I don't remember when I began saying it, though as a worldview it seems to have always been with me. Whenever things are bad—annoying, unpleasant, dire, morbid, arduous, depressing—and someone offhandedly says, "It could be worse," I always reply, "And it probably will be."
I certainly never thought of it as a morale booster—more of a sardonic rejoinder to a mindless remark, a platitude in response to a platitude. It turns out, though, that this approach might be a more helpful response to the darker corners of human existence than I thought.
In his new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking (Faber & Faber; $25)—which is to say, intelligent people—Oliver Burkeman recalls finding himself chatting with pre-eminent behavioral psychologist Albert Ellis, then in his 90s. One of the main methods Ellis advocates for modulating one's view of life is realizing "the difference between a terrible outcome and a merely undesirable one."
Many of the events that cause us anxiety and unhappiness are in fact not nearly as bad as the level of emotional fervor we cover ourselves in while fearing them. Taking this thinking to its extreme, to prove the point, Ellis pointed out, "If you are slowly tortured to death, you could always be tortured to death slower." In other words, it could be worse. (And it probably will. Ellis died shortly after Burkeman met with him.)
Burkeman begins his study of the power of negative thinking with a foil. He finds himself in a basketball stadium outside San Antonio at a mass meeting of Get Motivated!, an organization run by Dr. Robert H. Schuller, the happy huckster responsible for Orange County's Crystal Cathedral and the nationally televised Hour of Power. Get Motivated! is a secular organization devoted to pushing the positive, and its meetings often boast noteworthy keynote speakers, like George W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani, Colin Powell and Mikhail Gorbachev.
The group's approach consists mostly of telling yourself good things—whether true or not—and allowing the uplifting power of positivity to do its work. "The doctrine of positive thinking at its most distilled isn't exactly complex," Burkeman writes. "Decide to think happy and successful thoughts—banish the specters of sadness and failure—and happiness and success follow." This is the method of the grand tradition of sanguine self-delusion stretching from Tony Robbins back to Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale (a copy of whose pamphlet "How to Handle Tough Times" has a place of honor next to the bar in my apartment).
Burkeman rightly sees this as a mostly moronic approach, and quickly pinpoints its inefficacy. If intelligence is the greatest barrier to happiness, the gullible and the simple too have the capacity for misery: "The person most likely to purchase any given self-help book is someone who, within the previous eighteen months, purchased a self-help book"—a fact that aptly demonstrates that the self-help industry is mostly just helping itself.
Moreover, the happiness industry is based on a tautology that prevents any real inquiry and inures it to the questioning bound to arise in the mind of any mildly reasonable individual. "If you voiced [an] objection to Dr. Schuller, he would probably dismiss it as 'negative thinking,'" Burkeman writes. "To criticize 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." That is, I'm OK, you're OK. Now shut up and get happy.