Paul Jarvis' Sunday Dispatch

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Why I’m so negative about positivity


Try not to think about a white bear for one minute.

Tough, right? Since I mentioned the white bear and then said not to think about it, it’s already in your mind, making it hard to remove. You have to constantly scan your thoughts to make sure you aren’t thinking about the bear, which in turn, makes you think about… the bear.

Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard, did this experiment (published in 1987) to prove that simply attempting to will ourselves to not think about something has the opposite effect. It’s called the ironic process theory. In the seconds before you started reading this, none of you were thinking about white bears.

When we try to put negative or stressful thoughts out of our minds, the opposite usually happens: we get consumed by them. Our white bears can be things like public speaking, wanting to be happy, tooth aches, landing a client, getting a good grade… whatever.

The ironic process theory is found throughout pop culture too, in some pretty fun ways. In Ghostbusters, at the end, the main “busters” are asked to not think of a form for the coming Gozer monster. But then Ray accidentally thinks of the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man, which is the form Gozer takes. There was an Internet meme called “The Game” where the object is to see who can not think about the game the longest. Even the movie Inception touches on the theory.

Ironic process theory relates to positivity as well and is the main reason I’ve never been able to get behind PMA (positive mental attitude). I always felt like I failed at it because I could never simply will myself to be happy. Those white bears of negativity always crept back in, making me feel worse than when I started. Trying to constantly be happy makes me feel bad about myself, which makes me even more unhappy.

Science and research continues to show that simply “thinking positively” just doesn’t work, but self-help continues to push it as the answer, backed only by parable and, “it works for me!” shouters, who then shout at you about buying their positivity product.

“The startling conclusion at which they [psychologists and philosophers] had all arrived, in different ways, was this: that the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable” - Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote

Positivity is a powerful thing in our culture. Gurus make millions from it by selling self-help tomes, which invariably don’t work for people, leading them back to the guru to buy more books, seminars, etc, on the subject. It’s a win-win for the PMA industrial complex though (ok, yes, I made that term up) — when things go wrong, it’s evidence that we need to work at being more positive.

When things go right, it’s evidence that all our positivity is working. This gets dangerous because it shifts the focus from what’s actually happening in our life or changing it, to a forced focus on simply being happy about it.

The more we fixate on positivity and happiness, the further we seem to get from it.

I’d rather focus on negativity and unhappiness. How can I sit with the things that stress me out, make me angry or make me sad? That’s where change happens, because it’s not until I get uncomfortable that change occurs. Sometimes frustration or madness just need to be let out, in productive but non-violent ways, so I can move on or past something.

The other thing about focusing on negativity is that in picturing the worst case scenarios, it establishes a baseline for awful. This sounds, well… awful, but it’s actually good.

What’s the worst that can happen? Getting laughed at while giving a public speech? That’s not worse than giving the same speech naked. And even that’s not worse than walking on stage and dropping dead, in a painful way, while soiling yourself. So if a bad and embarrassing death is the baseline for the worst-case scenario, anything even slightly better than that isn’t so bad, in the grand scheme of things. 

Most of the time, even if we think something bad or embarrassing has happened, most other people are too pre-occupied with themselves to even notice.

Albert Ellis, who is considered the second most influential psychotherapist in history (screw you Carl Rogers!), constructed a “shame attack” exercise, where participants were asked to loudly announce the next stop on a crowded subway car. Just thinking about it would give most of us cold sweats and anxiety. We’d be too embarrassed to even try.

As participants did this (shouting out the name of the next stop), they noticed that people mostly didn’t even notice. Those who did, didn’t seem to care. 

If you were to step into a subway car right now, I bet most people would be listening to music, or they’re ignoring conversations and talking from anyone else around them. 

Similarly, in the case of the study, the actual result (being ignored) versus the worst case scenario (complete shaming from other people, followed by embarrassing death) were drastically different.

In thinking about the negative and accepting it, we are accepting that we can control very little in our lives. The universe, situations, other people, are all outside of any control we think we might have. We can’t even control ourselves and our thoughts most of the time.

Accepting this supreme lack of control is something that Buddhists have been practicing for centuries, through non-attachment. We can’t attach ourselves to anything, because we can’t control anything. It’s best to accept our circumstances without judgement and move on. This doesn’t have to be passive either - we can make decisions, changes and even take drastic actions, but we can’t attach ourselves to the outcome of those things either. We can work hard and not be attached to the outcomes of our hard work.

It’s like being on a fast moving river, in a boat with oars and a rudder. The best you can do is steer and paddle a little. If the river capsizes you, it’s not trying to make you miserable, it’s just a river. Paddle when you can, steer away from jagged rocks if you can, but that’s about it. The river will take you down-stream whether you want to go there or not, but you can attempt to guide the route.

Wegner’s study also found better tools for suppressing our white bears a little, thus steering on the river with some precision. Some examples are:

  • Creating a different absorbing distractor instead. If you’ve got a dull ache in your leg, then accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer, your thumb will be taking up most of your thoughts (ouch). (This isn’t to be taken literally - put that hammer down!)
  • Cutting back on multi-tasking is another way to avoid those white bears, because when we’re focused on one single thought, instead of a ton of thoughts, it’s easier to not think about our white bears.
  • Allow yourself to think about your white bears for a specific amount of time on a specific date. Then, if you do think about it when it’s not scheduled, let yourself know you’ve got that scheduled time to focus on it coming up.
  • Exposing ourselves to the thoughts we wish we were avoiding will limit how often they creep back into our minds. By truly spending time with them, thinking about them, figuring them out and accepting them as something we can’t control, we’ll be better able to come to terms with them and then think less about them.

Happiness may come from accepting how little we control in this life, not from focusing on it like a laser-beam. And it no doubt looks more like calm contentment than hyper jubilance all the time. We don’t need to beat ourselves up for having negative thoughts when we’re trying to be positive, we can just sit with them and understand them more, realizing that the worst case scenario rarely happens.

PS: If you missed my first ever Q&A, you can watch the video here or stream/download the audio here. I enjoyed answering all your questions!


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