Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Power of Negative Thinking

Both ancient philosophy and modern psychology suggest that darker thoughts can make us happier

Fortunately, both ancient philosophy and contemporary psychology point to an alternative: a counterintuitive approach that might be termed "the negative path to happiness." This approach helps to explain some puzzles, such as the fact that citizens of more economically insecure countries often report greater happiness than citizens of wealthier ones. Or that many successful businesspeople reject the idea of setting firm goals.
Just thinking in sober detail about worst-case scenarios—a technique the Stoics called "the premeditation of evils"—can help to sap the future of its anxiety-producing power. The psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy, which she terms "defensive pessimism." Positive thinking, by contrast, is the effort to convince yourself that things will turn out fine, which can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn't.
But the pro-goal consensus is starting to crumble. For one thing, rigid goals may encourage employees to cut ethical corners. In a study conducted by the management scholar Lisa Ordóñez and her colleagues, participants had to make words from a set of random letters, as in Scrabble. The experiment let them report their progress anonymously—and those given a specific target to reach lied far more frequently than those instructed merely to "do your best."
Goals may even lead to underachievement. Many New York taxi drivers, one team of economists concluded, make less money in rainy weather than they could because they finish work as soon as they reach their mental target for what constitute a good day's earnings.
The ultimate value of the "negative path" may not be its role in facilitating upbeat emotions or even success. It is simply realism. The future really is uncertain, after all, and things really do go wrong as well as right. We are too often motivated by a craving to put an end to the inevitable surprises in our lives.
This is especially true of the biggest "negative" of all. Might we benefit from contemplating mortality more regularly than we do? As Steve Jobs famously declared, "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way that I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose."

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