Across both business and family, there is a cult of positivity. But experts think that naive optimism leaves people unprepared.

Were Abraham Lincoln, the legendary US president, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, Russia’s greatest novelist, happy people? People who knew them testified that they were not - at least most of the time. 

But Lincoln for the Americans and Dostoevsky for the Russians continue to be role models.

Even beyond the borders of the US and Russia, both men have been universally acclaimed as successful leaders in their own fields. So why do so many people embrace such unhappy people?

It seems that both men were able to understand and deal with the darkest aspects of human life at the expense of their happiness, showing people that life could be good as long as you are ready to accept brutal facts.

Lincoln understood that in the middle of the 19th century the US could not go on with slavery despite the fact that many of his colleagues did not understand, or even if they understood, were reluctant to face that reality. 

"No element of Mr. Lincoln's character was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy," said Henry Whitney, one of his friends. 

That side of Lincoln was so obvious in the immediate aftermath of his presidential nomination by the Republican Party in 1860. "I'm not very well," he reportedly said, marking probably what everyone thinks is a happy moment. 

On the other hand, Dostoevsky was not a writer, who pretended everything is rosy and bad things happen because of misfortune. 

In his book, Crime and Punishment, the Russian writer made it clear to everyone that even murderers like Raskolnikov might have a human heart as in The Brothers Karamazov, he was able to voice different sides of the argument of what is truth in life regarding the existence of God through his characters in an equal sense. 

One of the pictures of Fyodor Dostoevsky painted on the wall not far from his apartment-museum in central St. Petersburg, Russia.
One of the pictures of Fyodor Dostoevsky painted on the wall not far from his apartment-museum in central St. Petersburg, Russia. (Dmitri Lovetsky / AP Archive)

“And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive--in other words, only what is conducive to welfare--is for the advantage of man?” the novelist  asked in one of his writings, Notes from Underground, challenging conventional wisdom’s basic premises.  

The writer believed that accepting human suffering lays the right conditions for people to love and respect others and also understand their own situations better and truer. 

That brutal honesty helped make Lincoln and Dostoevsky into heroes for successive generations, who also needed to deal with ups and downs of their lives through disasters, wars, economic crises and psychological depressions. 

The premeditation of evils 

In the social media age, that approach might not be so popular, but British writer Oliver Burkeman’s book, "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking", almost echoes Dostoevsky’s argument. 

Burkeman’s book argues that “the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst,” referring to ancient Stoic philosophers like Seneca and modern psychotherapists like Albert Ellis. 

“Just thinking in sober detail about worst-case scenarios—a technique the Stoics called "the premeditation of evils"—can help to sap the future of its anxiety-producing power,” Burkeman wrote. Modern psychologists coin the Stoic term “the premeditation of evils” as “defensive pessimism”.  

Burkeman draws attention to the dangers of positive thinking: “Positive thinking, by contrast, is the effort to convince yourself that things will turn out fine, which can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn't.” 

As a result, he also challenges the modern business world’s almost sacred principle of setting goals, which are widely known as SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely), reinforced by the philosophy of positive thinking. 

The defenders of negative thinking, Burkeman says, strongly believe that setting goals in the way of an uncertain future to insure so-called attainable results could lead to producing artificial outputs in a declining quality. 

Already some experiments conducted by management scholars showed that people who are tasked to fulfill certain goals are seen to be much less honest than people who are just told to do their best in terms of their report of given tasks, according to Burkeman. 

In history, it is not perfect bureaucrats with specific targets, but rather people who are the most adaptable to changing environments that survive. That approach is also interestingly more realistic than goal-settings, Burkeman notes. 

In the business world, most successful businessmen usually make no formidable plans to achieve their own standings, according to Saras Sarasvathy, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia. 

Also pursuing a specific target harshly might cost its pursuer on other fronts, particularly in his or her private life, experts warn. 

You can be a good businessman while your daughter might resent you for spending more time with work than with her. But if you think caring about your daughter is as essential as your work, then you might find a better balance in your life. 

One more note on the power of negative thinking: despite being a little gloomy about life, true pessimists like Lincoln and Dostoevsky aim to achieve positive results in their endeavors partly due to the fact that the human brain’s neurological structure appears to be built for optimism.

Source: TRT World