Positivity Is Overrated: How Negative Thinking Can Make Us Happier
Embrace thinking about the worst possible outcomes to create the best ones.
The literature that discusses the power of positive thinking is omnipresent, from the fringe self-help books of the past to the mainstream wisdom of today. It usually goes something like this: If you think good thoughts hard enough, the universe will respond, and those thoughts will ultimately manifest themselves into reality. Written like that it sounds a little bit wonky, but there are plenty of more subtle articulations of that same theme that have become accepted wisdom. And why not? At worst, you might think, being optimistic and positive can’t actually hurt. And maybe, just maybe, there is something to this whole “manifesting good outcomes” thing anyway, right?
Those same people will admonish you when you start scenario planning for what might go wrong. Dwell on everything that might not work out, and it most certainly will not. The old adage attributed to Henry Ford, "Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right," is often used to explain why entertaining doubt hinders success.
What if I told you, however, that people who think through everything that could go wrong on an endeavor overwhelmingly end up with better outcomes?
To any devotee of Rhonda Byrne's The Secret, this might sound like heresy, or at least tough to stomach. But the reality is that thinking of all the negative potential outcomes is enormously useful. The most successful business leaders and entrepreneurs almost all practice it, either consciously or subconsciously. Here's why.
Hope for the best, plan for the worst
As Annie Duke explains in her book How to Decide, your life is largely determined by two things: the quality of your decisions and the luck that you get. At times in your life, you might make great decisions but be plagued with bad luck that leads to bad outcomes. No matter how hard you try, you can’t control your luck. People who think about everything that can go wrong before they embark upon an endeavor are more likely to both make better decisions and adjust to new scenarios when circumstances change.
Harvard Professor Gary Klein explained this marvelously in his short piece encouraging people to perform a project premortem. Simply put, he encouraged everyone to walk through everything that could go wrong and kill a project before it was ever undertaken. Doing so allows people to be both better prepared to react to those occurrences and change plans early on.
You’ll be more emotionally stable
People who think of all the potential outcomes — including the less desirable — before embarking upon a new venture have a far more tempered emotional response should those less desirable outcomes come to pass. They are in most ways more resilient. In turn, it means that they are more likely to make measured and well-informed decisions when bad things happen.
Decisions compound upon one another — akin to compound interest — so it is critical that you don’t let one bad decision or a spate of bad luck drive future bad decisions. Generally, the more emotional and less measured you are, the less well-informed your decisions are, so by preparing for negative outcomes, you’ll avoid having your emotions overwhelm your rational decision-making center.
Negative thinking can make us happier
Any devotee of Stoicism, or more recently any reader of Ryan Holiday, is familiar with two Latin phrases: "premeditato malorum" and "memento mori." They roughly translate to the "premeditation of evils" and "remember you are going to die." Contrary to what this might lead one to believe, the Stoics were not a bunch of dreary, unpleasant grumps. Instead, they used these meditations to instill a degree of positivity in their lives. You are going to die eventually, but you’re not dead yet, so be grateful. Some things you’d rather not happen to you will happen from time to time, so enjoy your blessings while they last.
A more modern saying that is thematically consistent is "this too shall pass." It’s not merely a reminder that the bad times will pass, but so too will the good times. Prepare for bad luck while enjoying the good and know that better times are around the corner when you’re amidst the difficult. This sort of thinking conditions you to maintain perspective and thus be more deeply inured to the volatility that life throws at you.
All of this is not to say that there is no place for positive thinking. Rather, it is to encourage a balanced way of scenario planning. Most of us naturally want to default to a positive mindset, and that is not inherently a bad thing; it is only bad when it keeps us from developing the mental muscle to prepare for the tough times. In business and entrepreneurship, there are no straight lines to success. No one built an empire overnight. No journey is without some hardship. Fortunately, the better prepared you are for that hardship, the more you’ve planned for it, and the less difficult it ultimately is.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor