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Journalist Oliver Burkeman says: live life on the dark side

(18 Posts)
ElenMumsnetBloggers (MNHQ) Thu 21-Jun-12 12:30:13

Today our guest blogger, the journalist and author Oliver Burkeman, explains why he thinks positive thinking actually makes us more unhappy. He argues in his new book The Antidote that we should embrace failure and accept the darker realities of life, because telling ourselves to 'think positive' might actually hinder our happiness. Read his guest blog and post your comments here. Do you agree with Oliver?

Katn Thu 21-Jun-12 14:51:38

Hi Oliver,

Really agree with you about the meditation. As for a question, I was wondering, do you think panic attacks are connected to this idea of not yet learning how to co-exist with negative thoughts without fighting them? Or are naturally panicky people too in touch with their negativity?

painterlyswoosh Thu 21-Jun-12 14:54:36

Would like to ask your no-nonsense opinion on something I've been noticing recently.

Lots of self-help books/thoughtful friends etc often tell you to "be yourself", "think about what YOU want", "take YOUR needs into account".

However, somewhat paradoxically, i think it can be actually MORE stressful to think about what it is you really want instead of thinking about what is most convenient/most likely. I'm starting to feel like being forced to have a stable idea of who it is I REALLY REALLY am is actually very unhelpful for my mentality in general. I change my mind all the time!

Have you noticed this idea much in your research? Do you think it harms more than it helps?

(ps. I know those thoughtful friends are just trying to help and I am polite and grateful promise smile)

ChickenLickn Thu 21-Jun-12 15:04:06

"We might be better off .. finding ways to embrace failure, uncertainty, imperfection and insecurity instead."

I agree with this bit, because thats probably all we're going to get in the near future.

"The Greek and Roman Stoics, for example, argued that it was often wiser to visualise not the best-case scenario, but the worst."

But their mythology seems to contain a lot of murder and suicide?

"you should praise your children for the effort they put in, not for their achievements"

I think it is wiser to praise them on their progress - have they improved and achieved more/done better than before, or worse. This will help them self-direct their efforts effectively.

Mitchdafish Thu 21-Jun-12 15:47:09

" Instead, you can coexist in a friendly way with those negative feelings -- and, meanwhile, get on with living"... Like that. Also praising effort... Although praise and over-praise is another fascinating topic.

FeelingFood Thu 21-Jun-12 19:25:46

I think meditation is a great tool for learning acceptance, and rather than layering positive emotions on top of perhaps negative ones, the reality of being still and open usually makes for a calm and easy manner. I find that no matter what is going on, if I can centre myself and feel my feet firmly on the ground, all is well. So I agree in part with Oliver, though take a less damning perspective on positive thinking, which definitely has worth too. 50/50 = Balance is the key: )

Rollmops Fri 22-Jun-12 10:28:09

Have always embraced, ahem, the worst case scenario.
Once one accepts it, one can prepare oneself to best deal with and the monsters won't seem so bad. I actually find it relaxes me knowing come what may, I can handle it.
Must say, usually things turn out much better than anticipated though grin

lifeafterdebt Fri 22-Jun-12 13:07:12

I subscribe to the "whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, either way you are right" brigade. Is this positve thinking or embracing the darkside? For me it means a great deal of thoughtful assessment of a situation before deciding what to do next. I think we can all too often believe we have failed when a senario or situation was already on the road to failure before we engaged with it.

mcmooncup Fri 22-Jun-12 15:55:36

I don't know where to start with this pathetic middle class 'let's be different' de Bottain view on optimism.
Firstly there is a total lack of understanding what 'positive thinking' entails. Positive thinking and optimism ARE all about learning how to deal with failure and bad events in the least threatening light. It is not and never has been about ignoring failure, seeing things through rose tinted glasses, reciting mantras. It is about DEALING with bad things so they do not harm our confidence and destroy our self esteem.
I find it patronisingly ludicrous that nicely privileged white males seem adamant in taking this view. I work with long term unemployed people (v. Hard to reach ones) and the over-riding factor that gets them out of their situation is being able to deal with the pure shit in their life by looking at it differently, with optimism and not pessimism.
I could write all day but the patronising naivity is staggering and the subject knowledge very poor angry

Springforward Fri 22-Jun-12 19:27:29

I think I agree, overall. Certainly I praise DS for trying, not for succeeding - because sometimes you try your damnedest and still fail, but have to be confident about your self-efficacy/ resilient enough to start again.

I like very much the idea of thinking about "the worst that could happen", to put a ceiling/ floor on anticipatory anxiety and make it more managable.

I also think that these approaches are compatible with optimism - just because the worst could happen, doesn't mean it will, IYSWIM.

EdgarAllenPimms Fri 22-Jun-12 19:36:17

i think it is best to try to praise children whenever they give you the excuse to, for whatever behaviour you would like them to repeat - be that the effort or the actual success.

sometimes it i hard to find those moments! best not to be picky.

agree with: 'bounding' anxiety with worst cases...*where that works*. sometimes it doesn't. if your worst case scenario is actually 'omg we are all doomed!' that isnt going to help you much. if it is 'meh, i have had a bad day' then that's ok.

some people with anxiety often have very wide bounds to the negative side - removing the higher end of possibility doesn't help them at all, they aren't all looking at 'best case'.

some people do torment themselves with not being high achievers. some on the other hand torment themselves with the worst case that might happen (where it is truly something to be troubled by)

I think positive thinking of the kind that appreciates what you have, the status quo - the readily achievable objective - is usually going to stand you in good ground.

Pitmountainpony Sat 23-Jun-12 02:54:39

We live in a simple house on a hill with breathtaking views.
Now to get up to it you walk up 40 concrete steps. With two small children, this is not without cost. But the benefit the view gives us makes that cost more than worthwhile.
However I always notice when new friends visit they either notice the view and express great appreciation or they comment negatively about having to climb up the steps and say nothing about the view.
I truly believe people have one or the other mindset....the ability to appreciate some positive they are present to or the propensity to see the negative and I think it is hard to deviate from your usual modus operendi since so much thinking is deeply habitual and the result of inherited characteristics.
Happily I married a man who only ever sees the view and boy does it make life more pleasant.
I don't think that is positive thinking so much as having an appreciation of the positive aspects within an experience more strongly than the negative.What do you think?

I look forward to reading your book.

Pitmountainpony Sat 23-Jun-12 03:15:27

And if course I may be totally wrong and the simple explanation may be that some people just do not appreciate a view. This would mean there are times when I too can only notice the " steps ".
We are too endgame focused as a species.......because the result takes up so much less of our time than all the effort and actions to result in the final point.
So in a way I think our suggestion to praise the effort reveals your natural inclination to see the positive, in this case the sheer value of the experiences involved in aiming for success in any venture you undertake.
I think there is a good chance you are in fact one of the view appreciators naturally! writing a book for the step complainers who really cannot help themselves most of the time.My own father takes great pleasure in being negative but seems to have little control over it.

NannyPlumIsMyMum Sat 23-Jun-12 07:37:29

It's certainly not a new concept.
Imagining the "worst case scenario" is one of the basic premises of CBT.

henrysmama2012 Sat 23-Jun-12 10:00:34

This isn't a new concept by any means. The ability to develop mental toughness and self leadership to cope with losses as well as wins in life is well documented in swathes of academic literature. The problem is that there is so much poorly researched pseudo psychology crap out there, based on nothing but half an hour of googling and a couple of anecdotes by an unqualified author that it muddies the field horribly for any reader who is new to the concept.

mcmooncup Sat 23-Jun-12 10:57:16

Tbh I'm amazed this has even got published, so full of total crap it is. It is devastatingly inaccurate.

Jux Sat 23-Jun-12 19:44:04

If yo an imagine the worst case scenario and work out how you could deal with it, then when it doesn't happen (and usually it won't) then you're quids in. That's how I conducted most of my life.

cureall Sun 24-Jun-12 07:09:18

failure, worry and sadness are facts of life -- and a happiness strategy based on insisting they shouldn't exist is surely doomed

I've never read any 'happiness strategy' which insists failure worry and sadness shouldn't exist! What an odd thought. I still don't understand why the author thinks positive thinking makes us more unhappy. Does he mean deliberately trying to block out stress and anxiety instead of finding coping mechanisms, like meditation, affirmations, imagining dealing with the 'worst case' etc. I think he is giving a new label to something that exists, which I would call common sense.

I also don't think there's a particular parallel between trying not to think of a polar bear and trying too hard in our efforts to make ourselves happy.

This part of the serenity prayer for me sums up a healthy approach to life

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

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