3 Drawbacks of Positive Thinking in the Pursuit of Happiness

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Antidote" by Oliver Burkeman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are self-help books truly helpful? What common theme has problems of its own?

If you’ve explored self-help advice, you’ve likely come across the belief that thinking positively is the only way to achieve true happiness and success. According to Oliver Burkeman, this widely accepted belief has three downsides that impede happiness.

Continue reading to learn about these drawbacks of positive thinking.

The Drawbacks of Positive Thinking

Burkeman identifies three drawbacks of positive thinking in the pursuit of happiness:

  1. Forcing positive thoughts exacerbates negative feelings.
  2. Pursuing success goals leads to failure and dissatisfaction.
  3. Grasping for control fosters anxiety and disillusionment.

Let’s explore each of these drawbacks in detail.

Drawback #1: Forcing Positive Thoughts Exacerbates Negative Feelings

Burkeman notes that attempting to think only positive thoughts can, ironically, cause you to experience more negative emotions. He explains that trying to focus only on positive thoughts—for example, by using positive affirmations or visualizations—requires you to suppress and ignore, rather than address, negative thoughts and feelings.

However, ignoring negative thoughts doesn’t eradicate them. Instead, these thoughts simmer and grow in the shadows of your mind, creating internal conflict between what you really feel and what you think you should feel. And the moment you feel too stressed out or tired to maintain your positive state of mind, these negative thoughts resurface with more intensity, creating more distress than you felt before you attempted to suppress them.

You Blame Yourself for Your Negative Feelings

Burkeman states that when negative thoughts and feelings inevitably surface, you assume that your emotional distress is your fault—if only you could maintain a positive mindset, you wouldn’t feel this way. This self-judgment creates two effects: First, it adds a layer of guilt and inadequacy to your already negative state of mind. Second, it perpetuates a destructive cycle where guilt for not maintaining constant positivity pushes you to strive even harder for it, often exacerbating the very thoughts and feelings you’re trying to avoid.

For example, you feel anxious about a work presentation because you doubt your competence. To quell your anxiety, you force yourself to think positively about your capabilities. However, this only deepens the rift between your genuine feelings of inadequacy and the positive front you’re putting on. This, in turn, amplifies your initial anxiety and adds negative self-judgment for not being positive enough.

Drawback #2: Pursuing Success Goals Leads to Failure and Dissatisfaction

Common self-help advice encourages you to set and relentlessly pursue goals designed to realize your ideal version of yourself. Burkeman notes that striving to achieve such goals creates five adverse effects that prevent you from attaining happiness and success

1) You Become So Fixated on Your Goals That You Overlook Better Opportunities

Burkeman argues that the unwavering pursuit of specific goals can make you lose sight of whether your goals serve your true needs, leading you to ignore opportunities that might offer a deeper sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Example: You’re so focused on achieving a promotion that you overlook lateral moves within your company that could offer valuable experience, greater long-term advantages, and ultimately more job satisfaction.

2) You Feel So Inspired by Success Stories That You Fail to Adequately Prepare

Success stories, a staple of self-help content, aim to inspire and motivate you by showcasing those who, despite overwhelming obstacles, maintained a positive state of mind and achieved massive success. Burkeman cautions that such narratives can foster a false sense of assurance and distort your understanding of what’s truly necessary to achieve success.

He points out that these stories present a biased view that omits the stories of the many who maintained positivity but didn’t achieve their goals. In this biased representation of reality, maintaining a positive mindset directly correlates with achieving success. Immersing yourself in these stories can lead you to overlook success’s complexity and adopt ineffective positive mindset strategies, leaving you ill-prepared to overcome challenges on your path toward your goals.

Example: You read inspirational accounts of entrepreneurs who, despite taking significant financial risks, achieved monumental feats thanks to their unwavering positivity. You assume your positivity will carry you to equal success and invest all of your savings into your company. However, what many of these accounts left out was that these entrepreneurs didn’t stake all their money in their dreams—they kept a safety net to rely on in case of failure. Because you invested everything you had, your company is left unable to weather hard times.

3) Your Premature Sense of Accomplishment Undermines Your Motivation

One widely encouraged mindset strategy for achieving goals is positive visualization: Imagining the joy and satisfaction you’ll feel once you’ve achieved your goal. This strategy is meant to motivate you to take action toward your goals by giving you a taste of success. However, Burkeman warns, imagining future success often backfires, fostering complacency.

Each time you imagine your future success, you trick your mind into believing you’ve already achieved your goals. This creates a premature sense of victory that feels so tangible and gratifying that it saps your drive to take the necessary actions to make your goals a reality.

Example: The elation and satisfaction you feel after imagining yourself receiving a prestigious award feels so rewarding and tangible that you start slacking at work because you believe you’ve “earned” the right to relax.

4) Your Unrealistic Expectations Lead to Disappointment

The strategies we’ve mentioned so far—setting goals, reading success stories, and practicing positive visualizations—all encourage you to continually expect the best. Burkeman suggests that this leads to disappointment and disillusionment each time life fails to conform to your expectations.

He explains that, to maintain a persistently positive outlook, you often need to deny anything that makes you think or feel negatively. This denial causes you to disconnect from reality and cultivate a fragile sense of happiness that’s shattered by any deviation from your positive outlook. For example, when you receive praise, you feel happy because this feedback aligns with your positive expectations. However, when you receive even minor criticisms, you feel demoralized because you only expected praise.

5) Your Pursuit of Perfection Breeds Discontent

Self-help materials often depict people living perfect lives. Burkeman argues that such portrayals encourage you to pursue superficial achievements over genuine happiness and to view any deviation from this ideal as a failure. As a result, you waste your energy masking your “imperfections,” leaving little energy to discover what truly brings you happiness.

Example: Your attempt to curate a picture-perfect existence on Facebook traps you in a cycle of comparison and self-critique that makes you more conscious, and less accepting, of your “imperfections.” So you focus on hiding your so-called flaws rather than on making the best out of them.

Drawback #3: Grasping for Control Fosters Anxiety and Frustration

Burkeman discusses the potential downsides of forcing positive thoughts and chasing success goals. While these strategies impede happiness and success in various ways, Burkeman suggests they predominantly fail to make you happy by perpetuating a harmful ideology: To be happy, you must take control of your life and actively avoid discomfort and uncertainty. However, because life’s inherent unpredictability makes total control impossible, attempts to avoid pain are futile, serving only to heighten anxiety and frustration.

Since total control is impossible, you cling to an illusion of control. And the only way you can maintain this illusion is by always being watchful for anything that might disrupt your plans. This vigilance traps you in a cycle of worry and unease, hindering your ability to enjoy the moment. It also leads to risk aversion, preventing you from trying new things and leading to stagnation and regret. Inevitably, when problems do occur, your false sense of control shatters, causing disillusionment and unhappiness. 

Example: You obsessively control your child’s study habits to help both of you avoid the pain of failure. When, despite meticulous planning and effort, she receives subpar grades, the painful realization that extensive efforts don’t guarantee success or happiness leaves both of you defeated and frustrated.

(Shortform note: Neurological research adds insight on how uncertainty and a lack of control heighten stress: You’re more likely to feel anxious when you’re uncertain something bad will happen than when you know something bad will happen. The striatum, a deep brain structure, plays a key role in assessing the likelihood of positive or negative outcomes and triggering the stress response. When the striatum perceives the odds of a bad outcome to be around 50%, it amplifies the stress response more than when it anticipates a certain negative outcome. For example, before an exam, your striatum intensifies stress more when you’re unsure you studied enough to pass, rather than when you know you’re going to fail because you didn’t study at all.)

3 Drawbacks of Positive Thinking in the Pursuit of Happiness

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  • Why forcing yourself to think positive thoughts doesn't make you happy
  • How typical self-help advice can sometimes make you feel worse
  • How to experience contentment even amid seemingly negative experiences

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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