Opinion: Derren Brown Is Right, Positive Thinking Is Bad For Us… But So Is Negative Thinking

This week, the BBC listed a link to a video in which Derren Brown told us that positive thinking is bad for us. While there was a lot to take in in such a short video, Derren touched on some very interesting details which I think many of us can agree with. Today,  I wanted to share with you why I agree with Derren, why I disagree, and what I think we should do instead.

At the beginning of the video, Derren told us that positive thinking can be harmful for us and that it is dangerous for us to set goals and be optimistic. While I can concur with this to a point (because setting yourself a 12-point task list is destined for failure, trust me) I feel it is important not to ditch concepts like optimism. Without optimism, we cannot believe that we can achieve our goals. Without goal-setting, nothing gets done. Simply put, sorry Derren, but without setting goals many of us would fall into a pit of despair, loathing, depression and generally getting nothing done. He also teaches us about the Stoics, but what does stoicism teach us is not to persevere, regardless?

Derren says we need a system that works for us, but what system is that? Goal setting and delegation works fine for me and probably for most people, too. Failure hurts, but you know what? It’s how we find what works and doesn’t work for us. In a strange way, it’s how we grow.

Derren then went on to tell us about Daniel Kehneman, the psychologist who discovered the Experiencing Self and the Remembering Self. While this is certainly an interesting idea, I have another one to offer – the idea that everything, everything we do, every person we meet, every relationship we have, is an experience. Moreover, our Remembering Self and Experiencing Self are not exclusive of making good decisions and bad ones. For example, if our Experiencing Self told us to put our hand on the stove, our Remembering Self would remind us that last time it was hot, it hurt, and we shouldn’t do that again. The example Derren used, then, made little sense because so many variables can affect the outcome. For example, what is the relative sick with? Who are we going to the theme park with? How close is this relative? How about if the relative fold us to go to the theme park? When the scenario changes, the result changes as well, and the theme park could ultimately be more rewarding if that’s what the sick relative wanted us to do.

After this, Derren mentions the brilliant William Irvine who advocated that much of what we buy is about impressing others, and mostly I’d agree (although the decor in my home is actually what my husband I like, and sod anyone else!). If humanity was largely to fail to exist and only one person survived, what would they need? What would their home or their car look like? Material goods are largely about status, our modern world is about keeping up with the Jones’, and as a converted minimalist, I’d have to agree there.

To conclude, Derren told us that we are in control of two things – our thoughts and our actions, to that, I’m sorry, but I have to call bullshit. Derren, not only have you told us all to stop being positive and stop setting goals, but you’ve told us that we can control our thoughts, too. That’s wrong.

Derren, I’m sorry, but you are wrong.

One of the very first things I learned in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is that we are not our thoughts. Moreover, we also have no control over our thoughts. The more we try to control them (thought suppression), the more they will inevitably control us. The best way that we can handle our not so nice thoughts is through acceptance and commitment therapy (which I kind of touched upon here).

Now, it sounds like I’m just out to get Derren Brown, but actually all of this has a point, You see, while I have picked apart the video and disregarded a number of points that Derren made, actually, to some extend Derren is right – positive thinking really might not be all that good for us.

When we understand the world, we understand that there are three kinds of people – the pessimists, the optimists and the realists. While pessimists believe that everything is wrong and nothing is OK, optimists are the absolute contrary to this category, Optimists believe that all is well and everything will be OK, but sometimes everything is not OK. When we walk with our head in the clouds, we fail to observe very real problems like war, cruelty, disease and famine, the very things that pessimists only see,

Somewhere in between optimism and pessimism lies a very interesting type of person – the realist. Realists don’t dispute that there is cruelty in the world, but they also look at what’s being done to fix it. Some people confuse pessimists and realists, but they aren’t the same. Pessimism and optimism is only focusing on that something is wrong or right, whereas realism is merely accepting that it exists.

So what can we take away from this? I think there are three key things.

First of all, be real. There is a lot of wrong, a lot of war, a lot of hatred and crime and cruelty, but there is also a lot of hope for change. People are talking, people are innovating and advocating and both of these sides exist. It’s okay to accept that the world is a scary place, but lift your head up and look at the people around you and see the goodness ]you didn’t think it existed. It’s out there, the world is not the doom you think it is.

Set goals. You can’t change the world, but you can help shape it. We can each do our own little thing, our only little peace for a greeener,healthier, happier world. Can you write? Write something, You can create? Inspire through art. You’re musical? Promote happiness in what you play. Whatever you can do, do it.

But keep them real, too. It’s fine to dream, but keep it real to yourself. If you don’t have the time to write a novel, don’t start one. Whatever your goals are in life, no matter how small they may seem to someone else, if they challenge you to do or be a little better each day, set them. For someone with chronic depression, sometimes even just getting out of bed is an achievement!

Have hope. I find the idea of giving up on hope damaging to say the least, and even one person I asked suggested that Derren Brown might even be depressed. Without hope, our goals and dreams seem pointless. No matter how scary the world may seem, have hope in our common humanity. There are bad people, but there are also plenty of good ones. Have faith in them, and work with them.

Speak up. Talk. Share. Write. If it’s an opinion, a thought, an idea, no matter how crazy or outlandish – share it. Great things happen when we work together and share our ideas and values.

Minimalise. I advocate this so often on my blog, but William Irvine is right, sweets, you don’t need all that jazzy stuff to be happy. The more you have, the more you need to maintain,the more you need to maintain, the more money you need, the more money you need, the more you need to work.. is that what you want? Simplify, work less, have more free time- free time to enjoy the things that money can’t buy!

Be the change you want to see. If you want the world to be a kinder place, try being kinder to others. If you want to see more greenery, try planting a garden. No matter how small the step is, the first step starts with you.

Positive thinking can delude us, it can make us see the world through rose-tinted glasses and make everything seem better than what it really is. At the same time, only wearing the sh*tty brown lenses can make us feel sad and depressed. Perhaps, now is the time to visit an optician and get ourselves a nice pair of clear lenses, so that we can each see the world for what it represents – an opportunity.


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