When It’s Positive to be Negative: The Power of Negative Thinking

by Margie Nichols

Lately I’ve been excited by this book I’m reading, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.  And then last week I had an experience that highlights one particular aspect of ‘the power of negative thinking.’

First, let’s spend a brief moment on what’s negative about positive thinking.  I acknowledge that for many endeavors, having a positive and confident attitude increases the odds of your success. But as a total life strategy – it’s got some major flaws.  For starters,  unless you’re unusually lucky, as you go through life you will encounter numerous situations where good is NOT rewarded, evil goes unpunished, and bad shit happens to you that you can’t control,  and it happens for no particular reason, let alone a good one.

And positive thinking can get you in trouble here.  For the entire ‘positive thinking’ philosophy rests on two flawed assumptions:  That most of our life is under our control, if only we approach it correctly;  and that things that we can’t control are at least governed by laws  that are fair and just.  In short, the principles of “visualize and you will attain it” and “what goes around comes around.”    So if your positive thinking doesn’t work – it means either life is pretty random, God is cruel, or you screwed up, and thereby you are to blame for your own failure.  And I’ve seen people who suffered unfair and uncontrollable adversity react in all three ways: with fear and anxiety about the future, anger at God or the world in general, and self-doubt and blame.

I could say a lot more here (and undoubtedly will in a future blog since this is one of my favorite topics) but the point of this blog is the virtues of negative thinking and negative experience.  Because another precept of the ‘positivity power’ philosophy is that negativity must be avoided.  You visualize success because failure is deemed not only undesirable, but even harmful. And you avoid dark emotions of fear, anger, shame, or pessimism, for they will bring you down or hold you back.  Positive thinkers allow that some dark thoughts and feelings are unavoidable,  but  encourages us to  expel, expunge, or ‘resolve’ them.

But a philosophy of negative thinking embraces different assumptions about the world.  This world view – Burkeman calls it a Stoic world view, but it is also a Buddhist world view – sees humans as relatively powerless in the universe, believes that pain and loss are inevitable, and values acceptance  of the world as it is over what we think of as happiness.  The laws that govern our lives are the laws of Mother Nature, the cycle of life and death that spares no one and does not conform to human notions of fairness, and as humans we have very limited control over our own lives.   Rather than strive towards only positive, pushing away negative experience,  the ‘negative thinker’  hopes through a clear-eyed acceptance of all experience to attain a life of some peace, equanimity, and to be able to enjoy and appreciate the moment.   It is said that some Buddhist monks are trained to meditate while gazing on decomposing bodies, not to make them morbid, but rather to fully accept their own death in the future, and thus to  be freed to  fully live in the present.

You can see how ‘negative thinking’ might not be a popular world view, especially in we-can-all-pull-ourselves-up-by-our-own-bootstraps America.  On the face of it, the Stoic/Buddhist philosophy of being doesn’t seem very comforting.  Admittedly, it doesn’t have the obvious advantages of ‘positive thinking.’

And yet – it can be comforting in its own way.   For one thing, you don’t have to try so damn hard to be cheerful all the time.  That alone is enough reason for some of us to flee the cheerleaders of positivity.  And let’s face it, the Stuart Smiley’s of the world can be damn annoying, and being consistently upbeat takes a lot of energy.

For another thing, you don’t have to monitor your mind for ‘negative thoughts’ or be afraid of dark emotions- you learn in fact, that you can survive them quite successfully.  If you accept your own ‘dark side’ you don’t have to fear it or push it away; if you see life as a mixture of good times and inevitable loss and pain,  bad times still hurt but they don’t shake up your whole belief system.  In addition, the more you embrace this world view the more open you are to ‘data’ about the world you would have tried to reject.  Some research has shown that ‘pessimists’ are actually more effective at real life tasks, because they tend to be more realistic.  And those who visualize positive outcomes for tasks work less hard than those who don’t:  it’s as if visualizing makes your brain think you already have attained your goal.

In fact, the more you can accept both good and bad, negative and positive, the more you see what you can’t control in life, and you stop expending so much energy running into brick walls.  A final advantage of ‘negative thinking’:  you don’t have to feel guilty when your ‘positive thinking’ doesn’t succeed.  I acknowledge the power of intention, motivation, self-motivating and encouraging cognitions, self-care mental and physical, and doing things to optimize ‘flow’ – in other words, the things positivity proponents tell us to do to be successful.  Those things work – but only to a point.  A million other things affect achievement in any endeavor, including sheer luck.

No one seeks out hardship, suffering, or trauma, and many people are destroyed or seriously damaged by it.  Excessive or intrusive  negative emotions and dark thoughts can be destructive.    Certainly, the main ‘lesson’ most of us want to learn from painful life experiences is how to avoid them in the future.  And that is a worthwhile goal, when it is attainable, that is, when you are dealing with something over which you actually have control.  But that’s not always possible, so we need to develop a more positive attitude about experiencing the negative.

I would argue that everyday bad experiences – not trauma or abuse, not extreme pain and suffering, but the ordinary mistakes, failures, and disappointments we encounter all the time – can be more helpful than we realize,   if we can learn to roll with them a little.   As Thich Nat Hanh says, ‘It is very important that you experience toothache, because without that you would never know how wonderful non-toothache is.’

Recently, I had an experience that taught me this lesson all over again.  Like many other people my age, I’ve had a mild to moderately disruptive chronic physical pain condition  that has come and gone for years, and I’ve managed it.  About a year ago it got substantially worse, and so recently I tried a relatively simple medical procedure that I’d been avoiding, and it has given me remarkable relief.  And I’ve having Aha! moments ever since.

For example, I’ve been, for the most part, in a terrific mood.  And it got good really rapidly, like as soon as the pain was gone.  Which made me realize how much the physical pain had affected my mood, and probably my perceptions, without my knowing it.   And how the sudden absence created almost a ‘high’ feeling.  I experienced a phase of intense appreciation for (relatively) pain free body.   I am delighted by the ordinary things – going up and down stairs, walking longer on the treadmill, standing and washing dishes at the sink- that I couldn’t do easily before. And I am reminded how grateful I am to be able to feel gratitude, what a gift it is, how it makes everything in life a little sweeter, shinier, prettier.

But I’ve also been struck by how much the pain taught me.  It’s given me increased empathy for those who have to manage pain on a day to day basis.  It has reminded me of how permeable the boundaries are between physical pain and depression, and between physical vitality and joy.  I also realized, as soon as the pain was gone, how intense it really was and how much I had adjusted to it.  And this, in turn, has made me feel more confident about my ability to manage pain in the future.  Before I had it, I imagined the amount of pain I was in every day as a disaster, my fear was that I wouldn’t survive it. Now I can harness the power of ‘negative visualization:’ when you imagine your worst fear (that the pain will return and be worse) and know you will survive, much of the fear abates, and equanimity is possible.  So paradoxically, the pain directly and indirectly has given me joy – through my gratitude – and freedom from fear.

And as Buddhists, Stoics, and many others throughout the ages have believed – happiness is elusive and not within our control; but  some measure of tranquility and enjoyment of everyday life  is attainable.  Do we really need  more than that?

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