Lectures on the art of negative thinking have attracted widespread attention over the last couple of years.
A course titled ‘Negative thinking: It won’t get better than this’, by practical philosopher and psychologist Ida Hallgren, proved to be so popular that the applications had to be closed within a day.
Hallgren believes the cause is a hyper-individualistic society in which we feel responsible for our individual well-being. If you catch yourself having unhappy thoughts, you just have to work harder. If the first self-help book doesn’t pay off, you try a second and a third, but if you still don’t get through your days radiantly after that, you’re clearly inept at living.
“There’s a difference between happiness and optimism,” says psychologist and comedian Mattias Lundberg, who is disturbed by the contemporary contentment craze. “Happiness is something humanity has always searched for, but positive thinking is primarily an easy-to-sell message.”
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This is clear in the phenomenon of motivational speeches that has gained traction in Sweden in recent years, after the trend started in the US.
Employers send their workers to pricey inspirational speakers, Lundberg says, who then offer a simplified step-by-step path to success. ‘”The essence of these speeches is always a variation on the idea: you can become whatever you want, as long as you believe in it,” Lundberg explains. “But that's a blatant lie: I will never become a professional basketball player, no matter how much confidence I direct towards that dream.”
The psychologist and comedian is also highly sceptical of the publishing trend for books on 'how to be happy'.
“How can it be that most of these self-help gurus have a long list of books on their names? Didn’t their first method work out as expected?” he laughs. “I would like to believe that these authors start off sincerely, but this sincerity can quickly turn around once they realize they’ve hit a gold mine.”
An array of self-help literature in a bookstore in Stockholm. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT.
“Let there be no misunderstanding; there’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of optimism”, Lundberg adds.
But he believes the self-help industry has twisted the term. Boundless positivity has somehow become a necessary condition for happiness. And in that assumption could lie a great danger: “An abundance of optimism creates expectations that a human lifetime can rarely meet”.
In a book that he co-wrote with his colleague Jan Bylund, Den lyckliga pessimisten (The happy pessimist), Lundberg gives an example of a girl participating in a talent show. She’s convinced she’ll win, and she has quit school even before auditioning. All her life she’s been told she has a great voice. So she’s made to think, without any hesitation, that she can pull this off. She walks into the casting room and a minute or so later the jury tells her: 'You don’t have the looks or the voice. Goodbye.’
“This girl completely lacks the tools to overcome this disappointment”, Lundberg says. “Her entire world view and self-esteem was overthrown.”
Ida Hallgren, the professor offering a course on negative thinking, calls the obsession with positivity a ‘social disease’, mostly manifesting itself on social media. “We are losing the capability to cope with setbacks. More and more often I am confronted with clients, often young adults, who think they’re a fundamental failure just because they go through a rough patch,” she explains.
But the problem isn’t limited to the individual level.
This ‘high-five culture’ as Hallgren also calls it is embedded in the business sector, too, where the expectation to be ever optimistic has become an all-too-easy way to silence employees. A whistleblower, or someone who simply raises an objection, is swiftly dismissed as a killjoy. Come on, man, don't be so negative!
On the eve of the financial crisis, writes author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Smile or die: How positive thinking fooled America and the world, some bankers realized what was about to happen. But those who voiced their concerns were simply told their negative attitude was off-putting to clients.
President George W. Bush’s terminology referring to the crisis was equally telling, according to Hallgren: “‘The financial sector has lost its confidence,’ he said. “As if, with a generous amount of hopeful thoughts, the crisis could have been prevented.”
Ida Hallgren. Photo: Frida Winter/TT.
This pressure to be positive could also affect our capacity for empathy. If we don’t know how to deal with our own misfortune, how can we support someone else through suffering?
“This has been reported in studies from elderly care homes”, Hallgren says. “Elderly people who are grappling with existential anxieties often don’t know whom to turn to. A nurse would pat them on the knee and say: ‘Here, have some coffee, and just think of something nice.’”
So what now? Hallgren believes it's time for a counter-movement, and took inspiration from her upbringing in Swedish Småland, a region with a long history of food shortages.
“It’s embedded there in the Protestant culture. People from Småland are always prepared for the possibility of a severe winter. So that’s how I’ve been raised: take into account that the outcome might be unpleasant,” she says.
That attitude to life has its advantages. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you always expect the worst or see the worst in things. Hallgren says it's merely about acknowledging reality, even the ugly bits. We won’t be able to avoid all uncomfortable situations, so accepting that things might not go to plan gives you time for a plan B. “If I’m giving a lecture, I always send my powerpoint presentation to my email and I bring it with me on a USB-stick”, she says. “Just in case.”
A less trivial example concerns a Swedish travel agency that had explored the possibility of a natural disaster before the 2004 tsunami hit. The travel agency turned out to be one of few that, when the time came, turned out to have an adequate emergency plan in place.
Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT.
If you want to give negative thinking a try, Hallgren's course is based around what she calls the three phases of pessimism. She starts with the Greek stoics, continues with the nineteenth-century pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer and concludes the course with Buddhism. The Buddha's starting point was that to live means to suffer, but, luckily, he also provided practical methods for alleviating this constant suffering.
These methods, including meditation, can help you recognize suffering in yourself as well as in others, according to Buddhist theory. And through that recognition you can develop gratitude and compassion for someone else's pain. This could help us better address issues in society rather than sweep them under the carpet if they interfere with the positive image we want to have.
“There have been voices in Sweden for years now requesting a ban on begging“, Hallgren said. “That is a typical reaction from stress, rather than compassion. If we are more aware of our own pain, it also becomes easier to position ourselves in the situation of the person who sits in front of the supermarket.”
Meanwhile, Lundberg spreads the pessimism message using the methods of those he ridicules, giving a parody on the inspirational speech. He and his colleague Jan Bylund joke about past mistakes, good intentions with bad endings, hopeless dreams, happiness that seems to escape them time and time again.
The end result might be what many of us hope to gain from motivation speeches and positivity: contentment, or failing that, acceptance of how things are.
In his role as a psychologist, Lundberg recalls meeting a client suffering from anxiety who wondered what was wrong with him. As Lundberg puts it: “Your whole existence has just been turned upside down by some major event, doesn't it make sense that you’re experiencing fear? We don't always have to be happy, and we don't control every aspect of our lives. Sometimes that’s the only available medicine: to realize that certain things are as they are.”