Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images


Is there strength in admitting that we’re all just a bit of a mess?

Yes, says Viv Groskop. And she couldn’t be happier about it

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By Viv Groskop on

This is weird news, but it turns out that positive thinking is not good for you. Apparently, we should all stop pretending to be OK about things that are really bothering us. We can stop putting on an act altogether and admit that we are – some of the time, at least – a bit of a mess. I couldn’t be happier about this.

I got some practice at shunning positive thinking recently. I was going on holiday to Madrid for five days. In theory, you’d think this would be fine. But I was not looking forward to the holiday, as I knew that I had a huge series of work deadlines directly afterwards. I kind of knew I would ruin my own holiday by thinking about work all the time. I found myself initially thinking, “No, Viv. Think positive. You don’t have to ruin your own holiday! Just smile and enjoy it!” Then I remembered: enforced jollity is counter-productive. Let in the real. I immediately felt better.

Realising that life is supposed to be a bit of a nightmare at times is actually very healthy, according to new research in the Scientific American. Recent studies show that it’s infinitely more useful to be a “defensive pessimist”. These people are better prepared than your average optimist because they’ve thought through all the potential negatives. One survey even found that pessimists were less prone to depression than optimists because “they had spent more time bracing themselves for unpleasant possibilities”.

Faking high self-esteem, or trying to ‘see the bright side’, is a denial of how complex and contradictory life can be

There’s a growing school of thought that positive thinking – which started to gain ground as a self-help idea in the 1960s – has not been conducive to good mental health. Last year, an oft-cited study on motivation and emotion, conducted by the appropriately named Society for the Study of Motivation, found that when people acknowledge and address negative emotions, it helps them to change their behaviour and have better responses.

Author Will Storr argues in his new book, Selfie: Why We Became So Self-Obsessed And What It’s Doing To Us, that the rise of the self-esteem movement has turned us into self-absorbed narcissists. Self-esteem is closely connected to positive thinking because usually we direct our positive thoughts to what’s happening to us, not towards others. The biggest problem is that faking high self-esteem, or trying to “see the bright side”, is a denial of how complex and contradictory life can be. “We tend to become stressed and depressed when we set overly high expectations for ourselves and repeatedly fail to meet them,” writes Storr. “When we tell ourselves we can be anything we want to be, we’re setting ourselves up for unhappiness, because it’s simply not true.”  

The key is, I think, managing your level of negativity. Keep it as close to neutral as possible. The experts said it’s OK to be a “defensive pessimist”, not an “aggressive pessimist”, which is my natural default. Instead, I have spent a long time training myself to be neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I try to be neutral and open to any outcome. On holiday, I hoped gently (but not desperately) for the best and prepared slightly (but not obsessively) for the worst. I allowed myself room for the negative and – surprise, surprise – this quashed it all and I felt genuinely more positive without having to pretend. Result. And I didn’t even mind facing all the work afterwards. Well, not that much.


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