I still remember my very first self-help book (since then I have read about 10,000 and don’t apologise for utterly loving a bit of self-analysis in the form of 200 handy pages and a chatty tone). I was about 21 and had bought Norman Vincent Peale’s book, The Power of Positive Thinking. I’d bought it as a tape for my Walkman – under 25s try Google. I’d listen while I was running around Centennial Park, which is to Sydney (where I grew up) what Richmond Park is to London. He sounded like a shouty Republican senator at an election rally but I had an epiphany at the time over what he was saying. Having been a glass half empty type all my life, it was the first time I realised I could alter my default thinking processes. I was hooked.
But these changing times call for changing self-help soundbytes. In the last few months a string of what have become my favourite bits of non-negotiable emotional wisdom have been turned on their up-to-now inflexible heads.
Exhibit A: think positively at all times.
In fact, one survey found Britons were the third most pessimistic people in the world but for a natural misery guts being encouraged to think positive can at times feel forced and fake. According to Julie Norem, professor of psychology at Wellesley College in the US, it can also lead to more anxiety. ‘Relentless optimism doesn’t suit naturally pessimistic personalities and can mean people feel like failures when their positive thinking doesn’t work,’ she says.
Professor Norem has studied a calculated form of negative thinking called defensive pessimism that can reap positive results. ‘For those inclined to think the worst, defensive pessimism is a strategy for dealing with the anxiety, fear and worry this can bring about,’ she explains. ‘Defensive pessimists set low expectations and think through the worst outcomes in clear, specific imagery,’ she says.‘This helps them focus away from the anxiety onto something they can take action about which increases their sense of control.’
Defensive pessimists are often as successful – if not more – as optimists because their low expectations motivate them to perform better and think through eventualities. The best way of measuring up what you would do in negative outcomes is by writing them down in clear, objective language: ‘If XX happened, I could XX,’ and so on, says Norem. For me, this helps channel my doomsaying inner voice; puts it to good use because ignoring it only makes me an anxious wreck.
Any fellow glass half empty types reading this: next time someone calls you a misery guts, employ your most patronising geek voice and quietly state, ‘I think you’ll find the term is defensive pessimist and research shows that’s not necessarily a bad thing.’