I think I’m in love with Oliver Burkeman. Or maybe I hate him. I don’t know; I can’t decide. I’ve never met him. I’ve only read one article he wrote for the New York Times Sunday Review, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, and it flies in the face of everything I believe.
As a positive thinking addict, I love me my Secret and Anthony Robbins. As a human being though, I find it impossible to be positive all of the time. I try. And I try and try and try. And then when, inevitably I fail and gulp, think something bad, I beat myself up about it. But Oliver Burkeman says it’s okay! In his article he takes down positive thinking and affirmations and positive visualizations and goal setting. He turns my whole positive thinking world on its ear. And it’s such a fucking relief.
My favorite line from the whole article is:
“You can try, if you insist, to follow the famous self-help advice to eliminate the word ‘failure’ from your vocabulary — but then you’ll just have an inadequate vocabulary when failure strikes.”
It made me laugh out loud. (LOL, for my readers under forty.) The article also tells me it’s okay for me to think affirmations are silly. (I have not convinced myself yet that “I’m good enough” or that “Doggone it, people like me.”) That positive visualizations don’t work. (My house is still not remodeled and remains in its early 1980’s glory.) That goal setting often backfires. (I am not yet Supreme Leader and Master of the Universe.)
But, but… While his words citing scientific research is such a relief, I can’t deny the times when goal setting and affirmations have worked for me: I’ve finished two novels, created a successful blog and fly jets for a major airline. When positive visualizations did succeed: I entered an online contest to win a silver 2010 Lexus RX 350 every day for a month. Just saw myself driving it. I didn’t win. But ONE month later we came into some money that allowed us to buy a badly needed new car. We wanted the 2009 Lexus (I liked the tail lights better and thought we could get a better deal) but there were none to be found in the entire state of Illinois. What are we driving? A silver 2010 Lexus RX 350.
In the end, I think, there’s truth on both sides. Positive thinking, visualizations, etc., can work, but that doesn’t mean you have to be super-person and refrain from all negative thought. You’d think me of all people would know this. My paying job requires me to consider all possible negative outcomes, everything that could go wrong. Negativity in this respect, when flying a plane, is, to put it mildly, healthy. So why couldn’t some negativity, used appropriately in the rest of my life, be healthy too?
Mr. Burkeman has a book that’s coming out in November, called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking and I’m putting it on my “to read” list. And—WARNING: Shameless self-promotion—it’s not just because it sounds like a non-fiction version of both my novels, because it has the same basic theme. (Although, SPOILER ALERT, both my books end firmly on the side of positive thinking.) But because I know in the real world failure strikes. And strikes and strikes. And it does get tiring to think of every negative thing that happens in a positive way. I’m not looking for permission to wallow in negativity, far from it. I think I’m just looking for some balance. Some relief. Or perhaps it all just boils down to me being a writer who doesn’t want to get caught with an inadequate vocabulary.
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