Everybody has an amygdala, an important lump in the frontal lobe of your brain whose job it is to sense danger. Let's call it "almond", because it is shaped thusly. Now, everyone's almond works slightly differently. Some almonds are textbook, doing just enough work to hit their one target: stop you from walking off a cliff, say, or trying to pat an irate stray dog. This is actually perfect. It means that when, say, your boss emails you wanting a "chat", you think that's nice, my boss wants a chat. Then you go home.
If that response feels alien, your almond is likely cut from a different cloth. Maybe it sees that email from your boss and prepares for battle. Because as those with overactive almonds know, the distinction between employment niggles and looming threats to your actual life can feel one and the same. Cortisol, that liquid internal army, floods your system regardless.
Welcome to my almond.
None of this would matter quite as much if society didn't vilify those with nervier outlooks. Or if we acknowledged the inherent value in such an outlook. Instead, unremitting, indiscriminate cheer has become our gold standard, and "happiness from within" the new mantra of our age. Self-help culture relies on this idea: that there is a behavioural code that unlocks zen, and that this code is buried within ourselves.
Happily, the anti self-helpers have arrived, headed up by Dr Svend Brinkmann, a Danish psychology professor and author of Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze. We spoke to Dr Brinkmann about his work exposing the fallacies of a movement making many of us feel even worse.
VICE: Hi Svend. How do you believe self-help culture is influencing the expectations around how we "should" feel, and view our own lives?
Svend Brinkmann: The self-help industry has the general message to the individual that "happiness is a choice", and that it can be achieved by following a set of simple steps. So when we fail and are not super happy all the time, we may feel that something is wrong with us. Even if our problems originate in the larger social world, like unemployment, poverty, or social injustice. And this may in turn contribute to the misery people experience.
Are there any types of self-help, or self-help messages, you think are particularly damaging?
The simpler they are, the more wrong they generally are. And if they lack an understanding of the role of people's circumstances, and put all the responsibility on the shoulders of the individual, then they can be quite damaging.
I'll cut to the chase: Are pessimists doomed to a life of misery?
No. There are psychological strategies such as "defensive pessimism" – imagining that bad things will happen – that can actually protect people from anxiety and disappointment. I am not saying that we should be pessimists all the time, but rather that a dose of pessimism may counterbalance the extreme culture of optimism and positivity that we have. In the end, we may hope to achieve a balanced realism.
So how can people prone to catastrophic thinking try to use this trait to their advantage? Everything can be exaggerated. Catastrophic thinking may be an extreme version of defensive pessimism [as per above], just as positive thinking has its own extreme versions. So, a dose of catastrophic thinking may be beneficial and reduce anxieties.
One helpful version may be something called "negative visualization", where you imagine that you lose what you have. Unlike the currently popular idea of "positive visualization", where you dream of the nice things that you want. Negative visualization, a technique from the ancient Stoics, reminds us of the finitude and fragility of life, which will make us appreciate what we have more, instead of wanting more all the time.
What would you tell someone who believes their inability to feel positive all the time means they have the "wrong" mindset?
I would say that they are completely normal. It's not possible to feel positive all the time. The real tragedy is not that people have negative thoughts from time to time, but rather that they are taught —wrongly—that the "baseline" of our lives is a high level of happiness. It's not.
What about you, Svend—do you "think positive"?
I'm probably a bit on the positive side, so I try to practice negativity. It's important if we want to understand the crises that our world is in that we learn to focus on the problems that exist. Some of us need to learn to worry more.
How did the cult of positivity even begin? Do you think it was a result of the rising middle class, who suddenly had more time to navel gaze, or the internet, or something else?
It's quite old. Norman Vincent Peale wrote The power of positive Thinking in 1952, a book which incidentally has had a huge influence on Donald Trump (Peale was Trump's minister in Manhattan). The message is: Your problems originate in a negative mindset, so by learning to think positive, you can become successful. Basically, this is saying to poor people—and everyone else—that they are to blame for their own problems. It's a way of oppressing people psychologically.
Finally, how does mandated cheer actually make us more obsessed with ourselves, and in turn, more anxious?
We learn to constantly turn into ourselves, monitoring ourselves and our moods and feelings. Doctors talk about the paradox of health: As medical technologies improve, people tend to complain more about their health. This is because the more we think about our happiness, subjectivity and "symptoms", the more we tend to inflate the problems. We need to look at the world around us more, and not just within ourselves. Thank you, Svend. @rebeccakamm