If the never-ending stream of positivity on your social feeds is starting to grate, here’s some actual good news: staying relentlessly upbeat in the face of all obstacles isn’t necessarily helping anyone. Because while people reading The Secret and posting about #FeelGoodFriday are busy visualising success, according to the latest science, it’s actually getting further away. In a variety of scenarios, staying negative is proving to be the best route to long-term achievement. Here’s how to embrace the power of the downside:
1. Stop Fantasising About Your Bestselling Book
Excessive daydreaming about your upcoming goals – as suggested by an armada of self-help books – is likely to backfire, according to research by NYU Professor of Psychology Gabriele Oettingen and her team. Sure, visualising that perfect gym routine or best-selling novel might give you a jolt of excitement, but it can also ruin the drive you need to actually get after it. ‘The pleasurable act of dreaming seems to let us fulfill our wishes in our minds, sapping our energy to perform the hard work of meeting challenges in real life,’ says Oettingen, also the author of Rethinking Positive Thinking.
2. Remind Yourself That New Projects Are Hard
Another issue with picturing a perfect, post-grind life is that it ignores likely obstacles, which means that they’re more likely to trip you up. Oettingen recommends a strategy called ‘mental contrasting’, which mixes thinking about the benefits of success with the problems in the way. To put it into practise, think of an ambition, then write down three benefits of succeeding, alongside the three biggest obstacles in your way. This should help you to impartially assess your chances and direct your energy where it’s going to be most effective.
‘The fear of failure is powerfully evolved, hammered into us by millennia where being kicked out of the tribe meant certain death’
3. Try (And Probably Fail) To Get A Free Muffin In Starbucks
Staying in your comfort zone is holding you back, but the fear of failure’s a powerfully evolved one, hammered into us by thousands of years where being kicked out of the tribe meant (near) certain death. ‘If you retreat to familiar settings as a default, then comfort is what’s holding you back,’ says Jason Comely, creator of social self-help game Rejection Therapy. ‘Aim to hardwire your brain to take action, to ‘go for it’ as the default.’ Start small and work your way up. Comely sells a set of cards to streamline the process, but just asking someone for a date, a discount, or a bite of their lunch is enough to pass. Once you’ve conquered your fear, move up to the important stuff: pitching bigger projects, or asking your all-time heroes for an interview.
4. Expect Your Lunchtime 5k To Really, Really Suck
If you embark on a new exercise plan expecting happy times and endless endorphins, you’re making things harder, not easier. The latest science suggests that ‘perceived effort’ – or how hard exercise feels at any given moment – is the key limiter of performance, and if you’re feeling worse than you’ve readied yourself for early on, this creates a feedback loop that worsens performance while increasing your suffering. If you’re planning a hard session, then brace yourself for a hard time, setting yourself up to squeeze the best possible effort from your body.
5. Everyone Needs A Favourite Stoic Philosopher
All the productivity experts have one: for meditations on self-respect and coping with fear of death, Marcus Aurelius is your man. But for worst-case-scenario planning, and dealing with life’s unpredictability, it’s worth investing some time in Seneca. Bestselling author-entrepreneur Ryan Holiday recommends ‘practising poverty’ in a similar way to what Seneca suggests: using worst-case scenario budgeting to remind yourself that, if you hit a financial bump in the road, things don’t have to be all that bad.
'Aim to hardwire your brain to take action, to ‘go for it' as the default'
6. Deal With Pain Like A Buddhist Monk
Trying to stay relentlessly positive in the face of absolute turmoil is almost certainly a doomed effort, and you’ll end up looking as silly as an Airline CEO ‘backing his staff’ for assaulting a passenger. You’re better off dealing with negative feelings non-judgmentally. Buddhism, for instance, teaches letting emotions come and go, whether they’re positive or negative. According to a 2009 study published in the brilliantly named Journal of Pain, Buddhist-style mindfulness can help with pain management, in people who acknowledge unpleasantness but don’t think of it as good or bad.
7. Be The Only One Smiling When The World Goes Mad
No, not like the Joker. In a post-Trump world, where jobs are being hoovered up by automation, only uncertainty is certain. And so, argues statistician, risk analyst and former trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the solution is to become ‘antifragile’, by designing a lifestyle where you aren’t just resilient in the face of upheaval, but actually benefit from it. Having an emergency fund – three to six months pay – in the bank, for instance, increases your options by giving you the breathing room to pursue new opportunities or goals, while improving your skillset makes you more employable in shifting circumstances. Plan for change, not just the worst.
WHAT NEXT? Get yourself a copy of Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic (or read chunks of it here). Then pick a hero of yours – entrepreneur, politician, MMA fighter – and see if they’ll chat to you if you ask nicely. Remember: the point isn’t to succeed, it’s to teach your brain that failure isn’t the end of the world.