Could it be that ironic process theory also sheds light on what is wrong with our efforts to achieve happiness, and on the way that our efforts to feel positive seem so frequently to bring about the opposite result? In the years since Wegner's earliest white bear experiments, his research, and that of others, has turned up more and more evidence to support that notion. One example: when experimental subjects are told of an unhappy event, but then instructed to try not to feel sad about it, they end up feeling worse than people who are informed of the event, but given no instructions about how to feel. In another study, when patients who were suffering from panic disorders listened to relaxation tapes, their hearts beat faster than patients who listened to audiobooks with no explicitly 'relaxing' content. Bereaved people who make the most effort to avoid feeling grief, research suggests, take the longest to recover from their loss. Our efforts at mental suppression fail in the sexual arena, too: people instructed not to think about sex exhibit greater arousal, as measured by the electrical conductivity of their skin, than those not instructed to suppress such thoughts.
Seen from this perspective, swathes of the self-help industry's favourite techniques for achieving happiness and success from positive thinking to visualising your goals to 'getting motivated' stand revealed to be suffering from one enormous flaw. A person who has resolved to 'think positive' must constantly scan his or her mind for negative thoughts there's no other way that the mind could ever gauge its success at the operation yet that scanning will draw attention to the presence of negative thoughts. (Worse, if the negative thoughts start to predominate, a vicious spiral may kick in, since the failure to think positively may become the trigger for a new stream of self-berating thoughts, about not thinking positively enough.) Suppose you decide to follow Dr Schuller's suggestion and try to eliminate the word 'impossible' from your vocabulary, or more generally try to focus exclusively on successful outcomes, and stop thinking about things not working out. As we'll see, there are all sorts of problems with this approach. But the most basic one is that you may well fail, as a result of the very act of monitoring your success.
This problem of self-sabotage through self-monitoring is not the only hazard of positive thinking. An additional twist was revealed in 2009, when a psychologist based in Canada named Joanne Wood set out to test the effectiveness of 'affirmations', those peppy self-congratulatory phrases designed to lift the user's mood through repetition. Affirmations have their origins in the work of the nineteenth-century French pharmacist Émile Coué, a forerunner of the contemporary positive thinkers, who coined the one that remains the most famous: 'Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.'
Most affirmations sound pretty cheesy, and one might suspect that they would have little effect. Surely, though, they're harmless? Wood wasn't so sure about that. Her reasoning, though compatible with Wegner's, drew on a different psychological tradition known as 'self-comparison theory'. Much as we like to hear positive messages about ourselves, this theory suggests, we crave even more strongly the sense of being a coherent, consistent self in the first place. Messages that conflict with that existing sense of self, therefore, are unsettling, and so we often reject them even if they happen to be positive, and even if the source of the message is ourselves. Wood's hunch was that people who seek out affirmations would be, by definition, those with low self-esteem but that, for that very same reason, they would end up reacting against the messages in the affirmations, because they conflicted with their self-images. Messages such as 'Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better' would clash with their poor opinion of themselves, and thus be rejected, so as not to threaten the coherence of their sense of self. The result might even be a worsening of their low self-esteem as people struggled to reassert their existing self-images against the incoming messages.
Excerpted from The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman. Copyright © 2012 by Oliver Burkeman. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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