As anyone who knows me in real life (or has been a reader of this blog for more than five minutes) will know, I have a very slight tendency towards negativity. I see problems everywhere, I have little confidence in my own abilities, I tend towards melancholy and I am a pessimist. Yes, one of those.
The problem for me, and others like me, is that in society in general, and the workplace in particular, it seems that it’s not acceptable to be negative, even when the negative thing is the true thing. For example, the other week, we were evaluating something at work. We’d had quite a few negative comments from staff, which we wanted to put into the report because we felt it was important people had the chance to have their say about the situation. But one person in our group said we should leave them out because they were too negative. But they were people’s opinions – why should they not be entitled to have their voices heard just because their feedback wasn’t positive? (We put it in the report in the end as the majority of us thought it should go in.)
Anyhow, one of my (two) new year’s resolutions was to try and be more positive, so I have decided to actually do something about this. I usually enjoy reading Oliver Burkeman’s columns in The Guardian weekend magazine, so when I saw he’d written a book called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, I decided I would read it. Happily, I was able to download it as an e-book from the public library. [I'm still slightly over-excited about the fact that one can borrow e-books from the public library - perhaps I should write a blog post about this and get it out of my system.] I enjoyed the book, and I think it’s worth reading, particularly if the usual run of self-help books just makes you feel worse than you felt to begin with. For starters, the book describes just what a waste of time positive thinking (aka pretending everything is alright when it’s not) can be. Hooray! I felt better already.
I was going to summarise the main points of the book here, but (a) it’s probably better if you read it for yourself, and (b) this post would be too long if I did, so instead I will share the quotations used at the head of each chapter, which are a sort of summary in themselves:
Try to post for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky - Winter Notes on Summer Impressions
Pessimism, when you get used to it, is just as agreeable as optimism.
- Arnold Bennett, Things That Have Interested Me
You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.
- Marlo Stanfield in The Wire
Future, n. That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends and true and our happiness is assured.
- Ambrose Pierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 per cent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself – and there isn’t one.
- Wei Wu Wei, Ask the Awakened
Security is a kind of death, I think.
- Tennessee Williams, ‘The Catastrophe of Success‘
You can’t turn a sow’s ear into a Veal Orloff. But you can do something very good with a sow’s ear.
- Julia Child
If I had my life over I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death…without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.
- Inspector Mortimer in Muriel Spark‘s Momento Mori
One of the most helpful ideas I got from the book was the idea of, when worrying about something, to think about what the worst-case scenario could really be. In most situations the worse-case scenario is probably not really going to be as bad as we might think it is, and even if it is bad, it is unlikely to be something that we really can’t cope with in some way. Also, being a brilliant procrastinator, I found the idea of procrastination being a result of feeling that we can’t do something rather than us really, literally, not being able to do it an interesting one that I hadn’t thought of before. E.g., I might feel that I’m unable to do some Hebrew exercises, but really, I am literally (physically) able to do them, I just don’t feel like it. So, the answer to procrastination is to just get on and do things.
I was also interested to learn that the expression “X [person] is a failure” and the idea of people being “failures” only came into being during the growth of capitalism in the late 1800s when people started to get credit ratings, and bad credit ratings came to determine a person’s “moral worth” as well as their financial status. Also, there is a particularly intriguing chapter on the evils of goal setting that should be read by all managers, IMHO.
In general, Burkeman advises embracing such ‘negative’ things as failure and uncertainty, because seeking after success and security are likely to make us more unhappy. None of this is news, but, when you look around at society and at the workplace in particular you would be forgiven for thinking that it was. I suspect that most people secretly (or not so secretly) know that trying to be perfect is going to do us harm, that setting goals is not the way to get the best out of people, that it’s OK to fail, and that we need to think about death a bit more (in a good way), but ‘society’ and the way we’ve been taught to live tell us the opposite. We spend a lot of time deluding ourselves, in various ways, about a myriad of things, when, actually, if we could just see and accept reality we might just be a bit happier.