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Why Negative Thinking Makes the World a Better Place

Some years ago, I went on a "positivity" course. My sister had died, my father had died, and I'd had cancer, and a broken heart, and I wasn't, quite frankly, feeling that cheerful.
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Some years ago, I went on a "positivity" course. My sister had died, my father had died, and I'd had cancer, and a broken heart, and I wasn't, quite frankly, feeling that cheerful. Perhaps, I thought, I could brainwash myself into feeling a bit better.

And so in a central London hotel, with cream walls and a blue carpet, and tables with those pump-top coffee flasks of sour filter coffee, and sad little plates of biscuits, I tried. Paul McKenna did his best. And it's worked for him! It's clearly worked for him. The man who has learnt to "turbo-charge" his brain with "the Power of a Positive Perspective" has, apparently, thought himself into being very successful (or at least very famous) and very, very rich. Assuring us that we could "Master Our Emotions and Run Our Own Brains" and "Design Our Destiny" and unlock "The Secrets to Inner Happiness and Contentment," he had us making pictures in our mind, and taking part in orchestrated laughter, as if laughter can blow the problems of the world away.

Sometimes, it can. Real, spontaneous, cheekbone-aching laughter can blow the problems of the world away, at least for a moment. But forced laughter can't and pictures can't. Or at least, they can't for me. I sat through the weekend, and drank the coffee, and ate the biscuits, and even listened to the CDs, but it didn't make any difference. I still felt sad.

It was, actually, a relief to stop trying. Just as it was a relief, when I told friends the results of the biopsy, and they looked me in the eye and told me it was awful. What wasn't a relief was the handful of people who said, "Don't worry, you'll be fine!" Oh, really? So you're psychic? Or you've secretly retrained as an oncologist? Or are you just trying to make yourself feel better?

There's a lot to be said for negative thinking. Not only because it spares people the tooth-grinding irritation of Pollyannaish predictions of eternal sunshine based on precisely nothing (and usually coupled with the aggressive assertion that they're "good") whose chief aim is to imply that you're rivals in a competition that they're winning, but simply because it makes the world a better place. It makes the world a safer place and a nicer one.

And the experts, apparently, agree. "Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, co-operation and reliance on mental shortcuts," says a professor of psychology in this month's Australian Science Journal, "negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world." People "in negative mood," he concludes, can cope with more demanding situations than their sunny neighbours and are "less prone to judgmental errors, more resistant to eyewitness distortions and better at producing high-quality, effective persuasive messages."

Well, I could have told him that! Who started the Iraq war? A man who told Vanity Fair, after his first "election" to office, that he was "not really the type to go through deep wrestling with [his] soul," and who, in his new incarnation as a motivational speaker, told an audience at Fort Worth last week about the rug he picked out for the Oval Office to reflect his "optimism." And a man who, according to his Rottweiler-in-chief, Alastair Campbell, "had this extraordinary ability whatever was going on around him to put a smile on his face and go into his room and make people feel better about being there." But not, perhaps, the soldiers whose limbs have been blown off in the conflict, or the wives of the soldiers who've been killed, or the people in the country he set out to save, who have watched more than 100,000 of their compatriots die.

And who wrecked the global economy? Men and women (but mostly men) who sold mortgages to people with no credit rating, or savings, or sometimes even income (beyond their welfare check) and then, when it all went a bit pear-shaped, wrapped up the debt in a nice velvet ribbon and sold it on. And thought it would all be fine. It would all be fine because they said it would, and because they said it loudly, everyone believed them.

No wonder "Dr. Doom" is doing rather well, aka Nouriel Roubini, the New York University economist who predicted the global financial meltdown and whose economic forecasting is proving the hottest new thing in town. Bad news is the new good news as the boys who suffered a (mercifully only momentary) blip in their bonuses force themselves to listen to the boring bust stuff so they can quickly boomerang back to boom.

Some of these people, frankly, deserve to be disemboweled. Most people who are, however, don't. Of 71 patients who were, according to a recent study, because they had cancer of the colon, 41 were told that they could have surgery to reconnect their bowels while the others were told that they couldn't. The ones without hope were, apparently, much happier. They just got on with their lives. Perhaps they knew, as the Bible says, that "hope deferred makes the heart grow sick," and perhaps they knew that Dante's exhortation to the entrants of hell, to abandon all hope, was actually the key to a kind of heaven.

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