Is happiness really a glass half empty?

Is happiness really a glass half empty?

A new approach to happiness encourages pessimism…I don't agree!

This new approach is being proposed by Oliver Burkeman in his new book titled "The Antidote: happiness for people who can't stand positive thinking". An extract from this book was recently published in the Guardian and here's a taste of that extract…

In an unremarkable business park outside the city of Ann Arbor, in Michigan, stands a poignant memorial to humanity's shattered dreams. It doesn't look like that from the outside, though. Even when you get inside – which members of the public rarely do – it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to what you're seeing. It appears to be a vast and haphazardly organised supermarket; along every aisle, grey metal shelves are crammed with thousands of packages of food and household products. There is something unusually cacophonous about the displays, and soon enough you work out the reason: unlike in a real supermarket, there is only one of each item. And you won't find many of them in a real supermarket anyway: they are failures, products withdrawn from sale after a few weeks or months, because almost nobody wanted to buy them. In the product-design business, the storehouse – operated by a company called GfK Custom Research North America – has acquired a nickname: the Museum of Failed Products.

This is consumer capitalism's graveyard – the shadow side to the relentlessly upbeat, success-focused culture of modern marketing. Or to put it less grandly: it's almost certainly the only place on the planet where you'll find Clairol's A Touch of Yogurt shampoo alongside Gillette's equally unpopular For Oily Hair Only, a few feet from a now-empty bottle of Pepsi AM Breakfast Cola (born 1989; died 1990). The museum is home to discontinued brands of caffeinated beer; to TV dinners branded with the logo of the toothpaste manufacturer Colgate; to self-heating soup cans that had a regrettable tendency to explode in customers' faces; and to packets of breath mints that had to be withdrawn from sale because they looked like the tiny packages of crack cocaine dispensed by America's street drug dealers. It is where microwaveable scrambled eggs – pre-scrambled and sold in a cardboard tube with a pop-up mechanism for easier consumption in the car – go to die.

There is a Japanese term, mono no aware, that translates roughly as "the pathos of things": it captures a kind of bittersweet melancholy at life's impermanence – that additional beauty imparted to cherry blossoms, say, or human features, as a result of their inevitably fleeting time on Earth. It's only stretching the concept slightly to suggest that this is how the museum's proprietor, an understatedly stylish GfK employee named Carol Sherry, feels about the cartons of Morning Banana Juice in her care, or about Fortune Snookies, a short-lived line of fortune cookies for dogs. Every failure, the way she sees it, embodies its own sad story on the part of designers, marketers and salespeople. It is never far from her mind that real people had their mortgages, their car payments and their family holidays riding on the success of products such as A Touch of Yogurt.

"I feel really sorry for the developer on this one," Sherry says, indicating the breath mints that inadvertently resembled crack. "I mean, I've met the guy. Why would he ever have spent any time on the streets, in the drug culture?" She shakes her head. "These are real people who sincerely want to do their best, and then, well, things happen."

…he then goes on to write…

Failure is everywhere. It's just that most of the time we'd rather avoid confronting that fact.

Behind all of the most popular modern approaches to happiness and success is the simple philosophy of focusing on things going right. But ever since the first philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, a dissenting perspective has proposed the opposite: that it's our relentless effort to feel happy, or to achieve certain goals, that is precisely what makes us miserable and sabotages our plans. And that it is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, sadness – that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy in the first place.

Yet this conclusion does not have to be depressing. Instead, it points to an alternative approach: a "negative path" to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.

In the world of self-help, the most overt expression of our obsession with optimism is the technique known as "positive visualisation": mentally picture things turning out well, the reasoning goes, and they're far more likely to do so. Indeed, a tendency to look on the bright side may be so intertwined with human survival that evolution has skewed us that way. In her book, The Optimism Bias, the neuroscientist Tali Sharot compiles growing evidence that a well-functioning mind may be built so as to perceive the odds of things going well as greater than they really are. Non-depressed people, research suggests, generally have a less accurate and overly optimistic grasp of their true ability to influence events than do those who are suffering from depression.

Yet there are problems with this outlook…

…well, maybe Mr. Burkeman, but there are more problems with your outlook!

Firstly, you can read the full Guardian article HERE

Secondly, let me list a few reasons why I disagree with his thesis and recommendations: 

  • part of what he proposes is an approach called "defensive pessimism". This is where we prepare for the worst so we're ready if things to wrong; and if they don't, well, that's a bonus! There's no doubt this can be helpful at times but that's not nearly the same thing as seeing the glass as half empty or as focusing all the time on problems and failures

  • Michelangelo once said that the greatest risk to man is not that he aims to high and misses but that he aims too low and hits. Defensive pessimism and much of Burkeman's approach might minimise disappointment and distress BUT it will also minimise happiness and other positive emotions. So although his suggestions might protect against despaire they won't boost positivity or success or…happiness

  • Many of his criticisms of the happiness movement are, quite simply, not valid criticisms of the positive psychology movement. Positive psychology DOES NOT advocate ignoring or denying negative emotions; nor does it disrespect or undervalue failure. In fact, failure, which is inevitable, is often seen as something that can become a positive if it's approached in the right way (NB: there's even a concept within positive psychology that's referred to as "post traumatic growth")

And these are just a few of the issues I have with his argument. I cannot advocate negative thinking because decades of research clearly indicate that this will just lead to depression. That being said, I don't necessarily advocate "positive thinking" either. 

What I, and all those positive psychologists with appropriate qualifications typically recommend is "optimistic thinking" which includes, unashamadly, an element of positive thinking but which is also, importantly, grounded in reality. So this involves facing up to the cold hard realities of the world, not pretending they're not there, and approaching them constructively with a view to finding real and positive solutions. 

And that's what I think : ) 

PS: if you live in Australia I'll be "chatting" with Oliver Burkeman on Weekend Sunrise (Ch7) Sunday morning about 9.10 am. Tune in and listen to what should be an interesting discussion : )