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It is just after eight o’clock on a December morning, in a darkened basketball stadium on the outskirts of San Antonio in Texas, and – according to the orange man – I am about to learn ‘the one thing that will change your life forever’. I’m sceptical, but not as much as I might normally be, because I am only one of more than fifteen thousand people at Get Motivated!
The Antidote PDF Book by Oliver Burkeman
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America’s ‘most popular business motivational seminar’, and the enthusiasm of my fellow audience members is starting to become infectious. ‘So you wanna know?’, asks the octogenarian, who is Dr Robert H. Schuller, veteran self-help guru, author of more than thirty-five books on the power of positive thinking, and, in his other job.
The founding pastor of the largest church in the United States constructed entirely out of glass. The crowd roars its assent. Easily embarrassed British people like me do not, generally speaking, roar our assent at motivational seminars in Texan basketball stadiums, but the atmosphere partially overpowers my reticence.
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I roar quietly. ‘Here it is, then,’ Dr Schuller declares, stiffly pacing the stage, which is decorated with two enormous banners reading ‘MOTIVATE!’ and ‘SUCCEED!’, seventeen American flags, and a large number of potted plants. ‘Here’s the thing that will change your life forever.’
Then he barks a single syllable – ‘Cut!’ – and leaves a dramatic pause before completing his sentence: ‘… the word “impossible” out of your life! Cut it out! Cut it out forever!’ The audience combusts. I can’t help feeling underwhelmed, but then I probably shouldn’t have expected anything different from Get Motivated!
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The logic of Schuller’s philosophy, which is the doctrine of positive thinking at its most distilled, isn’t exactly complex: decide to think happy and successful thoughts – banish the spectres of sadness and failure – and happiness and success will follow. It could be argued that not every speaker listed in the glossy brochure for today’s seminar provides uncontroversial evidence in support of this outlook.
The keynote speech is to be delivered, in a few hours’ time, by George W. Bush, a president far from universally viewed as successful. But if you voiced this objection to Dr Schuller, he would probably dismiss it as ‘negativity thinking’. To criticise the power of positivity is to demonstrate that you haven’t really grasped it at all.
If you had, you would stop grumbling about such things, and indeed about anything else. The organisers of Get Motivated! describe it as a motivational seminar, but that phrase – with its suggestion of minor-league life coaches giving speeches in dingy hotel ballrooms – hardly captures the scale and grandiosity of the thing. The Antidote PDF Book
Staged roughly once a month, in cities across north America, it sits at the summit of the global industry of positive thinking, and boasts an impressive roster of celebrity speakers: Mikhail Gorbachev and Rudy Giuliani are among the regulars, as are General Colin Powell and, somewhat incongruously, William Shatner.
Should it ever occur to you that a formerly prominent figure in world politics (or William Shatner) has been keeping an inexplicably low profile in recent months, there’s a good chance you’ll find him or her at Get Motivated!, preaching the gospel of optimism. As befits such celebrity, there’s nothing dingy about the staging, either, which features banks of swooping spotlights.
Sound systems pumping out rock anthems, and expensive pyrotechnics; each speaker is welcomed to the stage amid showers of sparks and puffs of smoke. These special effects help propel the audience to ever higher altitudes of excitement, though it also doesn’t hurt that for many of them, a trip to Get Motivated! The Antidote PDF Book
means an extra day off work: many employers classify it as job training. Even the United States military, where ‘training’ usually means something more rigorous, endorses this view; in San Antonio, scores of the stadium’s seats are occupied by uniformed soldiers from the local Army base.
Experimental subjects who were encouraged to think about how they were going to have a particularly highachieving week at work, for example, ended up achieving less than those who were invited to reflect on the coming week, but given no further guidelines on how to do so. In one ingenious experiment, Oettingen had some of the participants rendered mildly dehydrated. The Antidote PDF Book
They were then taken through an exercise that involved visualising drinking a refreshing, icy glass of water, while others took part in a different exercise. The dehydrated water-visualisers – contrary to the self-help doctrine of motivation through visualisation – experienced a significant reduction in their energy levels, as measured by blood pressure.
Far from becoming more motivated to hydrate themselves, their bodies relaxed, as if their thirst were already quenched. In experiment after experiment, people responded to positive visualisation by relaxing. They seemed, subconsciously, to have confused visualising success with having already achieved it. It doesn’t necessarily follow, of course.
That it would be a better idea to switch to negative visualisation instead, and to start focusing on all the ways in which things could go wrong. Yet that is precisely one of the conclusions that emerges from Stoicism, a school of philosophy that originated in Athens, a few years after the death of Aristotle, and that came to dominate Western thinking about happiness for nearly five centuries. The Antidote PDF Book
The first Stoic, so far as we know, was Zeno of Citium, born in what is now Larnaca, on the southern shores of Cyprus, sometime around 334 BC. ‘He had his head naturally bent on one side,’ writes the third-century Greek historian Diogenes Laertius, in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, which is the primary source of evidence for the early Stoics.
‘He was thin, very tall, of a dark complexion, [with] flabby, weak legs … and he was very fond, as it is said, of figs, both fresh and dried in the sun.’ According to legend, Zeno was a merchant who came to Athens aged around thirty, possibly after the traumatising experience of being shipwrecked.
There, he began to study under the Cynic philosopher Crates; Laertius relates one of Zeno’s early experiences at the hands of Crates, which may help explain Stoicism’s focus on irrational beliefs as the source of emotional distress. But he failed to die, and so asked to be fed poison; this, too, failed to kill him. It was only when he took a suffocatingly steamy bath that he finally expired. The Antidote PDF Book Download
Perhaps it is unsurprising that a philosophy emerging from such circumstances as Epictetus’s – or in a context where a fate such as Seneca’s awaited even those of noble birth, if their luck ran out – would not incline towards positive thinking. Where was the merit in trying to convince yourself that things would turn out for the best, when there was so much evidence that they might not?
Yet it is a curious truth that the Stoics’ approach to happiness through negativity begins with exactly the kind of insight that Norman Vincent Peale might endorse: that when it comes to feeling upbeat or despondent, it’s our beliefs that really matter. Most of us, the Stoics point out, go through life under the delusion that it is certain people, situations, or events that make us sad, anxious, or angry.
When you’re irritated by a colleague at the next desk who won’t stop talking, you naturally assume that the colleague is the source of the irritation; when you hear that a beloved relative is ill and feel pained for them, it makes sense to think of the illness as the source of the pain. Look closely at your experience, though, say the Stoics. The Antidote PDF Book Download
And you will eventually be forced to conclude that neither of these external events is ‘negative’ in itself. Indeed, nothing outside your own mind can properly be described as negative or positive at all. What actually causes suffering are the beliefs you hold about those things. The colleague is not irritating per se, but because of your belief that getting your work finished without interruption is an important goal.
Even a relative’s illness is only bad in view of your belief that it’s a good thing for your relatives not to be ill. (Millions of people, after all, get ill every day; we have no beliefs whatsoever about most of them, and consequently don’t feel distressed.) ‘Things do not touch the soul,’ is how Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher–emperor, expresses the notion.
Adding: ‘Our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within.’ We think of distress as a onestep procedure: something in the outside world causes distress in your interior world. In fact, it’s a two-step procedure: between the outside event and the inside emotion is a belief. If you didn’t judge a relative’s illness to be bad, would you be distressed by it? The Antidote PDF Book Download
Aids, he said. That would be pretty bad. But absolutely horrific, or 100 per cent terrible? Obviously not: one could imagine worse scenarios. One always can. And one could imagine still finding sources of happiness in life, despite having contracted Aids. The distinction between judging something to be ‘very bad’ and judging it to be ‘absolutely horrific’ makes all the difference in the world.
It is only to the absolutely horrific that we respond with blind terror; all other fears are finite, and thus susceptible to being coped with. Grasping this at last, Ellis’s client was able to stop fearing an inconceivably terrible calamity, and instead begin taking normal precautions to avoid a highly undesirable, though also highly unlikely, worst-case scenario.
Moreover, she had internalised the Stoic understanding that it was not within her control to eliminate all possibility of the fate that she feared. ‘If you accept that the universe is uncontrollable,’ Ellis told me, ‘you’re going to be a lot less anxious.’ Such Stoic insights served Ellis especially well in the months after I met him. The Antidote PDF Book Download
His final days were afflicted not only by intestinal problems and pneumonia, but by a dispute with the other directors of the Institute. They fired him from the board, cancelled his Friday night workshops, and stopped paying for his accommodation, forcing him to move out. He sued, a judge ruled in his favour, and by the time of his death he was back in his apartment.
True to his principles, he insisted that the contretemps had never made him upset. It was all highly undesirable, of course, but not horrific, and there was no point insisting that the entire universe fall in line with his wishes. The other members of the board, he told one reporter, were ‘fuckedup, fallible human beings – just like everyone else’.
‘Chancery Lane.’ I speak the words out loud, but in such a nervous croak that I’m not sure anybody hears them. Glancing up and down the carriage, I can’t see any evidence of anyone having noticed. Then the middle-aged man sitting opposite me glances up from his newspaper, with an expression I can only describe as one of mild interest. The Antidote PDF Book Free
I meet his eye for a moment, then look away. Nothing else happens. The train stops. Some people get off. Suddenly, it occurs to me that I have subconsciously been expecting something calamitous to happen – an explosion of ridicule, at least. Now that it hasn’t, I feel disoriented. As we approach Holborn, I say ‘Holborn’ – louder this time, and less tremulously.
The same man looks up. A baby two seats away stares at me. Taking matters into my own hands, I called a senior Yale University archivist, Beverly Waters. She seemed friendly and eager to help, but when I mentioned the goals study, a note of frustration entered her voice. ‘I did a systematic check, years ago, when this first arose, and there was nothing,’ she said.
‘Then the secretary of the graduating class of 1953 did another systematic check, and nobody he spoke to had ever been asked to fill out such a questionnaire, or anything like that.’ She added that it was highly unlikely that it had happened in some other year, and been wrongly described as taking place in 1953.The Antidote PDF Book Free
Because the Association of Yale Alumni would have been involved – and nobody there could trace anyone who remembered it. Waters sighed. ‘It’s just too good not to be true, I guess,’ she said. Of course, the non-existence of one study about the benefits of setting goals does not disprove the suggestion that setting goals has benefits.
There is plenty of very real research testifying to the fact that the practice can be useful. What the story indicates, instead, is how far the fascination with goals has gone. You might never have written down any ‘life goals’ yourself, and you might well disagree with the imaginary Yale study’s implication that material wealth is the ticket to happiness.
But the basic urge beneath all this is nearly universal. At some point in your life, and perhaps at many points, it’s likely you have decided upon some goal – to find a spouse, to get a specific kind of job, to live in a particular town – and then devised a plan to attain it. Interpreted sufficiently broadly, setting goals and carrying out plans to achieve them is how many of us spend most of our waking hours. The Antidote PDF Book Free
Whether or not we use the word ‘goals’, we’re forever making plans based upon desired outcomes. ‘Consider any individual at any period of his life,’ wrote the great French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, ‘and you will always find him preoccupied with fresh plans to increase his comfort.’
Tocqueville’s use of the word ‘comfort’ should not distract us here; we are, of course, capable of setting far grander and more selfless goals than that. But the deeper truth remains: many of us are perpetually preoccupied with plans.