The Power of Negative Thinking

By Maria F.

Colombia, my country of birth, ranks every year as one of the happiest countries in the world. Last year, when it hit number one1, I was interested in finding out why. I mean, everyone knows the social problems this third-world nation has faced and it is by no means wealthy in cash. It is wealthy in happiness though and this is why: people in poor and war laden countries like Colombia always focus on the worst case scenario. What?! How could this be? Weren’t we taught that positive thinking, along with a clear vision of our goals, will help us reach them and make us happy? I know my mom always told me I wasn’t happy because I was too negative…

In a place where so many things go wrong every day… And I don’t mean like when you work on your paper for five hours and forget to save it (like I did yesterday!)… But where job opportunities are scarce and the safety of your loved ones is not a sure thing, people focus on the worst thing that could happen because what does happen (working at McDonald’s), although still bad, is never the worst (not finding a job at all!). In this way, they try to live each day to the fullest and happy, because tomorrow is not a certainty. On the contrary, the best thing that could happen (you get 100% on your twice-written paper!) is almost always not what happens. This could be what lies behind the increased rates of depression in wealthy countries like Canada and the United States, where tomorrow is virtually a certainty.

While I was searching for answers, I came across an interesting read by a controversial author, Oliver Burkeman. His book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, is a refreshing eye-opener.  Let’s face it. For a nation that is fixated on achieving happiness through positive thinking, we seem remarkably incompetent at the task. He speaks of encounters with people of different religions, occupations and places in the world who have a radically different way of thinking about happiness. Yes, we’ve all heard that being thankful for what we have and not wishing for more could make us happy too. Well that just contradicts the capitalist mentality above! This is different. When you make a mistake or something doesn’t go as planned, think of how it could have gone worse and you’ll instantly start to feel better. You can’t change the past. But you can change how you feel about it to help you move forward. Maybe I forgot to save this paper that’s worth 10% of my grade, but it could have been the longer paper I handed in yesterday that was worth 30%!

Thank you universe!

And far from being productive, chronic negative self-criticism, which is what we do when our positive thoughts don’t manifest in real life every day, is also physically harmful as it manifests through symptoms of depression. Positive reinforcement has been proven to be more efficient than punishment in learning because punishment does not explicitly indicate a desired course of action (Yay PSYC 101!). Similarly, self-criticism leaves us defeated and usually with no plan to move forward for change.

I challenge you to recognize that you do not do your absolute best every single day, but to not use it to sabotage the effort you do put in most days. I challenge you to think that today may not have been your most productive day, but it could have been worse! For example, “I didn’t finish my paper today, but I wrote more than I did yesterday” or “I only went to the gym twice this week, but I could have not gone at all like last week.”  In this way, you will remain happier, healthier and it has been proven that your productivity levels will increase if you reward yourself with these thoughts. Why would that be? Because a lot of us, when faced with three hours of unproductiveness or three days without a work-out, give up on our unrealistic goals such as “I’m going to be productive all day today!” or “I’m going to go to the gym every day this week!” and actually end up not accomplishing anything. Reward yourself for what you do, and you will do more of that one-day-at-a-time.


Here’s a quick intro to Burkeman’s book:

… I promise I have no affiliation to him whatsoever and will make no profit if you buy this book

… Although I do think you, and the world, will benefit from reading it J

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