The power of negative thinking

To be happy, you just need to decide to be happy. Visualise success and you will succeed. “Proud curmudgeon” Oliver Burkeman disagrees.

Try not to think of a polar bear, and you will think of it- the same with failure. We can’t control thought through willpower.

People who have had nothing to drink, and salty snacks, were imagining quenching their thirst. Imagining it paradoxically reduced energy and motivation- it felt the same as achieving it. Those positivity affirmations may backfire, and feel as good as getting Success might. People relax, and their blood pressure decreases. Dieters fantasising about losing weight lost less.

Fear, anxiety, disgust all have value for us. We face risks. The drunk driver thinking “I am a good driver, I will get home safe” may lead to disaster. Whether a thought is positive or negative is less relevant than will it work for my good?

Accepting all emotions is liberating.

Though- one who focuses on how to accomplish a task, rather than minor risks, will perform more efficiently. An athlete should envisage doing the somersault. Worry does little good. And- as a lawyer, I have to construct the case against me to find how to refute it. What is the evidence on any particular point? A safety officer on an oil rig, with all that flammable material, needs to imagine everything that might go wrong, in order to prevent it. His term was “chronic unease”- but he is dealing with serious risks. “Don’t worry about a problem- worry at it” said Ian Fleming.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, ACT, does not judge thoughts as positive or negative but on whether it promotes effective behaviour. You have to be able to judge whether a risk is serious. Self-doubt improves performance, as it promotes thinking about ways to improve- if you also have self-compassion, and can value where you are.

Eliminate false hope. Mr Trump will not take the action the environment needs. Hope can make us bear unbearable situations, but blind us to possibilities. Hope works when we have no agency. Abandon hope, and do what you see may be done. When fortune is kind, the soul should fortify herself against its violence.

People after great life changes after a period of adjustment have the same level of happiness as before- the lottery winner gets pleasure from volunteering, and the paraplegic after a catastrophe gets pleasure as before. It is called “hedonic adaptation”- change has an effect, then we get used to it. Happiness is useful data: it may help you work out what can make you happy, so you can pursue that.

Buddhists say happiness does not depend on external circumstances, but on accepting things as they are- including what real chances there are of changing them. Everything is impermanent. Getting what you want may make you unhappy, if you imagine you desire something because the culture tells you you should. Change your relationship to thoughts and emotions generated by experience- do not resist them or dwell on them.

From The Power of Negative Thinking, radio 4.

Go on, you know you want to

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