Photo by Nathan Dumlao
I don’t know about the rest of you but I always rather dread Januarys. It’s that time of the year when everyone gets all sanctimonious, embarks on nonsense “detox” diets, and is overcome with a need to change, to improve, to be positive. Which on the surface sounds like it might not be that bad but actually I think there’s a problem with positivity; not to mention how incredibly annoying it is to hear those – typically empty – sentiments played on loop for the whole month. I think we can agree that those individuals touting “New year, new me” are the worst.
Take the lab, for example. The lab is a place of discovery, of wonder, and of failure. Frequent and occasionally heart-breaking failure. And then you hear, “Hey don’t worry about it! Stay positive – everything will be great next time!”.
Now, I love Monty Python, but no. When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t give a whistle. Instead, have a sit and a good hard think about just how wrong things could go. Think about the failure, about every failure, and then think about how you’d deal with that. Better yet, think about how you’d prepare for that – contingency plan the hell out of it. That way, when things go wrong – and they will – you’re better prepared on a practical and emotional level to deal with it. Get comfortable with negativity. Embrace it.
Oliver Burkeman wrote a wonderful book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, and he says that “…our constant efforts to eliminate the negative… is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.” And he’s right. Take people who buy into positive thinking tools like affirmations, reciting some mantra to yourself like “I am a successful/lovable/strong person”, or even visualizing just the positive outcomes of situations. In these instances, you may actually end up being worse off or less likely to achieve whatever it is your affirming/visualizing. Affirmations in particular are so unsuccessful it usually amounts to the person repeating a lie to themselves, which can provoke a good deal of internal counterargument! And that lack of internal consistency is stressful.
The simplistic and frankly naive approach of “just be positive” is probably going to make you unhappy in the long run. Work by Julie Norem actually shows that if you can think about everything that could go wrong, and process these negative possibilities, so-called “defensive pessimists” can relieve their anxiety and are often able to avoid certain pitfalls. Additional work coming from the lab of Gabriele Oettingen, showed that students asked to positively fantasize about the future, reported feeling less energized than those in the control and negative fantasies groups. Finally, in a social context, people in a negative mood produce more concrete and thus more effective messages than those in a positive mood, and negative moods can improve memory. The list goes on for this sort of thing but we’re starting to realize that there’s more to negativity than being the “misery guts”. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Of course, this is nothing new. The ancient Stoics were all about thinking on what could go wrong. They called this the “premeditatio malorum (the premeditation of evils),” or deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario. It allows you to preemptively give your anxiety about the future a kicking because you think about the worst outcome right now, and realize that it’s probably something you can deal with. Conversely, subscribing to the cult of positivity shoves all those nigh-on inevitable failures under the carpet to deal with at a later date. Positivity focusses on the future and foolishly misses out the present.
Lab work will involve a whole lot of failure, as I said. Science is about getting things wrong and figuring out why that happened. Building on mistakes and anomalous results. Being able to embrace negativity now, might just help relieve stress and anxiety in the future: if you’ve already considered and planned for what could go horribly wrong, you’re probably going to be pleasantly surprised when things only go a little bit wrong. And you’ll be ecstatic when things go right!
So, in short
Think about what could go wrong
Plan for the worst
Figure out to deal with that now, before it happens
Focus on doing your present task well
Change what you can and accept what you can’t
Read about the Stoics; here’s a letter from Seneca, from about 2,000 years ago, on the premeditation of evils:
“Everyone has greater fortitude in arriving at a situation for which he has long prepared himself, and hardships that have been anticipated can also be withstood. In contrast, utterly trivial things can terrify people who are not prepared for them. We must see to it that we have not overlooked anything. Because everything is more serious when it is new, constant reflection will ensure that you do not face any trouble as a raw recruit.” – Seneca, Letter 107.4
So, the next time that irritating person tells you to “just stay positive” or how they’re only focusing on success, you can calming sit them down and encourage them to instead think just how horribly wrong every could actually go. They’ll thank you in the long run.