The Power of Negative Thinking: 5 Reasons Why Positivity Gets It Wrong

Belief in the power of positive thinking runs so deep here in America, it’s practically in our DNA.

Beginning with mid-century advice classics such as Dale Carnegie's How to Stop Worrying and Start Living and Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, and continuing in recent years with bestsellers such as Rhonda Byrne'sThe Secret or Deepak Chopra and Rudolph E. Tanzi's Super Brain, positive thinking (or "positive psychology") has cemented itself not only as a fixture of popular wisdom but as a kind of social imperative as well. An optimistic outlook, it is believed, leads to success and health and ripples out to other people, while a pessimistic outlook leads to failure and malaise and leaches energy from those around us.

Positive thinking has advocates in business leaders and athletes; scientists have argued that it improves physical and mental health as well as longevity. With such strong support for positivity, and such a wealth of evidence for its benefits, who would dare to speak against it?

Plenty of people, as a matter of fact: Like any belief endorsed by a staggering majority, positive thinking has its detractors. The authors of the following books, which range from unconventional to outright mutinous, argue that positive thinking limits the range of our emotions, distracts us from a reality rife with problems and risks, and may even exacerbate the problems—namely, unhappiness—for which it’s touted as a solution. Moreover, these authors argue that what are often categorized as “negative thoughts”—embracing insecurity, allowing for doubt, etc.—may actually offer roundabout paths to contentment, confidence, and security (even the ever-lovable Bob Knight agrees). Read on for why it's worth it to suspend our smiley faces once in a while.

1. Trying to be happy makes us unhappy

In The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, British psychology journalist Oliver Burkeman argues that our ingrained tendency to eschew "negative" emotions (such as stress and disappointment) in favor of "positive" emotions (such as optimism and cheer) is actually what makes us miserable. "Aiming for [happiness]," he writes, "seems to reduce your chances of ever attaining it…. At best…happiness can only be glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, not stared at directly."

With insights drawn from Stoic philosophy, the contemporary life coach industry, and even the pitfalls of airport security, Burkeman lays out what he calls the "negative path" to happiness. "Learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, [and] even learning to value death," he argues, are all paradoxical paths to the contentment many try to attain through positive thinking.

2. Argument is better than harmony

Proponents of positive thinking say that a cheerful outlook improves our interactions with others. But, in their new book on the science of winning, Top Dog authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman warn against writing off the benefits of discord. Competition (and even healthy, contained aggression), they argue, builds security and confidence more effectively than does niceness. They cite the work of researcher Daniel Paquette, who points out that "studies of animals deprived of rough-and-tumble play show they grow up unable to be successfully aggressive." The same principle applies to children who roughhouse. "Paquette's argument," Bronson and Merryman write, "is that [the] emotional groundwork [of roughhousing] helps children later in life be brave in unfamiliar situations, stand up for themselves, and learn to take risks." While positive psychology posits that good thoughts open the way to success, Bronson and Merryman suggest that very different attitudes—namely aggression and adversity—give us the muscle to actually obtain it.

3. Happiness limits the full range of our emotions

In her new collection of essays, In Praise of Messy Livesthe ever-controversial Katie Roiphe argues that our infatuation with health, safety, and happiness is making us soft and depriving us of our fundamental human virility. This is a theme she detects in many areas of culture: She decries the diffidence and prudeness of contemporary male novelists. She also sees it in the popularity of Mad Men. On viewing the show for the first time, she writes: "It seemed to me that our conservative culture was fascinated by the spectacle of people who drank too much, smoked too much, and fell into bed with people they weren't married to." Having "long felt discouraged by what seemed to be a certain lack of imagination...a kind of narrowness and provincialism...a cultural preoccupation with health above all else," Roiphe "began to think of messiness as a value, a good thing, a lost and interesting way of life."

4. Optimism blinds us to risk

When journalist and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, her doctors and friends chastised her for having a negative attitude. Staying optimistic, she was told, was crucial to her recovery. But Ehrenreich was not convinced that a positive attitude could cure her cancer. In the years since, she has written two books, Smile or Die and Bright-Sided, exploring the creed of American optimism and debunking its supposed advantages. She argues that a devotion to positive thinking has proved especially detrimental in the medical and financial industries, where practitioners and executives—confident that a bright outlook will lead to bright outcomes—have made careless decisions and overlooked risks. Speaking to the 2008 economic crisis, she writes in Bright-Sided: "[Positive thinking] was…a liberating ideology for top-level executives. What was the point in agonizing and tedious analyses of risks—and why bother worrying about dizzying levels of debt and exposure to potential defaults—when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to expect them?"

5. Positive thinking takes us out of the present moment
The 
Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, the classic book by Alan W. Watts, came out in 1951, just one year before Norman Vincent Peale's seminal guide, The Power of Positive Thinking, and—despite its contrarian platform—has managed to stand its own amid the onslaught of positive psychology over the last 60 years. Drawing on ideas in Eastern spirituality, religion, literature, and philosophy, Watts argues that "insecurity is the result of trying to be secure, and that, contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves." He posits that our hunger for things to look forward to and our evasion of pain takes us out of the fullness of the present moment, which is never assuredly pleasant, and that accepting reality in all its shades—good and bad—leads to greater contentment.

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