The VICE Guide to Self Improvement

How to Harness the Power of Your Pessimism

Turns out expecting the worst is not the crime we all thought. The leader of the 'anti-self help' movement explains.

by Rebecca Kamm
11 September 2017, 12:35am

Image by Ben Thomson 

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Everybody has an amygdala, an important lump in the frontal lobe of your brain that senses danger. We'll call it "almond" because it is shaped thus and because every description you'll find of it will point this out.

The important thing to know is that everyone's almond works differently. Some are regular nine-to-fivers; they do just enough work to meet their one KPI—"Don't Die"—then they call it a day. This is actually perfect. It means that when your boss emails wanting a "chat", you think my boss wants a chat. Then you put it in your iCal and continue prodding your computer until you go home, where you don't think or worry about work because it's home and that's separate from work so why would you. And what's even worrying about a chat, etcetera.

If that feels alien it's because your almond is cut from a different cloth. Maybe it sees the email from your boss and prepares your brain not for a chat, but for war? Battle, famine, a "chat"—there is no difference. Cortisol flooding your system like a liquid army, and so on. Welcome to my almond.

None of this would really matter—or matter as muchif society taught us that this is actually normal. Or instilled in us the value of pessimism. Instead, unremitting, indiscriminate cheer has become our gold standard, and "happiness from within" the new emotional mantra of our age. Who's to blame? Self-help culture: Books, e-books, audiobooks, Oprah… all designed to convince us there is a code inside ourselves that unlocks limitless joy. Never mind that your boss is directing all his earthly energy into dismantling your soul. Just find the code! It's inside. It's $24.99.

Happily, the anti self-helpers have arrived to restore some order, and who better to make me feel better about my inability to see the bright side than their leader: one Dr. Svend Brinkmann. He is a Danish psychology professor and the author of Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze. He is, most importantly, the pied piper of the resistance, working to expose the thin veneer of a movement that makes us feel shit and makes no sense. I like him.

VICE: 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? Or that just really irk you?
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.