Sunday, December 9, 2012

Does Negative Thinking Make You Happy?


If you expect the worst you will always be pleasantly surprised.

If you expect the best you will often be disappointed.

Perhaps this explains why some people believe that negative thinking makes you happier, but the discussion is far too confused to be useful.

Call it mood-management therapy, except that you don’t really need a therapist to do it.  

Unfortunately, if you spend your time managing your moods you will not be accomplishing very much beyond managing your moods.

Many years ago the father of modern cognitive psychology, Aaron Beck advised patients who were suffering from severe anxiety to imagine the worst that could happen.

People who worry so much that they live in a haze rarely think concretely about what might happen. Specifying their fears is a step in the right direction.

They take another step in the right direction when they test their hypotheses in the real world.

If you allow reality to pass judgment on your anxieties you will be getting out of your mind and into the world. If you refuse to allow your anxieties to inhibit your ability to act, you will be on the road to conquering them. 

When you are anxious, introspection is your enemy.

Negative thinking has a purpose. It can also be misused. It neither disproves nor confirms the value of positive psychology.

As practiced by cognitivists, positive psychology is an antidote to Freud’s lugubrious negativity. Accentuating the positive was never meant to obscure or preclude the negative.

When Beck first set out to treat depression he was not giving his depressed patients a transfusion of happy thoughts. He instructed them to make lists of the facts that might confirm or disconfirm their relentless self-deprecatory thinking.

He was prescribing a balanced reality check, not mental gymnastics.

He knew, as we should, that mindless optimism can only cover up mindless pessimism.

By the time these theories wended their way through the culture, they were barely recognizable.

People have been told that if they think the best of themselves then good things will come to them.

A few days I posted about “A Millennial Woman’s Lament.” It turns out that some Millennial women are so filled with positive thoughts about themselves that they have driven away all eligible suitors.

If you keep telling yourself and everyone else that you are “amazing,” people are eventually going to figure out that you would not be saying it if it were true.

But, you are not going to cure yourself by repeating, over and over: “I am not amazing,” or: “I am unworthy.”

They are two sides of the same coin. If you convince yourself that you are amazing, no one will ever be good enough for you. If you convince yourself that you are unworthy, you will never be good enough for anyone.

The result, in both cases: dateless on New Year’s Eve.

To avoid further confusion, let’s change the context.

Don’t think of how you should manage your moods; think of how you should to manage your life. Do not think about the here-and-now or the there-and-then, but think about tomorrow.

Not just think, but plan for the future.

Freud wanted us to obsess over the past. More recently therapists want us to live for the moment. We do better to make a plan for tomorrow and then to implement it.

Since the outcome is always uncertain, there will always be some anxiety. It won't be the anxiety borne of dread but the anxiety borne of wanting to know how it turns out.

Making a good plan, practicing your moves and giving up the quest for total certainty will attenuate most dread.

You may be hopeful about your plan, but if hope is all you have you will not succeed. If you hope for the best without planning for it, you are going to be disappointed. If you dread the worst and make no plans to forestall it, you will find little consolation in your prophetic powers. 

Making a plan requires hard work and an attention to detail. If you understand that the past does not repeat itself, you will also understand that planning requires imagination. In business and politics it is called policy analysis. It's not an archeological dig.

To do it right you have to think through what can go right and what can go wrong. And you will probably need to practice, to practice and to practice.

Being better prepared reduces dread. Fewer unknowns mean fewer fears.

2 comments:

n.n said...

Fanaticism increases the risk of experiencing unhappiness.

Reality favors moderation as an optimally stable state. The other is death or zero momentum.

Sam L. said...

What do I want?

How might I get there?

Let's try this!

Works: Yes/No
Yes; Do again or more.
No; Try something else.

Etc., Etc.