The Positive Effects of Negative Thinking

Learning and change processes aren’t always helped by avoiding the dark side.

By João Sevilhano

Today, a significant part of the world seems obsessed with the achievement of happiness.

Many people choose positive thinking as their preferred means of pursuing happiness. If one dedicated oneself to listing the sheer number of news and (quasi) academic references that advocate for thinking positively, and list its many purported advantages — from psychological and physical well-being, to finding balance in life, to attaining success, to becoming more productive, to being more efficient, and many more — one would not have any space or time left for exploring other ideas. Innumerable examples of “positive thinking jargon” flood the various social networks, assuming the shape of quotes, many times misattributed. Of course they invariably conclude with a request to replicate and share, as if spreading positivity in the world was a tentative step toward solving every conceivable evil in the world, personal or systemic.

As happens with all things in fashion, this wave of positivity has awakened a lot of criticism. The principle of polarity helps explain why: If one hand you have the “positives,” then their critics must be “the negatives” — unbelievers in positive thinking and perhaps negatively inclined toward other positive qualities as well. Few people want to be defined negatively.

However, what’s at stake is not just a battle between optimist-believers and skeptical-pessimists. It’s not just a question of belief or the lack of it. Francisco Bosco, the Brazilian philosopher, in his book Alta Ajuda, dedicates its first essay to the subject of how positive thinking can prevent a critical, conscient, and constructive interiority. He presents the idea that positive thinking has an effect of “easy consolation” before an adverse or challenging situation. He argues that only negative thinking — the kind that allows us to better understand, and to build on adversity and challenge — enables us to let go of the “structures that remove our power to act and condemn us to a passive existence.” Only then can we create new versions of ourselves that grant us access to new ways of being and behaving, based on new understandings and feelings.

We may, along the way, notice a need to kill off old habits. This process never is — and never will be — comfortable. And for this purpose, no positive thinking can help.

Positive thinking, at least in its superficial version, leads us to skip the inner work that is indispensable to elaborate experience, namely life as it really us. An illusion that “everything is going to be fine if I believe in it hard enough,” does not contemplate the scenario in which a wish is not fulfilled. It does not let us ponder any other outcome.

Choosing to move towards a negative interiority, as opposed to a positive superficiality, is very different from pessimism. It is not about seeing and explaining the world through what’s “wrong” with it. It has to do with acceptance, with channeling the ability to see a situation clearly — which often brings us suffering — to the generation of positive and significant change.

The British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, inspired by the poet Keats, talked about “negative capacity” as an essential aspect of life itself. This negative capacity implies psychological flexibility that translates into a tolerance for suffering and confusion. It makes one more capable of enduring uncertainty, adversity, and ambiguity, and patient in the face of not knowing how the future will unfold. Positive thinking seems to annul this negative capacity, looking to anticipate and define the “grand finale” to make sure it ends with a clink of champagne glasses.

It may seem more comfortable to know what is going to happen, to eliminate uncertainty and ambiguity, and to look at the world and see only the views that make us feel good. Positive thinking offers us all that but it comes at a steep price.

We cannot ignore the weight that words carry. “Negative” and “positive” are words loaded with meanings, biases, generalizations, and intentions. They bear intense and rarely questioned emotional responses. I believe that most of us will subscribe to something “positive” much more easily than something “negative.” And this is one of the main attractions of positive thinking: its link with easiness. But negative thinking as Bosco, Bion, or the stoics see it, does not necessarily imply that we choose the most challenging resolution. It is not about embracing difficulty for difficulty’s sake. It is about a commitment to the truth, even if it points to an uneasy path.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean. Do you know that phase when kids cannot walk on their own but can already stand up and walk a few steps, helped by the walls and the furniture? Imagine that you’re in a room with a child that age. Just you and that child. There’s a steep staircase on one of the sides of that room. Something catches your attention and you deviate for a split second. When your eyes return to the child, you notice that she’s already on the third step of the stairs. She smiles at you and you notice that she’s preparing to turn. She’s definitely going down the stairs. Let’s pause the scene, like you had a “reality remote control”. What would you do? What’s your immediate reaction? Memorize your spontaneous answer. The most common response I hear is something like: “I run, as fast as I can, trying not to frighten her, and grab the child into safety.”

This is not a test to see if you are, or are going to be, a good parent. It just reveals your usual way of helping under stress. Why do most people go for this strategy? Because it sounds like the most reasonable one, right?. The child could get injured and we, as adults, have the responsibility to help the child avoid danger. It’s also based on the assumption, supported by evidence, that we’re more capable than the child.

But what is the real motivation behind this? Is it to avoid danger? Is it to avoid something more personal, like feeling guilty for not paying enough attention, or not being fully present? Is it to avoid the uncomfortable feeling that our inaction could contribute to the child hurting herself? All of these seem to have the same purpose: to keep something that we judge as negative at bay. But if our goal is to help that child to learn — how to get down the stairs; how to confront her fears, etc. — that is probably not the strategy most advantageous to the child’s development.

In order to find other answers, one has to deal with the possibility of a “negative” outcome and also confront the uncomfortable feelings that arise with such a reflection.

Simply put: To facilitate learning and change processes may mean accepting challenges, creating resolution strategies, and developing skills and virtues that are a byproduct of negative thinking.

João Sevilhano is a House Resident and partner in strategy and innovation at Way Beyond.


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