Both ancient philosophy and modern psychology suggest that darker thoughts can make us happier
The holiday season poses a psychological conundrum. Its defining sentiment, of course, is joy—yet the strenuous effort to be joyous seems to make many of us miserable. It's hard to be happy in overcrowded airport lounges or while you're trying to stay civil for days on end with relatives who stretch your patience.
So to cope with the holidays, magazines and others are advising us to "think positive"—the same advice, in other words, that Norman Vincent Peale, author of "The Power of Positive Thinking," was dispensing six decades ago. (During holidays, Peale once suggested, you should make "a deliberate effort to speak hopefully about everything.") The result all too often mirrors the famously annoying parlor game about trying not to think of a white bear: The harder you try, the more you think about one.
Variations of Peale's positive philosophy run deep in American culture, not just in how we handle holidays and other social situations but in business, politics and beyond. Yet studies suggest that peppy affirmations designed to lift the user's mood through repetition and visualizing future success often achieve the opposite of their intended effect.
Fortunately, both ancient philosophy and contemporary psychology point to an alternative: a counterintuitive approach that might be termed "the negative path to happiness." This approach helps to explain some puzzles, such as the fact that citizens of more economically insecure countries often report greater happiness than citizens of wealthier ones. Or that many successful businesspeople reject the idea of setting firm goals.
One pioneer of the "negative path" was the New York psychotherapist Albert Ellis, who died in 2007. He rediscovered a key insight of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome: that sometimes the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst.
Seneca the Stoic was a radical on this matter. If you feared losing your wealth, he once advised, "set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: 'Is this the condition that I feared?' "
To overcome a fear of embarrassment, Ellis told me, he advised his clients to travel on the New York subway, speaking the names of stations out loud as they passed. I'm an easily embarrassed person, so in the interest of journalistic research, I took his advice, on the Central Line of the London Underground. It was agonizing. But my overblown fears were cut down to size: I wasn't verbally harangued or physically attacked. A few people looked at me strangely.
Just thinking in sober detail about worst-case scenarios—a technique the Stoics called "the premeditation of evils"—can help to sap the future of its anxiety-producing power. The psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy, which she terms "defensive pessimism." Positive thinking, by contrast, is the effort to convince yourself that things will turn out fine, which can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn't.
In American corporations, perhaps the most widely accepted doctrine of the "cult of positivity" is the importance of setting big, audacious goals for an organization, while employees are encouraged (or compelled) to set goals that are "SMART"—"Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely." (It is thought that the term was first used in a 1981 article by George T. Doran.)
But the pro-goal consensus is starting to crumble. For one thing, rigid goals may encourage employees to cut ethical corners. In a study conducted by the management scholar Lisa Ordóñez and her colleagues, participants had to make words from a set of random letters, as in Scrabble. The experiment let them report their progress anonymously—and those given a specific target to reach lied far more frequently than those instructed merely to "do your best."
Goals may even lead to underachievement. Many New York taxi drivers, one team of economists concluded, make less money in rainy weather than they could because they finish work as soon as they reach their mental target for what constitute a good day's earnings.
Focusing on one goal at the expense of all other factors also can distort a corporate mission or an individual life, says Christopher Kayes, an associate professor of management at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Prof. Kayes, who has studied the "overpursuit" of goals, recalls a conversation with one executive who "told me his goal had been to become a millionaire by the age of 40…and he'd done it. [But] he was also divorced, and had health problems, and his kids didn't talk to him anymore." Behind our fixation on goals, Prof. Kayes's work suggests, is a deep unease with feelings of uncertainty.
Research by Saras Sarasvathy, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia, suggests that learning to accommodate feelings of uncertainty is not just the key to a more balanced life but often leads to prosperity as well. For one project, she interviewed 45 successful entrepreneurs, all of whom had taken at least one business public. Almost none embraced the idea of writing comprehensive business plans or conducting extensive market research.
They practiced instead what Prof. Sarasvathy calls "effectuation." Rather than choosing a goal and then making a plan to achieve it, they took stock of the means and materials at their disposal, then imagined the possible ends. Effectuation also includes what she calls the "affordable loss principle." Instead of focusing on the possibility of spectacular rewards from a venture, ask how great the loss would be if it failed. If the potential loss seems tolerable, take the next step.
The ultimate value of the "negative path" may not be its role in facilitating upbeat emotions or even success. It is simply realism. The future really is uncertain, after all, and things really do go wrong as well as right. We are too often motivated by a craving to put an end to the inevitable surprises in our lives.
This is especially true of the biggest "negative" of all. Might we benefit from contemplating mortality more regularly than we do? As Steve Jobs famously declared, "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way that I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose."
However tempted we may be to agree with Woody Allen's position on death—"I'm strongly against it"—there's much to be said for confronting it rather than denying it. There are some facts that even the most powerful positive thinking can't alter.—Adapted from Mr. Burkeman's book "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking," published in November by Faber & Faber.
A version of this article appeared December 7, 2012, on page C3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Power of Negative Thinking.