Say NEJ to positive thinking?

1 Mar

brinkmann

Bucking the current trend for candle-lit cosiness, the Danish psychology professor Svend Brinkmann  has written a book called  Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, which rubbishes the whole business of  looking on the bright side.  Positive thinking, Brinkmann argues, is a maudlin distraction from the important things in life.  Rather like Oliver Burkeman (this blog, 29 Nov 2016), he maintains that  instead we should  be facing  up to the negative.

Last week, Radio 4’s Today programme pitted Prof Brinkmann against  Anthony Seldon, one of the pioneers of happiness teaching in this country.

These days, we’re not allowed to be unhappy, Brinkmann said. This is nonsense. We need  to understand the negative things in our world,  not cloud them in a sugar-coating of positive thinking. Nietzsche, he told us, maintained that  ‘man does not strive for happiness, only the Englishman does that’. This came as a surprise to me, and to the show’s presenter John Humphreys; but apparently Nietzsche was offering here a critique of the British philosophy of utilitarianism.  (I looked it up later: Nietzsche said this in The Twilight of the Idols). According  to Brinkmann, positive thinking is an ideology which grew out of an individualistic society, and it should  be resisted. People craving self-improvement are bound to fail, and then they will feel worse.

Seldon at first appeared to agree with him. An obsession with the positive can infantilise us and waft us away into la-la land, he said. But true positive psychology, rather than infantilising us, teaches us to cope with the terrible things that we’re almost certain  to encounter in life. He compared the traditional approach to therapy  with a waterfall: generally we wait till someone hits the bottom before we attempt to deal with the problem. By contrast positive psychology is  about prevention – about building the capacity to face adversity.

In the end there wasn’t that much disagreement between these two. Brinkmann  said he wasn’t really worried about positive psychology, but about the people who implement it  – about the coaches, team-leaders etc, who compel us to be upbeat all of the time. The defining mood of our age – if you’re unhappy you’re a loser – does not allow us to focus on the negative aspects of life.

But good positive  psychology, Seldon countered, tells us to embrace the real.

I like and respect Brinkmann’s  enthusiastic acceptance of the negative. But I also find it hard to disagree with Seldon. In the end it probably comes down to emphasis. We need to steer clear of the idea that everything in the world’s garden is simply lovely – it isn’t. To believe that we can think ourselves into being wonderfully fulfilled all of the time is also clearly idiotic. Ditto, the belief that every single person on the planet can be similarly happy and fulfilled, if only he or she tries hard enough.

But at the same time, we do surely have to try to steer people away from the pits of despair  into which it is so easy to fall. Mental health problems are not a joke, and if positive psychology can help some people survive them, I’m not inclined to argue against it. As long, that is, as it doesn’t blind us to all the real suffering that goes on around us, day in, day out. 

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