We all know the mantra; with positive, self-empowering messages we can change ourselves and in turn our lives if we only set ourselves a goal to do it! It has been around for so long and has developed into so many variations, by now it is often described as ‘the cult of positivity’.
Self-help books continue to proliferate; from those that deliver cherry ‘self-affirmations’ for every situation and malady imaginable, to assorted literature on ‘law of attraction’, often neatly packaged together with the resident guru, and a calming retreat.
If we could only grasp the concept and dedicate ourselves to it, eternal happiness awaits us!
Well maybe not exactly.
While some of the, loosely termed, ‘happiness literature’ and attached teachings almost certainly resonates with some people, I have often found myself wondering about dichotomy between the increasing number of unhappiness in the world despite the proliferation and marketing of positivity as a way of thinking and acting that is certain to lead to happiness. Sceptic in me could not help but notice that if this is so; how come more and more people are deeply unhappy?
If everyone is searching for happiness; it seems only very few have found it, and if so they kept the ‘secret path’ to it very well hidden. Moreover, while reading some of the teachings and strongly recommended practices, it occurred to me that if one is to follow those to the letter … well one will be left with so little time, and/or energy to do anything else let alone to remember what was the problem to start with!
So my original question reminded; what is not working and why?
Recently, I found the answer in Oliver Burkeman’s book.
Oliver is an Englishman living in New York. He is an author and a feature writer for the Guardian. His new book; ‘The Antidote; Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ provides a logical, well-researched answer to my question.
In his book, Oliver follows a long line of thought from ancient Greek Stoics to Buddhism, to modern psychologists and thinkers such as Albert Ellis, to demonstrate that our constant struggle to erase sadness, failures, insecurities, and uncertainties, is precisely what makes us feel insecure, anxious, sad and ultimately unhappy. Instead of trying to blot out or numb those feelings with ‘positive thinking’, by using so-called ‘negative path’ we can learn to enjoy uncertainties, embrace insecurity, become familiar with failure and learn to value death.
Because all of them are part of living and by trying to overcome them through ‘feel-good’ mantras will only make things worse. How? By multiplying the efforts required; since we would no longer only need energy to deal with what has really happened to make us feel sad, or unhappy or insecure or anxious, but also for talking/thinking ourselves into ‘all is well’ state of mind.
In addition, recent studies showed that deliberate attempts to ‘program’ the mind to strictly positive thoughts and optimism can and do backfire, as the mind becomes pre-occupied with the evidence to contrary.
While the books such as ‘The Secret’ promise us unlimited happiness and success by having positive thoughts, Oliver remembers ancient Greek stoics who contemplated how to cope when one loses all things one holds dear. It was known as ‘premeditation of evil’ and it was devised to enable people to cope with whatever ‘evil’ may befall.
He also draws on Buddhist teaching that tranquillity comes from accepting that life in inherently insecure and impertinent.
Because those insecurities, misfortunes, mistakes, failures, and disappointments are all part of our human existence. When we allow ourselves to feel those feelings, we simply acknowledge our humanity and go with it rather than against it. Of course if ‘jumping for joy’ first thing in the morning comes naturally, by all means go for it. But if it does not; it might help to know that forcing yourselves to do it might not help despite all the affirmations.
So the next time you are frightened of losing your job and your livelihood, or friend is terrified of losing her or his loved one, instead of saying; ‘All is going to be fine, just turn your mind to positive thinking’, it might be best if instead you sit down and decide what to do if and when those things happen. While it may sound less cherry than repeating ‘magical’ mantras of eternal positivity and optimism, it is far more likely to prepare you for whatever occurs and in that truly empower you to deal with any misfortunes life bestows upon you/us.