The power of pessimism

The power of pessimism: We're told to 'think positive' yet a new book argues we'd be far happier if we embraced negativity


23:08 GMT, 1 July 2012



23:08 GMT, 1 July 2012

Uplifting self-help books, looking on the bright side and repeating positive affirmations to ourselves – a day never seems to pass when we’re not told to be as upbeat as possible. So why, then, do most people in modern Britain seem to be more stressed, miserable and confused than ever

One expert claims to have found the answer. In a fascinating new book, Oliver Burkeman, an author who specialises in writing about psychology, claims we’d have a much better time if we actually took a more negative view of life.

It’s time to embrace failure, insecurity
and pessimism instead of trying to run away from it, Burkeman says, and
simply stop trying so hard to be happy if we want to feel more positive
about life.

Feeling blue: Did Eeyore have the right idea

Feeling blue: Did Eeyore have the right idea

‘For a
society so fixated on achieving happiness, we seem remarkably
incompetent at the task,’ Burkeman says. ‘One of the best-known general
findings of the “science of happiness” has been the discovery that the
countless advantages of modern life have done little to lift our
collective mood.'

Romance, family life and work often bring as much stress as joy. Economic growth does not necessarily make for happier societies, just as increased personal income doesn’t make for happier people.

The huge number of self-help books available to us these days also fail to make us happy. This is why publishers refer to the ‘18-month rule’, which states that the person most likely to purchase a self-help book is someone who, in the previous 18 months, purchased a different self-help book — one that evidently didn’t solve all their problems.

The existence of a thriving ‘happiness
industry’ clearly isn’t sufficient to engender happiness, and it’s not
unreasonable to suspect that it might make matters worse. So what does

Oliver Burkeman, an author who specialises in writing about psychology, claims we'd have a better time if we took a more negative view of life

Oliver Burkeman, an author who specialises in writing about psychology, claims we'd have a better time if we took a more negative view of life

After years spent consulting specialists
— from psychologists to philosophers and even Buddhists — Burkeman
realised they all agreed on one thing: the effort to feel happy is
precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And it is our constant
struggle to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure,
or sadness — that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or

Instead, they argued for an alternative — a ‘negative path’ to happiness. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, and becoming familiar with failure. In short, in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions — or, at least, to learn to stop running so hard from them. So how can pessimism really be as healthy and productive as optimism Burkeman explains:


Behind many of today’s most popular approaches to happiness lies one simple philosophy — positive visualisation. If you picture things turning out well, the theory goes, they’re far more likely to do so. And, yes, focusing on a positive outcome, rather than a negative one, seems like a sensible way of maximising your chances of success.

But according to the German-born psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, spending time and energy thinking about how well things could go actually reduces most people’s motivation to achieve them. For example, in one experiment, subjects who were encouraged to visualise having a particularly high-achieving week at work were shown to achieve significantly less than those who were invited to think about the coming week, but given no further guidelines on how to do so.

A UK ‘happiness survey’ cost the taxpayer 2 million in 2011

In experiment after experiment, Oettingen and her team found that people responded to positive visualisation by relaxing and doing less. They seemed, subconsciously, to have confused visualising success with having already achieved it. Oliver Burkeman. To order a copy for 12.99 (including p&p), call 0843 382 0000.