Imagine that you are standing on one side of a river, and you want to reach a village on the other side. You have a group of cheerleaders behind you, egging you on. So you set off, full of determination.
Most self-help books would suggest that you can fight life’s currents with determination and positive thinking. But taking inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman philosophers like the Stoics and 19th Century German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer, as well as modern scientific research, Brown believes that this is simply a recipe for disappointment and frustration. “We’re better off making our peace with the fact that that is the dynamic of life – rather than creating a false idea that we can somehow control everything to bring it in line with what our goals are,” he says.
You might tell yourself that you’re an awkward misfit, for instance – and so you only remember the times when you acted embarrassingly. Or you might only ever pick bad relationships, because your overarching story is that you are “unlucky in love”.
We often adopt these stories from a young age, he says. “A lot of the narratives we inherit come from when we’re really small, from our parents, who have their own set of frustrations – their own unlived lives,” he says. “And for better or worse, we take all that on board and we go out in the world thinking that maybe we have to be successful to be loved, or that we have to always put other people’s needs first, or that we have some big secret that we couldn’t possibly tell people.” Recognising the sources of these narratives can go some way to reducing our anxiety and unhappiness, Brown says.
Even if we do choose the right goals, the positive-thinking movement can place too much responsibility on the individual; if we haven’t succeeded, it’s our own fault for not having wanted it enough. Worse still, the kind of inflated personal belief that is promoted by certain gurus may cause us to ignore the criticisms of those around us, even when they might be offering a more realistic view of our chances.