A nice contrarian view to positive thinking, Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. A nice short (under 3 minute video), good quote below:
There’s a wonderful Stoic technique called “the premeditation of evils”, which involves deliberately visualising the worst-case scenario, instead of the best one. One benefit of that is that you replace limitless panic and fear – which is how we often respond to problems – with a sober analysis of exactly how badly things could go wrong. The answer might still be “really bad” – but not infinitely bad, as the Stoic-influenced psychotherapist Albert Ellis would say. That’s something I put into practice every day, and find helpful.
I am not sure whether negative thinking, what was and is my worst-case scenario (debilitating chronic condition with poor quality of life), helped me or not, but I certainly did contemplate it.
The Power Of Negative Thinking – The Dish | By Andrew Sullivan – The Daily Beast
A counterpart to the positive thinking industry, with some interesting psychological tests that show its limits. Quote:
Ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, optimism with pessimism, a striving for success and security with an openness to failure and uncertainty. The Stoics recommended “the premeditation of evils,” or deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario. This tends to reduce anxiety about the future: when you soberly picture how badly things could go in reality, you usually conclude that you could cope. Besides, they noted, imagining that you might lose the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy increases your gratitude for having them now. Positive thinking, by contrast, always leans into the future, ignoring present pleasures.
Buddhist meditation, too, is arguably all about learning to resist the urge to think positively — to let emotions and sensations arise and pass, regardless of their content. It might even have helped those agonized firewalkers. Very brief training in meditation, according to a 2009 article in The Journal of Pain, brought significant reductions in pain — not by ignoring unpleasant sensations, or refusing to feel them, but by turning nonjudgmentally toward them.
From this perspective, the relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity. Mr. Robbins’s trademark smile starts to resemble a rictus. A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t. 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.
The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has persuasively argued that the all-positive approach, with its rejection of the possibility of failure, helped bring on our present financial crises. The psychological evidence, backed by ancient wisdom, certainly suggests that it is not the recipe for success that it purports to be.
Mr. Robbins reportedly encourages firewalkers to think of the hot coals as “cool moss.” Here’s a better idea: think of them as hot coals.
The more sophisticated understanding of positive thinking and optimism is that it can underline a willingness to find solutions, rather than just being a ‘happy face’ (see Optimism, But Not Too Much, Can Be Good For You). But the need to balance the positive and the negative, and associated ‘dualities’, is part of being grounded in reality: hopefully in the overall context of a realistic positive approach to finding solutions.
The Positive Power of Negative Thinking – NYTimes.com.
A good interview with the psychologist Michael Scheier on how his early work paved the way for greater understanding of the role positive thinking can play psychologically and physically. He developed a standard tool to help measure optimism. Quote:
A lot of research has been done since we published our first paper, and the vast majority has examined the relationship of optimism and well-being. I think it’s now safe to say that optimism is clearly associated with better psychological health, as seen through lower levels of depressed mood, anxiety, and general distress, when facing difficult life circumstances, including situations involving recovery from illness and disease. A smaller, but still substantial, amount of research has studied associations with physical well-being. And I think most researchers at this point would agree that optimism is connected to positive physical health outcomes, including decreases in the likelihood of re-hospitalization following surgery, the risk of developing heart disease, and mortality.
We also know why optimists do better than pessimists. The answer lies in the differences between the coping strategies they use. Optimists are not simply being Pollyannas; they’re problem solvers who try to improve the situation. And if it can’t be altered, they’re also more likely than pessimists to accept that reality and move on. Physically, they’re more likely to engage in behaviors that help protect against disease and promote recovery from illness. They’re less likely to smoke, drink, and have poor diets, and more likely to exercise, sleep well, and adhere to rehab programs. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to deny, avoid, and distort the problems they confront, and dwell on their negative feelings. It’s easy to see now why pessimists don’t do so well compared to optimists.
A much more nuanced approach than some of the pop psychology on positive thinking out there. The focus on coping strategies rings true, I walk more and am more active due to my attitude which presumes, correctly or not, that this may improve my chances. Whether it will make a big difference in the end remains to be seen but it may help and certainly makes the journey more bearable to all.
How the Power of Positive Thinking Won Scientific Credibility – Hans Villarica – Health – The Atlantic.
While I am a firm believer – and I think practitioner – of make the best of it, with all due respect to the author, I find this a bit over the top.
It’s true that most of us become more reflective and appreciative, and refocus more our attention on the people important to us, I think most of us would give that up in a flash not to have cancer. And most of us were not ‘bad’ before we got cancer, just not as full and appreciative as we could be.
My first time with treatment, I ironically called it a ‘learning experience’. It was and is, but there must be easier ways. However, her last para is strong and captures the benefit of having a positive attitude:
Today, I can say that cancer does not always suck. As a result of facing cancer, I have a clearer perspective on my purpose in life, stronger relationships, and a greater sense of what really matters. I was 31 when I faced cancer. I should have never had to endure such hardship. But as all survivors know, it is the obstacles that we face that make us who we will become and I am pretty happy with where I’ve ended up.
Any thoughts on cancer as a blessing or curse?
Meredith McNerney: Why Cancer Doesn’t Always Suck.
I am not sure about this and that our understanding of all the effects of stress allows one to be quite so categorical. While stress is part of life, and can have a healthy energizing element, degrees of stress and individual reactions vary, and can have an impact on general health. But clearly the research has shown no such link and it is the standard risk facts (tobacco, lack of physical activity, poor nutrition) that are important.
On the other hand, his point on positive thinking and the ‘blame’ it attaches to people who cannot be positive is all too true, although I have noted earlier better to be able to find some of the positive aspects (i.e., not shallow ‘happy face’ positive) to make it easier for one and one’s family.
Stress causes cancer.
A column on the impact of language of terms such as: incurable, survivor, remission, and patient. I think we all struggle with the impact of words – certainly I have. While there is a place and use for ‘politically correct’ language, I do think there is advantage to the directness of cancer language when it comes to medical terms (e.g., incurable, remission) no matter how depressing these are, with greater latitude for how people identify themselves (e.g., survivor, warrior or patient – see other post on use of survivor Why You’ll Never Hear Me Call Myself A Cancer ‘Survivor’).
Other words or metaphors that don’t work for me are ‘fighting’ cancer (how can I fight myself?) or cancer warrior. However, each of us has to find a metaphor that works for us and the people close to us, and we all reach for those words and metaphors that are most meaningful to us and help us make the most sense of our journey (which is one of my preferred terms, obviously).
Hitchens ironically said ‘I have a touch of cancer’ when people asked how he was doing but was otherwise very direct; I tend to say that I have it or am being treated for it – neutral and direct.
Leigh Fortson: Cancer, a New View: Talk About Change.
Interesting study on how we are predisposed to positive thinking and how ‘prediction errors’ do not seem to correct that tendency.
The Neuroscience of Looking on the Bright Side: Scientific American.