advocated treating thoughts, whether negative or positive, more like smells, sights, tastes and sounds: things that arrive in your awareness, rather than things that constitute the essence of who you are. This stance of “non-attachment”—now also supported by research as an effective way of dealing with physical pain—embodies what you might define as the opposite of positive thinking: learning, instead, to resist the urge to manipulate your inner states.
4. Don’t ignore death
The anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that countless human activities, from wars to great art, are ultimately motivated by the subconscious desire to deny the fact that, in the end, we’re going to die.
These days, with the processes of dying hidden behind the doors of hospices and funeral homes, it’s never been easier to perpetuate the delusion of immortality—until the moment when the reaper inevitably intrudes. We might benefit from rediscovering the lost tradition of “memento mori,” which focused on building reminders of death into daily life: the dual result was to make everyday experience feel more valuable while reducing the horror of death when it arrived. (The Death Clock iPad app is a modern example: it purports to calculate the date on which you’ll die, then starts a countdown to keep you aware.)
Although research suggests that reminders of death can prompt people to behave more aggressively, there is also evidence that, in the right contexts, remembering our mortality triggers compassion. In one example, people walking through a graveyard proved 40 percent more likely to help a stranger— specifically, one of the researchers, who pretended to drop her notebook—than those walking down an ordinary block. Another study found that visualizing their own death led people to become more grateful.
Death is what we all have in common: the most negative of negatives, perhaps… but also the most unifying.