Overview: Defensive pessimism can help individuals, especially those who are more anxious, to improve positive thinking and decision-making.
Source: The conversation
As a psychiatrist, which uses medical and biological methods to treat mental disorders, has largely caught up psychotherapybased on non-biological approaches such as conversation and counseling, psychotherapists have sought alternative challenges.
A common approach is to focus on increasing the happiness of mentally healthy people, rather than alleviating the mental pain and trauma of those who suffer.
This is known as “positive psychology” and has recently expanded to accommodate not only psychologists, but also social workers, life coaches, and new age therapists. But there are indications that the approach has a negative side.
Perhaps the most common advice from positive psychologists is that we should: seize the day and live in the moment† By doing this, we can be more positive and avoid three of the most infamous emotional states, which I call the RAW emotions: regret, anger, and worry.
Ultimately, it suggests that we avoid focusing too much on regret and anger about the past, or worries about the future.
It sounds like an easy task. But human psychology is evolutionarily wired to live in the past and the future. Other species have instincts and reflexes to aid in their survival, but human survival relies heavily on learning and planning. You cannot learn without living in the past, and you cannot plan without living in the future.
Regret, for example, which can make us suffer by thinking about the past, is an indispensable mental mechanism to learn from one’s own mistakes to avoid repetition.
Concerns about the future are also essential in motivating us to do something that is somewhat unpleasant today, but which can bring a profit or save us a greater loss in the future. If we weren’t worried about the future at all, we might not even bother getting an education, taking responsibility for our health, or storing food.
Like regret and worry, anger is an instrumental emotion that my co-authors and I have shown in several research papers† It protects us from abuse by others and motivates those around us to respect our interests. In fact, research has shown that a certain amount of anger in negotiations can be helpfulleading to better results.
In addition, research has shown that negative moods in general can be very helpful – makes us less gullible and more skeptical† Studies have estimated that as many as 80% of people in the west are in fact have an optimistic biasmeaning we learn more from positive experiences than from negative ones.
This can lead to ill-considered decisions, such as putting all our money into a project with little chance of success. So do we really need to be even more optimistic?
For example, optimism bias is linked to hubris – believing that we are generally better than others at most things, from the driving to grammar. Overconfidence can become a problem in relationships (where a little humility can save the day). It can also cause us to not properly prepare for a difficult task — and to blame others when we end up failing.
Defensive pessimismon the other hand, especially anxious individuals can help prepare by setting a fairly low bar rather than panicking, making it easier to overcome obstacles calmly.
Nevertheless, positive psychology has left its mark on policy making at the national and international level. One of its contributions was to spark a debate among economists about whether a country’s wealth should be measured by growth and GDP alone, or whether a more general approach to well-being should be taken. This led to the misleading presumption that one can measure happiness by simply asking people whether they are happy or not.
This is how the UN Happiness Index – which produces a ridiculous ranking of countries according to their happiness level – has been constructed. Although happiness questionnaires measure something, it is not happiness necessarilybut rather people’s willingness to admit that life is often difficult, or their tendency to arrogantly boast that they always do better than others.
Positive psychology’s excessive focus on happiness, and the claim that we have complete control over it, is detrimental in other respects as well. In a recent book called “Happycracy”The author, Edgar Cabanas, argues that this claim is cynically used by corporations and politicians to shift responsibility for everything from mild dissatisfaction with life to clinical depression from economic and social agencies to the suffering individuals themselves.
After all, if we are completely in control of our happiness, how can we blame unemployment, inequality or poverty for our misery? But the truth is, we don’t have complete control over our happiness, and societal structures can often create hardship, poverty, stress and unfairness – things that shape how we feel.
To believe that you can simply think yourself better by focusing on positive emotions when you are in financial danger or have experienced major trauma is naive to say the least.
While I don’t believe that positive psychology is a conspiracy promoted by capitalist corporations, I do believe that we don’t have complete control over our happiness, and the pursuit of it can make people pretty unhappy instead of happy.
Instructing someone to be happy is not much different than asking them not to think about a pink elephant – in either case, their minds can easily go in the opposite direction. In the first case, not being able to fulfill the goal of being happy creates substantial frustration and self-blame.
And then comes the question of whether happiness is really the most important value in life. Is it even something stable that can last over time? The answer to these questions were given over a hundred years ago by the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to make a difference that you have lived and lived well.”
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