by Jennifer Riggins
I wouldn’t say I’m a pessimist nor an optimist. I’m somewhere between a realist and a get-the-f-over-it. Lots of supposedly bad shit has happened to me in life, but I am happy with where my life is now and where it’s headed so, a la Dory from Finding Nemo, I just keep swimming and am grateful to any past that somehow, some way pushed me in this direction.
Being this way has its ups and downs, particularly if you’re my friend. I’m not an empathetic person. Politically I am really progressive and thus empathetic but I’m simply not at all on an interpersonal level. I’m proactive and realistic, probably to a fault, when something bad happens. When someone I know loses her or his job, you’ll get about 15 seconds of obligatory “Oh yeah that sucks, bummer,” and then you’ll get me rushing into what we can do with your LinkedIn profile and who I know if this area that help you get your next job. And while this may be good in the long run, I recognize that when it’s dealing with death and disease, which I have a lot of experience in, this is simply not what people are looking for.
In the workplace (and in school before that), this makes me kind of annoying to others because I just assume people are going to do their own shit to the best of their ability and keep their commitments. (It also means I find people who don’t do this really annoying.) I have really high standards that I hold myself to, but then hold everyone else to, too. I also tend to be the most direct and honest person on a team. (OK, on a team with Dutch people, we often tie.) My feedback tends to be proactive and instructive — I’m big on screenshots and step-by-step guides so I teach you to fish, but then I expect you to feed yourself — but I’m also highly impatient with non-self-starters. After all, we’re grown-ups right? Start acting like one! This is also something that made me an interesting career coach, so long as people didn’t confuse me with life coaches — I can’t help you figure out your life, I can very strategically, very pragmatically help you find your way only after you’ve set a specific goal for yourself.
So, as you can imagine, my EQ (my so-called emotional IQ) isn’t as high as and, while I love yoga, you wouldn’t see me meditating or doing other mindful practices. (I do enjoy adult coloring, but I do it in the “way you’re not supposed to” while watching TV.) But that doesn’t mean I don’t have something to add to the mindful conversation.
My mindful advice? Be negative.
Yes, again, not what people have in mind when they hear the trendy trisyllabic mindfulness, but let me explain…
Negativity can be a healthy route to mindfulness
First a word of warning: What I’m about to tell you won’t make you oodles of friends. And in some workplaces, it could risk your job, particularly if you are a woman, where you should always “smile more” (like a certain vastly more qualified politician who recently lost to a buffoon.) But you don’t want to work for those old-school unhappiness factories anyway. However, positive side effects to negativity can include being yourself, being comfortable with who you are, and attracting the right friends who will love you for you. And negativity can help you find a job that lets you be you, respects your feedback and shares in your desire to be successful together. Also, faking happy til you make it does not make you happy in the long run, so why not let negativity allow you to mindful — or better yet cognizant — of what makes you happy at work and in life?
Reason to Be Negative #1: Being negative is essential to critical thinking.
As Jurgen Appelo put it, “When people tell me I should be less cranky, I tell them this is how I stay happier than most other people. I let the negativity out.”
It’s what keeps you mentally balanced, while suppressing it can literally drive you crazy. According to a psychotherapist writing for Scientific American, increasingly we are apologetic or ashamed for expressing negative thoughts. Or, like I experienced at a company I worked for — the true inspiration for me to work for myself and to join Happy Melly — we are supposed to feel ashamed to the point that we silence and ignore negative thoughts. The author Tori Rodriguez blames our culture’s “overriding bias toward positive thinking.” But it’s our complexity of emotions that contributes to our well-being.
In fact, the article talks about how one of the main reasons we are emotional beings is because it helps us reason and evaluate our experiences — something completely essential to find success at work. Called the eudaemonic approach to well-being, this is all about finding meaning and purpose, personal growth and an understanding of ourselves. You can’t reach this level of understanding and work toward improvement without the full spectrum of emotions.
Rodriguez’s final word of advice here? “Instead of backing away from negative emotions, accept them. Acknowledge how you are feeling without rushing to change your emotional state.”
Reason to Be Negative #2: Pessimists live longer.
Yes, some would say that’s just them being spiteful. Really that might be true. We’ve all had that elderly relative who worshipped negative thoughts and talk about their fear for the future and fear of death are statistically more likely to live longer. Now, it may be just that being pessimistic about the future means you take less risks and are more careful in your daily life — you won’t be so over-the-moon for someone that you risk texting while driving just to tell them how over-the-moon you are.
Of course, this test was based on people’s predictions for the future versus what came to fruition, and if you don’t have high hopes, it’s easier to meet them. What they did find over the ten-year study was: “These findings shed new light on how our perspectives can either help or hinder us in taking actions that can help improve our chances of a long healthy life.” (Of course, reading the Daily Mail where this study was published is what is truly hazardous to your well-being.)
Reason to Be Negative #3: It keeps you grateful.
By focusing on the negative — sometimes — you are pleasantly surprised and more grateful when things go well. Not only does this make you value things more than the optimist, but it helps you avoid devastating failure.
In Rethinking Positive Thinking, Gabriele Oettingen writes that “a cheery disposition and good attitude can zap the motivation needed to mobilize and strategize.” Negativity enables us to better recognize potential points of failure in order to avoid them. Then we are more strategic in how we overcome these obstacles. And we are certainly more aware of those who help us do so. It allows us to sort out our true friends and allies and nurture those relationships, without feeling the social obligation to nurture others.
Reason to Be Negative #4: It makes you better at your job.
Maybe this is from an American lens, but we’re all supposed to be super obsessed with our jobs and loyal to our companies. According to this The Telegraph piece, you don’t want to be overwhelmed by cynicism and hatred for your job, but rather “you want to seem like a committed team player, but remain sufficiently skeptical to look after your own interests.” People who are obsessed with positive thinking tend to use mindful visualization to see their goals already accomplished but don’t focus on the how to do just that.
Yes optimists live in the moment, “but you won’t get the energy and the impetus you need to attain the goals,” Oettingen wrote. When you are too busy daydreaming, you don’t put as much energy into working toward that dream.
“Graduates who fantasize about how much money they’ll earn send out fewer job applications and earn less – and people who fantasize about having lost weight will actually lose less weight,” she pointed out.
Maybe this is more of a realist than a pessimist, but by accepting negativity too, you will be more likely to find proactive ways to overcome that negativity and any other boundaries in your way.
Not to sound too ‘mindful’ but it’s all about balance
One last note, nobody wants a Negative Nancy or Debbie Downer (again, why are they always female references?!) And if you are negative too much, it’ll bring you and your work ethic down in the long term. I think much longer is irresponsible and involves never being aware of what’s happening in the world. I think being, arguably, the only creatures with critical thinking skills, it’s our responsibility to think and to be critical, and to constantly learn. But it’s about finding a balance, particularly when things and the world can get you down.
In the end, you are in charge of your own life. You can actively choose the attitude you take with it. I’m just saying you have permission to be happy, sad, glad and/or mad, whenever you want. Just don’t let it get in the way of you making the life you want and getting shit done.
What about you? How have you used negativity and the art of criticism to keep sane or — dare I say — mindful? Tell us about it in the comments below!