JR'S Free Thought Pages
The Power of Pessimism and Negative Thinking
Deprogramming the self-help happiness addiction
By JR, February, 2019
The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true - James Branch Cabell
The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it he knows too little. - Mark Twain
I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it ‘the backwards law’. When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float … insecurity is the result of trying to be secure … contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves – Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity.
Future, n: That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
- Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates
BORIS: Nothingness. Non-existence. Black emptiness.
SONJA: What did you say?
BORIS: Oh, I was just planning my future.
- From Woody Allen’s 1975 movie Love and Death
The power of positive thinking movement has been with us at least since the early 20th century and became a cult with Norman Vincent Peale’s popular book The Power of Positive Thinking. In more recent years we’ve been bombarded by inane books directed at people with the mentality and intellectual sophistication of pre-schoolers such as Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The Secret by “Help Me Rhonda” Byrne and latest being the ultra-conservative Ayn Rand style hyper-capitalist social Darwinian drivel from Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Many of Peterson’s puerile adages and conservative pieties such as personal accountability, cleanliness, neatness and organization should have been learned from your mother by the time you started the first grade. 
The positive thinking movement is essentially a continuation of the futile efforts by human beings to control the future, especially their own. Although we have limited control over our immediate environment within confined time constraints, such projects are, at the very least, delusional. This is primarily because the normal state of the universe is uncertainty and randomness - even chaos - which is beyond our control. It is wise to heed the words of Johann Wolfgang Goethe who advised, “The happy do not believe in miracles.” But Goethe would surely find nothing wrong with setting realistic goals within the parameters of our physical and intellectual capacities. One of the enigmas of life is happiness; and despite its sanctification in the Declaration of Independence as an “unalienable right”, even the stoical pre-Socratic philosophers argued ironically that if you do pursue happiness as an actual goal, you’ll never experience it. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, and much earlier than him, Plato, attempted to account for the paradox of happiness as follows: The single-minded pursuit of one’s own happiness is intrinsically selfish and emotionally chaotic – a reduction of life to a narrow, stifling obsession with the immediate gratification of self. This narcissism destroys our ethical connection with other people and with nature by first isolating each person in the lonely prison of the self; and second, reducing our rational faculties to vacillating desires and emotions. It may have been George Bernard Shaw who said it best when he quipped, “Unhappiness is not getting what you want; the other is getting what you want.” [1a] Conceptual problems with happiness notwithstanding, conflation of causation and correlation is a perennial problem with studies on happiness and which social and political groups are claimed to be happier. I can recall several years ago a study that claimed conservatives are happier than liberals. By definition, conservatives tend to be happy with the status quo, which for most of them is understandable, given that they are generally at or near the top of the socio-economic pyramid, many like George W Bush and Donald Trump, having been born with the proverbial silver spoon in hand. From my experience, conservatives I have know have either been evangelical Christians, wealthy or both. Moreover, their social conscience extends no further than their own family and circle of privileged friends. They rarely are frozen into despair and anger, agonizing over the daily news about barbaric imperialist wars, grotesque economic inequalities, systemic poverty, cruelty and greed of humankind, corruption and fascistic nature of our capitalist corporate and political leadership (of which there is a symbiotic relationship), political red tooth and claw of nature and the desecration of our ecosystems as they circle the drain.
According to Tolstoy as exemplified in many characters of his novels and short stories, the pursuit of happiness through social status exposes one to constant angst and envy of those above you, contempt for those below and fear of failure. There’s no peace of mind or serenity in any of Tolstoy’s fiction or non-fiction narratives. In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich, Ivan realizes this, but only on his death-bed. His obsessive love on wealth and careerism caused him to disastrously neglect his family, friends and psyche. More generally, Tolstoy seems to be saying that directly pursuing happiness is futile because it culminates in narcissism, and narcissism fatally reduces the vast and numinous universe to the narrow bounds of the ego. Tolstoy’s political outlook was both socialist and anarchistic as he detested the greedy business classes who ignored the noble ideal of the common good and respect for the dignity of the exploited and poor. Tolstoy’s response the enigma and paradox of happiness throughout virtually all his works is that happiness consists in living for others and that our great error and the source of our misery is assuming that happiness is attained by satisfying our own hedonistic desires, primarily those of pleasure, wealth, and status. Some may describe Tolstoy’s views as extremist, but his accurate insight is that the single-minded pursuit of one’s own happiness (however defined) brings narcissism and enslavement to chaotic desires, which in turn brings disharmony, frustration, conflict with others; the very antithesis of what most would consider happiness. On the other hand, pursuing a larger moral meaning, such as sharing, peace, kindness, compassion, justice and or human flourishing, gives us transcendent purpose in life and thus a long-term sense of satisfaction. 
Despite this, thousands of New Age genre books are pumped out every year on how to achieve happiness; they all belong in the trash can. If you follow your primary interests and passions in life, happiness will very likely be a secondary offshoot. A cannot recall who said this and, although I don’t hold to it, I think it’s very likely true of most people; it’s that “states of happiness are the brief intervals between extended periods of unhappiness.” The master of pessimism is German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who had it pretty much right when he said, “A man is never happy, but spends his whole life in striving after something that he thinks will make him so; he seldom attains his goal, and when he does, it is only to be disappointed; he is mostly shipwrecked in the end, and comes into harbour with mast and rigging gone. And then, it is all one whether he is happy or miserable; for his life was never anything more than a present moment always vanishing; and now it is over.” I would say that it’s quite normal for homo saps to have brief periods of being under a dark cloud of doom and gloom but if the episodes become frequently extended in this condition for more than a day or two – or it becomes permanent – you are in deep shit psychologically.
In recent decades literally thousands of so-called self help books on the power of the mind to alter reality have flown off the shelves of bookstores and devoured by the credulous masses. It’s always advisable to heed Philip K Dick’s famous statement that “reality is that which won’t go away when you stop believing in it”. Adding to the plethora of bright-sided writers, there are the many snake oil gurus who make a lucrative living on speaking tours promoting this unscientific pabulum. From Chopra to Oprah, many have become wealthy with their silly books, high five “everything is beautiful” speaking spectacles and motivation seminars.
Some people it would seem need a kick in the ass just to get up in the morning and when they finally do crawl out the sack, claim to be bored with nothing to do. As Albert Camus suggested, there’s always the option of suicide.
But is there any evidence that by thinking positively, one can expect constructive results when elementary science and common sense dictates that reality is mind independent and not something that can be altered by the power of the will? You can believe anything you want; that your tennis game is like that of Roger Federer, your IQ is 160 or that you will become happy and wealthy with the correct thoughts. But reality bites. The scientific evidence for such claims is ZERO. Sorry folks; the positive thinking movement is pseudoscientific psycho babble. Not only is there no benefit from positive thinking, I would argue, and the research tends to confirm my hypothesis, that the effects of positive thinking and an optimistic disposition are primarily counterproductive and work against your ability to succeed in whatever it is you want out of life.
Accomplishments are the direct result of assessment of the probabilities, risks, pitfalls and unexpected events that can have a detrimental effect on success. Ultimately it is preparation, planning, action, effort and old fashioned hard work, not the purity of positive thinking that will manufacture what you want out of life. Positive thinking is not only not effective, it’s a waste of time and effort that redirects you from scepticism, pessimism, probability and the critical thought that is required before any plan of action toward your goals are undertaken.
Pessimism, scepticism and even cynicism are antidotes to high expectation and the usually dubious reliance on others who will most of the time disappoint and fail you.  And remember to keep in mind Murphy’s Law “Anything that can go wrong will.”
Pessimism correlates with higher earnings, fewer personal problems, more effective communication, greater allowance for contingencies, accidents and unexpected disaster, greater generosity and, as mentioned, less disappointment and depression. Excessive optimism can also lead us into taking a careless cavalier approach to our aspirations and projects that will set us up for failure, frustration and disenchantment. Pessimists generally meticulously double check and look both ways. Our mothers and teachers told us to stop, look and listen, a vanishing adage with many people behaving like distracted zombies perpetually locked into their self-lobotomizing cell phones and tablets as they attempt to navigate the normal duties and responsibilities of everyday life. Moreover, most people overestimate their abilities and intelligence. Research has confirmed it is generally the least intelligent and knowledgeable among us who overestimate their abilities whereas those with the highest intelligence and knowledge tend to exercise more humility with regard to their capabilities, both intellectual and physical. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect. The problems with the positive thinking movement have similar problems as more recent variations of it such as the misconstrued self-esteem and superfluous leadership horse manure.
Another problem with positive thinking quackery is that by its very design, it preys upon the poor, the destitute, the needy, the uneducated, ignorant and the down-and-out. What these people need more than anything else is not a gospel of faith, hope, optimism and a belief in cosmic justice that sets up a feedback loop of perpetual failure, but a course in reality therapy, rationality, logic and critical thinking skills. But those who have power over you do not want the latter; it’s not in their interests. They prefer docile obedient workers who never question anything, especially systemic injustice and inequality.
Forget about the counterproductive positive thinking horse crap and search out a good book on philosophy, scepticism, logic, rationality, mathematical literacy including probability theory, the scientific outlook and critical thinking. People who are unhappy are typically hopeless optimists, expecting that everything will work out for the best. Pessimists and cynics accept and expect nothing from anyone because the norm for homo saps, regardless of how passionately they promise you that you can rely on them is “they screw up” and repeatedly let you down. One of the benefits of expecting the worst is you'll never be disappointed. Positive thinking and its corollary, the Pollyanna principle, are especially pervasive in the fantasy bullshit worlds of religion, politics and business. Expect the worst case scenario and you’ll never be unhappily agonizing over frustration from optimistic expectation and promises unfulfilled. The Lord will provide, we’ll spend more on education and health care and that stock is heading for the stratosphere. Yeah, and a hippopotamus can fly.
Some of you may have attended (but hopefully not) Tony Robin’s seminars or perhaps saw this clown on TV as he wildly runs up and down the aisles high fiving people in the audience who were worked up into a state of almost religious frenzy over his message of “where there’s a will there’s a way” optimism and positive thinking. Think yourself to wealth was one of his vacuous mantras. I often thought that one of the worst aspects about being a motivational speaker, Christian Evangelical prosperity preacher such as Joel Osteen or any other kind of advocate for the power of positive thinking and faith must be the constant pressure to appear cheerful and upbeat. After all, if anyone ever catches you in an angry negative state of mind, grimacing, stressed out or feeling sorry for yourself which are normal episodes for anyone, it threatens to undermine everything you stand for. How do you maintain a smile and attitude of exhilaration for two hours?
The intellectual cess pool of poor and misleading information, bias, logical fallacy, superstition, religious nonsense and distorted, false and useless information and mind viruses have always been part of popular culture. For starters, avoid the corporate controlled cultural wasteland and brain rot like it’s a plague.
 Jordan Peterson’s book conveys a core common sense message that life works well if you take responsibility for your acts instead of blaming others. No one will disagree with this truism but he doesn’t explain what to do if your parents are a crack heads and alcoholics, Peterson considers axiomatic the fairy tale existence of a just world hypothesis and the meritocracy. Other motherhood recommendations are honesty and truth telling – although clearly truth telling is not an ethical absolute, as in cases in which doing so would endanger lives of others. He promotes the pursuit of “meaning” over transitory gratification, to make plans and structure your day to some utilitarian purpose - and by all means clean up your room. If distracted, directionless and clueless young men and women are listening to him then perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. But if they’d listened to their wise mothers and avoided the harsh rigidities and dogmas of the churches, they’d be far better off and likely wouldn’t need Peterson’s facile advice and childish guidance.
Although he is an educated articulate man with a few interesting things to say, some of his views are very disturbing, if not potentially toxic and even dangerous. Perhaps the best illustration of this is his position on economic inequality and notions of social injustice as if they were inevitable conditions that cannot be altered by human intervention. Because something is “natural” (like death, disease and tsunamis for example) doesn’t necessarily mean they are desirable. Capitalism surely is not “natural”, but rather a human construct. In 2018 for example, as a result of con man capitalist Donald Trump’s tax windfall to the rich driven primarily by the plutocratic impulses of the Republican Party, Warren Buffet alone was the recipient of $574,000,000 in tax savings. Walmart pocketed an extra $1.6 billion, Bank of America $2.4 billion and Apple $4.5 billion. Working people of the United States got less than zero due to wage slave pay slips and thousands of layoffs. Much of what Jordan Peterson advocates, especially his brutal ethos of competition for workers and socialism for the rich are a reflection of his cruel conservatism and capitalist libertarianism, not only would support these tax concessions but they fly in the face generally accepted moral principles such as the Golden Rule and the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights. In short, Peterson is an intellectual fraud – an academic courtesan for wealth and power.
[1a} Shaw was also cited as having said that, “The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.”
 It is a truism that all humans like to be happy, but isn’t this more or less a tautological statement devoid of any insight and void of conceptual content. Yet this is the central thesis for the cult of happiness; we are happy about happiness. Happiness it would seem can be bought and paid for in measured and predictable doses, but is it the best value to strive for, and should we seek it as an end in itself when we can’t even define it? It’s like arguments for the existence of God, a concept so opaque no one has come up with a coherent definition for which a case can be made. Certainly all of the other emotions serve functions and should be valued. Our greatest art is commonly grounded in negative emotions and is produced from the states of mind of artists nearer conditions of angst and despair, not elation. What kind of paintings would Van Gogh have produced on weed or anti-depressants? Bertrand Russell, one of the most influential philosophers and mathematicians of the past 150 years, wrote on numerous topics, including happiness. The title of his insightful book, published in 1930, was The Conquest of Happiness, suggesting from the outset that happiness was something to be defeated. Russell, in addition to being a very popular public intellectual, had a strong sense of injustice and during his long 98 years of life frequently suffered from bouts of depression, and it clearly influenced his views on the enigmatic concept of happiness. While he thought the absence of unhappiness was a necessary condition for happiness, he did not see it as a sufficient condition; rather, happiness was something one had to acquire, indeed, conquer, as the title suggests. In addition to the human propensity to boredom, ennui and fatigue, he cited the unhealthy obsession with wealth and pursuit of money inherent in capitalism and the Christian notions of sin and guilt as two major sources of unhappiness. What Russell called “zest” for life, including curiosity, an intellectual life, love of truth, hobbies and other pursuits that provide joy, including meaningful work are vitally important to the contented life.
Happiness is the god of a modern cult. Its promoters are lined up to sell us the secrets to its attainment and millions of willing consumers, like the disciples of a religion, will hand over their money, time and reverential veneration to those who would teach them its secrets. But happiness is an abstruse un-definable, unquantifiable notion and more importantly, no measure of ethical behaviour. It isn’t a new belief system; it dates back at least to the ancient Greeks. The Stoics considered contentment as the basis for living the good life. They considered our own mental states to be the masters over our circumstances and put the focus on personal action and responsibility for our attitudes to the vicissitudes of life. In modern times the happiness cult has spawned a pharmaceutical industry dedicated to overcoming any psychological discomfort as well as a seemingly endless supply of charlatans such as Tony Robbins and countless other well-known figures now supposedly legitimized by the positive psychology and the prosperity movement. Much of what passes for contemporary Christianity is devoted to the same agenda.
Perhaps what we need is simply a sense of humour in dealing with the idiots, ignoramuses, psychopaths and assholes of the world. Donald Trump will not be around forever.
 More dark wisdom from the prince of pessimism Art Schopenhauer:
Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. – Arthur Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism
There are two things which make it impossible to believe that this world is the successful work of an all-wise, all-good, and, at the same time, all-powerful Being; firstly, the misery which abounds in it everywhere; and secondly, the obvious imperfection of its highest product, man, who is a burlesque of what he should be. - Arthur Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism
 I have reason to call to mind the distinction Albert Ellis made between a very bad outcome and an absolutely disastrous one. Imagine a worst-case scenario such as death or a fate even worse than death such as dementia and losing your intellectual faculties to the point of not even recognizing your spouse. If you were to attempt to answer rationally and honestly the question “What would be the worst thing that could happen to me”, the answer is very likely going to be extremely depressing and even terrifying. If it is finitely dreadful, rather than infinitely dreadful, there is perhaps a possibility of coping with it. Ellis once wrote: “If you are tortured to death slowly, you could always be tortured to death slower.” Stoicism can have benefits such as not holding to delusionary fables about an ethereal pain free eternal existence on Cloud Nine with Jesus after our death.
An infinite dreamless sleep and escape from a world gone mad is perhaps not so bad?
(i) Links that I found on a Google search:
A Zen Master trashes positive thinking.
Why Positive Thinking Is Bullshit
(i Three curmudgeonly web pages on this theme from www.skeptic.ca that I put together several years ago:
(ii I highly recommend a book titled Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich, all of whose books are worth reading.
( George Carlin on Self-Help Books