In praise of pessimism #3

Happy new year and so on. Any New Year’s resolutions? Quite a while ago I shared an article warning us about the rash of ‘new year, new you’ fluff we face each January. Here’s another critique of the wellness industry.

The art of negativity: On rejecting positive thinkingPrzekrój Magazine
Modern society enforces a bias towards positivity and forward-thinking attitudes; one of the many curses of late capitalism. Workplace presenteeism in the name of corporate productivity is one symptom of this, but so too are the vapid platitudes peddled by tabloid media and the subtle determinism of ‘Like’ buttons on social media. In any case, this prevailing upbeat wind can often blow us out to sea, leaving those with negative emotions like castaways clad in counterfeit joy. The demand for constant optimism leaves many trying to hide the shame or resentment of experiencing negative thoughts and feelings. Human experience runs the full gamut of sentiment, and sometimes we have no choice but to roll with the punches and accept the negative side of life. […]

In fact, it could be argued that so-called ‘toxic positivity’ is more hazardous a phenomenon than the matter-of-fact attitude of negativity. In vogue as a psychological phenomenon, toxic positivity is essentially the idea that negative emotions are inherently ‘bad’ and that the most suitable response to emotional turmoil or pain is always a positive mindset (however inappropriate that may be.) Indeed, toxic positivity at large has become so ubiquitous as to represent something of an inculcated attitude in some people’s everyday interactions with one another. It is the (often unintentional) gaslighting platitudes desperately rendered in response to negativity. “Everything happens for a reason,” the terminally ill patient hears; “It could be worse,” someone bleats as another loses their job; or, “At least you have your health,” says the friend to a fresh divorcée. […]

As Oliver Burkeman described earlier, those wonderfully transformative and giddily affirmative self-help books don’t keep on selling despite the fact that they don’t work, but rather because they don’t work. This article continues with another take on that.

The so-called ‘wellness’ industry swindles consumers by selling the idea of positive wellbeing to a vulnerable customer base desperately sinking money into spa retreats, dieting, juice cleanses and holistic therapies. Wellness capitalism is the symptom of a much more corrosive condition; as if more consumption were the answer to healing the wounds of capitalism. In reality, the promises of ‘mindfulness’, ‘positive mental attitude’ and ‘healthy living’ pledged by the industrial wellness complex are exposed as just one more arrow in the quiver of exploitation. There is nothing revolutionary about paying for a product. Under late capitalism, we are always alienated, cheated and ripped-off: why should this business model of idealized versions of the salubrious self be any different?

Nothing like a little positivity to start the year, eh?

This year, NO new year's resolutions, ok?

It’s soon that time of year again, explains Oliver Burkeman, “that segment of the calendar known to publishers and motivational speakers worldwide as New Year, New You.” Anyone thinking of new resolutions, or just repeating last year’s failed ones, should read this article on why this approach really isn’t the best way of going about things.

[Self-help books that encourage these Big Change/Fresh Start ideas] don’t keep on selling despite the fact that they don’t work, but rather because they don’t work: they deliver a short-lived mood boost, and when that fades, the most obvious way to revive it is to go back for more.

He offers us another way, a smaller, more incremental way of bringing about change, one that encourages us to ease up on ourselves a little.

In fact, as the Buddhist-influenced Japanese psychologist Shoma Morita liked to point out, it’s perfectly possible to do what you know needs doing—to propel yourself to the gym, to open the laptop to work, to reach for the kale instead of the doughnuts—without “feeling motivated” to do it. People “think that they should always like what they do and that their lives should be trouble-free,” Morita wrote. “Consequently, their mental energy is wasted by their impossible attempts to avoid feelings of displeasure or boredom.” Morita advised his readers and patients to “give up” on themselves—to “begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect or a procrastinator or unhealthy or lazy or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself.”

Worth a try. I’m tempted to look through this blog’s posts from Decembers and Januarys gone by, to see how badly I’ve done with all this previously.

Oliver Burkeman wrote The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. A great title, at least.