The Power of Negative Thinking by Peter Lyons

I distrust the cult of the power of positive thinking. There is something about it that invites passivity. Don’t be negative. Always agree with the situation and just look on the bright side. Be compliant and don’t make a fuss. We can all be winners if we just work harder and keep a positive attitude. The is the simplistic mantra of the modern market ideology that has come to dominate our reality in recent decades.
Putting aside what it actually means to be a “winner” in this age of casino capitalism, the cult of passive positivity denies reality. It has a saccharine unpalatable flavour that invites disillusionment and an unquestioning submission to authority. Those in authority know best so just look on the bright side and get on with it. What’s wrong with a healthy dose of realistic negativity?
I equate the power of positive thinking with the new age mantra of “mindfulness”. They are used to sell “self help” books that for some reason cram the shelves at airport bookshops. I have always wondered why such literature predominates in these venues. Maybe travel invites a contemplative mindset. Maybe the thought of tonnes of metal, people and luggage staying airborne requires positivity for those who really think about it.
Yet there is much more going on here. These mantras of positivity and mindfulness are not just simplistic slogans designed to sell self help books at airports. They are not just for calming the nerves of jittery travellers. They are stepped in philosophical traditions that predate the emergence of Christianity.
The cult of positive thinking is actually a sad inversion of a tradition promoted by the classical philosophy of stoicism. Stoicism has a bad rap these days likely due to the fact that early Christianity borrowed a number of its traditions then prohibited its teachings. It then largely disappeared as a practical approach to healthy living. Being a stoic became associated with denying emotions and feelings. It became a descriptor for the emotionally crippled.
Stoicism is actually a much more subtle and relevant and beautiful approach to life than this caricature portrays. It is a practical philosophy used as a pathway through life by many early Romans, including slaves and Emperors. Marcus Aurelius, arguably one of the greatest Roman emperors, was a disciple of Stoicism.
It could be argued that Stoicism is more relevant in this age than in the past few millennium. The grip of faith based religion has weakened considerably in many developed countries in the past few centuries. The Reformation and general acceptance of Darwin’s teachings on evolution corroded the Church’s authority in the West. Yet people still seek a set of beliefs and values to guide them through life. They want to know the best way to live their short tenure on this earth. Those who find it impossible to embrace a doctrine based on faith and revealed truths seek answers elsewhere. The study and practice of Stoicism can provide answers. It can help answer the age old question of “what is a good life?” The answers it provides are based on reason rather than faith. The recipe is there for those who want it.
The irony is that an adherence to stoic ideas does not preclude religious faith. Stoicism does not preach exclusivity. Stoicism does not actually preach at all. People find it, it doesn’t actively seek them. It is not a cult or a sect or a proselytizing religion. It is a way of approaching life in a rational , calm, humanistic manner that anyone can take or leave. It’s their choice, as it should be. Trying to impose stoic beliefs on others contradicts the core Stoic belief of recognizing what you can and can’t control. You can’t control the beliefs of others. But you can influence them.
The current mantra of positive thinking is largely a product of modern capitalist mythology. We can all be winners in life if we simply set our minds to it. The definition of a winner in our modern version of capitalism is ill defined. One version is currently living in the White House.
The cult of unquestioning positivity is a puerile denial of human reality. It was championed by authors such as Horatio Alger in 19th century America and later, Dale Carnegie. Alger wrote quasi inspirational novels about young orphans from impoverished backgrounds who reached positions of great wealth and power through sheer grit and determination. It was wonderful stirring stuff designed to inspire the masses. Alger was eventually discredited for an unhealthy interest in young people. But his legacy lives on in attacks on government assistance to the needy. We are all meant to be self reliant. Just be positive and work harder. This is a sad denial of much of the positive collective action of the 20th century particularly in areas such as education and healthcare.
I like the ancient stoic inversion of the power of positive thinking. They taught the power of negative visualisation. To overcome the nasty, short and brutal nature of ancient life they taught the need to appreciate that things can always be worse. That life and most things in it are transitory. That we are all irrelevant in the general scheme of things. So don’t sweat the small stuff, just appreciate the miracle of your own existence and make the most of it. It is a precious gift so make sure to live as good a life as possible. Things seldom turn out as bad as we think.
An unfortunate human mental affliction is the fear that others are living a better life. That somehow we have been cursed and others blessed by fortune. They are better looking, richer, healthier so have better relationships, marriages and careers. That there is someone out there living the perfect life. We inflict this belief on each other through the daily facades we maintain. It is quite a laughable belief when you break it down.  It denies the reality of nature and human existence. Stoicism provides a far better lens on reality. To read the writings of a Roman Emperor such as Marcus Aurelius is a precious insight. It reveals he suffered many of the same fears, frustrations and failings as many of us. Just a good man in a different age in a different job who sometimes wondered why he should get out of bed in the morning.
As for the recent popularity of “mindfulness,” it is neither recent nor original. The Stoic philosophy was teaching this concept over two thousand years ago. Mindfulness simply means appreciating the moment, being in the moment and reacting appropriately. Not overreacting at poor service in a restaurant or a perceived slight on social media, being appropriate in your actions in the here and now. Not succumbing to negative emotions such as anger or jealousy or envy.
Just recognising and controlling your own emotional responses to external factors. Recognising that you cannot always control what happens to you but you do have control over how you respond to situations. The essence of stoicism is recognising what you can and can’t control. What you can control is your reasoning, actions and reactions. This is crucial to living a good life.
Sadly in our modern age dominated by the need for constant connection and instant gratification we have lost sight of ancient traditions such as mindfulness and the power of negative visualisation. The ancient thinkers can teach us a lot.
Peter Lyons teaches Economics at Saint Peters College in Epsom, New Zealand. He has written several Economics texts and numerous articles for mainstream media.

12 thoughts on The Power of Negative Thinking by Peter Lyons

  1. Paul says:

    Thank you for this article which aptly describes our modern world. Ancient literature in general and Stoicism can help all of us regardless of background. It took me being disconnected for a while and coming back like in Plato’s cave analogy to see the light literally. Gratius tibi ago and χαριν αποδιδωμι. Read ancient literature in the original as well. You will stop worrying about social media very soon. As Horace says in his Ode 11 from book 1, carpe diem. Sieze the day because you can’t rely on what is to come.

  2. alister cox says:

    I agree that the vogue concept of mindfulness needs critical examination, but you seem to have it both ways – pillorying it at the start but at the end including it in the worthwhile guides to life.

  3. I don’t think Stoicism is either optimistic or pessimistic. I express the Stoic attitude as “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

  4. Ronald Pies says:

    As a psychiatrist, I have often found the notion (or concept) of “mindfulness” a bit mushy, and redolent of certain “new age” repacking of more sophisticated Buddhist ideas. I think that mindfulness is only partly consonant with Stoicism, but much depends on how mindfulness is defined. One rough and ready definition on Psychology Today states,
    “Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.”
    To some degree–and somewhat superficially–this sounds a bit like our friend Marcus, and his maxim (which I am paraphrasing), “Leave the past to itself, leave the future to Providence, and focus on bringing holiness and justice to the present.” But it is clear that Marcus (and Stoicism in general) has a strong ethical dimension to it–and I do not find that in the pop-psychology notion of “mindfulness.” Furthermore, while most Stoic writers might agree that it is not helpful to ruminate about the past or worry oneself sick about the future, neither is it prudent to ignore the lessons of the past or the
    unalterable course of the future–namely, recognizing our mortality and preparing for it in certain ways. (The more extreme example would be the Stoic practice of “rehearsing death”). In short, I suspect many of the Stoics would consider our modern notion of mindfulness a very partial and superficial kind of truth–not to be dismissed, but not to be embraced without a good deal of qualification.
    Best regards,
    Ron Pies MD

  5. Dear Peter, Some of your statements seem to be very extreme, and seem to overgeneralize. There is plenty of evidence that thinking in positive ways is good for mind, body and emotions. Positive thinking becomes a cult if believers tend to be rigid in their thinking and practically only or always choose a sugary view that may contradict facts. And why protest Self Help books? – For some people who cannot afford, or who do not want, therapy – the grounded and practical books of that genre have helped countless people overcome much anxiety or stress. When you write “current cult of unquestioning positivity” – have you observed herds of people worshiping some philosophy of a syrupy sweet nature, or might unquestioning positivity simply be an unhelpful tendency practiced by diverse individuals to different degrees and in response to various circumstances? Maybe you and I agree more than disagree on some things, however we may attribute different meanings to some words or expressions, an issue of semantics – I don’t know. However the impression I get when I read your piece is that you give broad and intense criticism to the tendency of people to sometimes adopt some positive perceptions of life that may not be totally faulty, and in some instances may do more good than harm.

  6. Andy Fowler says:

    This message is lost on me.
    The author starts by expressing distrust for mindfulness: “I distrust the cult of the power of positive thinking.” + “I equate the power of positive thinking with the new age mantra of “mindfulness”.”
    And then promotes it: “The Stoic philosophy was teaching this concept over two thousand years ago.” – “we have lost sight of ancient traditions such as mindfulness”

  7. Mark Leggett says:

    Thank you for a thought provoking post . I wish positive thinking could be passive: For me my passive default state is negativity – about the weather , my career , my health etc. I know that this negativity is harmful so I try to use Stoicism and mindfulness to be more positive. The three are complimentary and intertwined . I don’t believe that Stoicism teaches one to think negative thoughts but rather to develop equanimity towards inevitable events such as death. Amor fati is definitely a positive rather than negative concept .
    I don’t need to buy self help books at the airport – I have a whole library of them at home !

  8. Mindfulness simply means appreciating the moment, being in the moment and reacting appropriately.
    Well it is certainly more than that. Just try it. You can’t keep safe like mindfulness for more than a few seconds. As long as we are in our ego minds we are conflicted by the myriad demands of the ego’s legion of demons. Only when we prioritize unity and make ego passive can essence grow to the point where we can pray always. Mindfulness and contemplation are a start, cleaning the instrument of the body-mind so that it becomes hollow like the reed is the life-long path to being able to hold sage-mindfulness.

  9. 6 says:

    Unfortunately, author, you are sadly mistaking and misunderstanding the vast majority of the modern “positive thinkers”. Those of us who tell others to seek to live in positivity, are not at all preaching what you think.
    In fact, what you described as stoicism is almost exactly what positive thinking entails in many peoples minds.

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