Stop reading. Walk away, and absolutely, positively do not think about a white bear for one whole minute.
How did that go? Impossible, right?
Fyodor Dostoevsky used to bug his brother with this trick, according to a welcome new book called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by British journalist Oliver Burkeman. In the white bear experiment, the effort to damp down thoughts of the animal actually brings it front and centre. A professor of psychology at Harvard named Daniel Wegner calls this “ironic process theory.” For those prone to daily affirmations, it’s not good news that visualizing the post-diet body or the corner office won’t necessarily erase thoughts of love handles and McJobs. Unhappiness makes itself known when we try to pretend it’s not there. For those of us name-checked in Burkeman’s subtitle, this is vindication at last.
You, too, might be a failure at happiness. Do strangers tell you to smile? Are you wearing black? As an ’80s teen, were your peers reading The Babysitters Club and listening to Wham while you read Nausea and listened to the Smiths?
These are tough times for melancholic types, constitutionally wary of the happiness movement. Marketdata Enterprises Inc. reports that the U.S. self-improvement market, ever resilient, was worth an estimated $11.17-billion in 2011. Those seeking personal happiness can attend seminars, hire coaches, take university courses. Even the United Nations commissioned a World Happiness Report (they’re cheeriest in Denmark).
It’s fashionable to strive to be happier. In Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin’s recent follow-up to the bestseller The Happiness Project, the joy guru moves her formula into the domestic sphere. She describes personal schemes to make her home life cheerier, through decluttering and avoiding chocolate-covered pretzels. Somewhere around the chapter where she embraces good smells and decides to commission a diorama for her kitchen cupboard, I thought: Getting happy seems exhausting. Somehow happiness has ended up on the DIY spectrum with Martha Stewart crafts and other things that are supposed to make me feel good but just make me feel inadequate.
Burkeman sums up that sensation of happiness failure: “The effort to try to feel happy is actually precisely the thing that makes us miserable.” This is borne out by Gabriele Oettingen, a psychologist at New York University who studied how the removal of obstacles through positive thinking can actually lull people into the false sensation that success has already been achieved. Subjects who were asked to picture a particularly successful week achieved fewer of their goals than a group asked to simply think about their week realistically, without the pressure of visualizing unusually high achievements.
Instead of picturing only the desired end result, Oettingen’s team proposes “mental contrasting,” acknowledging the problems ahead while picturing the end goal. In a study involving managers at four German hospitals, those who were trained in mental contrasting ended up reaching their goals more quickly than those without training. Negativity, it turns out, is a useful tool. Tell that to your boss at the next corporate-team-building-quarterly-goal-setting retreat.
The problem with the call to shut out negative thoughts is that it elides suffering, a part of life that can’t – and shouldn’t – be glossed over. In a series of vignettes, Burkeman undertakes “the negative path” toward happiness. He hangs out with modern Stoics, who believe in confronting worst-case scenarios head on rather than shunning them. This leads Burkeman to ride the London tube shouting out the stop names, confronting his fears of embarrassment (no one cares, it turns out). He also endures a week-long silent meditation retreat, a kind of physical hell where he can’t get the song Barbie Girl out of his head. But all of this suffering actually makes him feel pretty good. Trying to control negativity is actually worse than negativity itself.
The vogue for relentless happiness can seem like a harmless pastime or a modern virtue, imbued with a kind of righteousness once reserved for religious pursuits. But it also has wider social repercussions. In her 2009 book Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich argues that a mindset of relentless optimism fostered the conditions for the collapse of the American economy in 2008. Upbeat economists ignored warning signs, and “prosperity preachers” informed their congregations that “God wants everyone to be prosperous” – charge it! As Ehrenreich points out, spending without saving – and household debt is at an all-time high in Canada – is an incredibly optimistic act.
There’s no dinner-party companion more annoying than he who has manifested his own happiness and announces it loudly. These happiness hobbyists rarely seem happier, just more self-involved. Shutting out the negative and turning life into a game that can be beat by strategy and attitude makes for a jockish, inner-facing worldview.
Burkeman’s book ends with a plea to put aside the fuzzy word happiness, and aim for something that philosopher Paul Pearsall called “openture,” the opposite of closure: “The strange excited comfort of being presented with, and grappling with, the tremendous mysteries life offers.” It’s a vision of existence that embraces the variegated experience of life, one that includes uncertainty, fear – even unhappiness. I’m going to make “openture” my new daily affirmation; anything to escape the tyranny of the get-happy industry.
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