How not to be brainwashed by positive thinking

Tip of the day – Wednesday 27th June

Oliver Burkeman’s new book ‘The Antidote – Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking’ is a breath of fresh air. If you haven’t already bought it, I suggest you do. Its underlying message is that there is considerable potential for happiness in embracing negative thinking rather than trying to ‘big yourself up’ all the time.

Positive thinking has sold well of late….a whole swathe of books have been sold on the ‘change your life’ paradigm, with NLP often featuring heavily. Having studied NLP in some depth, the idea of it troubles me deeply. In my experience, those who rely on it feel a profound, short-lived high which is then followed by a crash back down to earth. I’ve often heard practitioners speak didactically – ‘this really does work’ rather than enquiringly – ‘does this work for you?’. And here lies the rub. Positive thinking forgets to ask whether it works for those using it. It is content to tell you it’s a good thing, and therefore you should do it. Because it has the word ‘positive’ in the title, people believe it. This, in my opinion, is bordering on brainwashing.

I think the selling of positive thinking to individuals has created an epidemic of negative thinking for society and business. By telling individuals to be positive, it actually encourages the opposite. Rather than increasing happiness, it ends up creating resentment when people realise that endless positivity is neither authentic nor sustainable. This resentment gives way to pessimism and eventually spreads as cynicism – the killer of confidence and recovery.

To build confidence, I am far more persuaded by approaches which focus not so much on positive or negative thinking, but on relevant thinking. In our commoditised world, even psychology has learned to sell ‘one-size fits all’ mantras like positive thinking without any understanding of what individuals actually need. For some, being positive might be relevant to success. For others, scepticism is more comfortable and consistent. That’s ok. Until we find out what makes different people tick, we can’t coach. It’s that simple. Some of the most inspirational leaders I have worked with are actually quite negative in their personal outlook. Why would I tell such a leader to find a new engine, when I can tune the one they have to do great things?

In summary, positive thinking cannot work if it is applied as a doctrine or a library book for all to read. We cannot tell people to be happy – they will resent us for it. Instead we must work within people’s own belief systems and find out what makes them tick. It is not about telling them to be one thing or another, it is about helping them build insight and effectiveness which is authentic to them. By allowing people to be themselves and better themselves, we might just unlock the collective optimism necessary to bring psychological confidence, and economic recovery, to life.