The Power of Negative Thinking

This article kind of flies in the face of the popular feel good ‘positive thinking’ philosophy, but before you jump to any conclusions, read on. Also, this has many ramifications to personal finances, which I will get to at the end of the article.

The Power of Positive Thinking made popular by Norman Vincent Peale in 1952, 60 years later has spread to many aspects of society, including teachings in business and religion, and adopted by many people in the ‘self-help’ movement of motivational books, tapes and CDs. You have probably heard statements like “your attitude determines your altitude.” This system of belief runs through much of our thinking and society, however, do we  take the time to dissect this, or do we just seem to accept it as truth? Coaches, teachers, preachers and counselors teach people all the time to think more positively, and that will lead to greater success, blessings and happiness- but will it, has it for you?

I hear people all of the time being labeled as negative or positive, especially in the business world. It is true, it doesn’t make healthy thinking and living to be like negative Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, and only look at the negative possibilities – all the time. And we do limit ourselves from taking risks, trying new ideas, and living out religious faith- if we are consumed by negative thoughts, however positive thinking is being proven by research doesn’t lead to happiness and success either.

Maybe negative thinking has been given a bad wrap though.  Wandering through the library a few months back, I came upon an interesting book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman. Reading this book has given me some new perspectives.  It makes a convincing argument that devotion to the positive thinking cult as a path to happiness has failed; the following are some excerpts from an interview of Burkeman:

“I think the premise from which I start is this idea that we have become fixated on the idea that relentless positivity and optimism is exactly the same thing as happiness; that the only way to achieve anything worthy of the name of happiness is to try to make all our thoughts and feelings as positive as possible, to set incredibly ambitious goals, to visualize success, which you get in a million different self-help books.

Whereas, actually, there’s a lot of research now to suggest that many of these techniques are counterproductive, that saying positive affirmations to yourself in the mirror can make you feel worse and that visualizing the future can make you less likely to achieve it. And so, what I wanted to do in this book was to explore what I ended up calling the negative path to happiness, which involves instead turning toward uncertainty and insecurity, even pessimism, to try to find a different way that might be more durable and successful.”

I think that what is counterproductive about all these efforts that involve struggling very, very hard to achieve a specific emotional state is that by doing that, you often achieve the opposite.”

Embracing fears and failures, moving through insecurities, though actually leads people beyond themselves and to a state better than happiness. Happiness is fleeting; it will not come through retirement, after enduring miserable years at a job you hate. Thinking accurately, truthfully, honestly and sincerely with yourself can help us on our paths, to more clearer thinking about what gives us something better than happiness, I will call flourishing.

How does this apply to financial planning? Big picture: financial planning is outcome based. It often looks forward to retirement and the rewards and happiness it promises. On one end, some people avoid planning, because if they saw the actual numbers and really became aware of reality of not being able to retire comfortably, they fear how this will make them feel. They may have to embrace what that means now. It may mean change, or looking at life totally different. It doesn’t surprise me anymore, when people I sit down to counsel in their 50’s and 60’s who have no idea of their expenses and income. Often they are shocked to see how much negative cash flow they have each month. Embracing the reality now, instead of avoidance or positive thinking (a lot of people falsely believe inheritance will save them), can actually lead people to more a more flourishing life, now and later.  If they have to adjust lifestyles down, living simpler and search out life that provides fulfillment, whatever their age or financial status, they will be overall happier as they flourish in a new more realistic path, that is aligned with their gifts, talents and beliefs.

On the other end, those that have a solid retirement plan, and are enduring a job they hate now, positively thinking a lifestyle of leisure is going to lead to a more happy existence would be well advised to think this through. Have you ever taken some time to really imagine what daily life would be like in retirement? Really go there, and imagine the routine, thoughts and feelings. I used to ride the bus with dozens of corporate workers in a state of mild depression. I see them today at local coffee shops, and they seem lost, sometimes they are angry grouches focused on cable TV news.  I enjoy being around those in retirement that found meaning and value outside themselves, and contributed time, talent and money to things and people that will improve the world around. This starts before retirement. It makes better life now and later, whether you can retire in your 60’s or must keep working to save into your 70’s.

Applying this in a practical way to our personal finances is important too. If we have fear about our real budget, the return on the rate of return we are getting, the concern about a planner’s advice, or underperforming investments- it makes great sense to call it all into question. Dig deep to learn more, ask a lot of questions, assume a negative posture, and don’t stop until you get good answers. Sometimes you have to press through fears of insecurity looking stupid asking bad questions, or looking at our bad decisions, or finding a new advisor who we were afraid to confront, but glad we did.

In conclusion, I think there is value in a ‘both-and’ approach to this. We don’t have to entirely choose one or the other: I think it is possible to smartly combine or switch between both negative and positive thinking, on our paths to a more flourishing in life.