KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Too much sunshine?

with 6 comments


As a follow up to a recent presentation given by a colleague and myself on making our office more innovative, I started sending a weekly e-mail around the office featuring an inspirational TED talk. From our discussion it was clear that one of the important aspects of making ourselves more creative and innovative lies in our attitude to our work, and on our access to inspiration.

TED talks can be a great source of inspiration, because of the ideas they contain, but also because of their sense of optimism about how we can tackle some of society’s great challenges, or even some of the great challenges in our own personal lives.

Optimism and enthusiasm can carry us a long way in our lives, and enable us to keep going when things get tough. There’s lots written about this, and even for the most ardent rationalist, it’s not a big logical leap to see how your attitude can affect your performance, or even what you choose to do in the first place.

But I sometimes wonder if you can have too much of a good thing.

As an example  – taken alone a good TED talk can be really uplifting – but if you add them all together you might get something like this (yes, this is a real video made by TED about the 2012 conference, and as far as I can tell, not intended to be satire.) Suddenly this all looks rather superficial and saccharine and not deep and inspirational at all.

So while an optimistic and positive outlook is a good thing – you can also have too much of it. Rather like a rich chocolate cake where one piece is delicious, maybe even two, but any more will leave you feeling a little sick.

Here are a few reasons why too much feel good is not that good at all.

1. If you are not dissatisfied with the way things are currently and are willing to make the best of it, to muddle along, to accept your friends, or you boss or your colleagues the way they are – then how can you summon the energy to do what is needed to make things better. Sometimes you need a bit of frustration, disappointment, or even occasionally a bit of righteous anger to put the fire in your belly to change things.

2. It’s good to believe in yourself, and that you can achieve the impossible, to change the world. But sometimes you need to know when something is really impossible, or when you should step back, accept that what you are doing isn’t going to work any time soon, and go do something else which is more likely to have an impact, or which will help you preserve your mental health. Otherwise you might stick with doing the wrong thing for too long. Believing in your unbounded capabilities despite all evidence to the contrary can also make you narcissistic, and just plain insufferable.

3. It’s good to try to trust and believe in others, indeed most societal advances depend on collaboration to some extent, the downside of always and unquestioningly seeing the good in others will quickly lead you to be taken advantage of. Seek to listen better and to understand and empathize by all means – but don’t let understanding fool you that everyone else and what they do is good for you.

3. Feeling happy, as with any other pleasurable experience wears off after time if you get too much of it, and you will need to work harder and harder just to keep where you are. Sometimes, to better appreciate the good, you need to experience the bad. You need to feel sad or disappointed sometimes, if only so that when something good comes along you can really appreciate it for what it is, rather experience life as an undifferentiated emotional haze. Many great inventions and particularly works of art have been born out of sadness. So enjoy your melancholy and take advantage of it.

4. Pursuing happiness itself as a goal probably won’t work as you will be thinking so much about whether you are happy or not, that you won’t have time to experience it when it comes along. Batter to do something, or put yourself in a situation where you can feel positive than to try to focus on being positive when you are not really feeling it.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe we can make the world a better place, and that I have the potential to play some small part in making this happen – and I believe you can too.  I also believe we need to dream a little and push ourselves to achieve more than we believe we can. I also want to believe (despite all evidence to the contrary) in the inherent goodness of humankind. And most of all I believe that believing these things is good for me.

But if I have to listen to another self-help lecture telling me to think positive, or another round self-congratulatory and unyieldingly positive Facebook update or tweet, I think I’m going to be sick.

On the other hand if you can’t get enough of it here’s the song my kids were rehearsing non-stop for weeks for our school play – “Think Positive” from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. If Charlie Bucket can do it, why can’t you! (Just keep playing it over and over and over)

Bonus: Here’s a great article from the interesting human rationality blog “less wrong” on the science of happiness and how to be happy.


Written by Ian Thorpe

March 7, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Posted in rants

6 Responses

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  1. I think it’s important to distinguish between mood and emotion.

    It is positively unhealthy to have only positive emotions. Failed to deliver that tender that your team worked 30 days straight on? You should feel bad. Fell asleep on the couch and failed to make it to your partner’s birthday dinner? You should feel bad. Staged a hissy fit during your daughter’s graduation? You should feel bad.

    Mood, on the other hand, is your base level of functioning, when you’re not reacting to anything. Some people have a pessimistic, defensive, and critical (to anything) base mood. This is toxic. I’ve seen it get people fired. Everybody else has to suffer when a person carries a negative mood.

    Having a positive, open mood is important.

    The third issue is how you deal with bad events. Seligman, the guru of optimism, suggests that what’s important is to bounce back quickly from bad events; not to beat yourself up about them (feeling bad is different from ruminating, or catastrophising, both of which are depressive habits); and not to allow a bad event in one domain (e.g. work) to infect every other domain (e.g. home). The key words here are resilience and containment.


    • Feeling good and bad is… good. It’s good to have a normal emotional range, and normal emotional responses.

    • You want to cultivate a mood (a base emotional level) which is open, appreciative and optimistic. It will get you places, and help the people around you.

    • Life doesn’t always deliver sunshine and baby-faces (per your graphic), but it’s important to be able to take the hit, feel it, and come back to your base level… for the sake of others, if not yourself. Letting negativity persist or infect all areas of your life is a recipe for depression, and getting the sack.

    Optimism is empirically associated with success. Studies seem to show that successful people are even somewhat irrationally optimistic (they expect more than they are realistically likely to receive/achieve.) You want your organisation to cultivate an optimistic mood, but not attempt to be stuck in optimistic emotions.

    Finally: too much of the happiness talk seems to focus on the self. In fact, the happiest, most positive people are focused on others… as per this Zen story:

    A pupil approached his teacher and said: “Teacher, I’m discouraged. What should I do?” The teacher replied: “Go encourage someone.”

    David W

    March 7, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    • @david many thanks for the comment – I think you hit on some really important points i) the difference between general disposition and your emotional reaction to events ii) the importance of resilience (and I suspect allowing vent to your negative emotions from time to time can actually help you with that) iii) it’s not all about yourself. I’m wondering how these lessons can also apply to our organizations as well as to us as individuals.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 7, 2012 at 4:53 pm

  2. […] See the original post: Too much sunshine? […]

    • As I understand it, venting makes things worth. This idea is a holdover from Freud, who thought the mind was like a steam engine. What makes things better is: (a) back off, (b) go do something that makes you feel good (drinking and other forms of self-medication not included), and (c) when you feel calm again: re-engage.

      I always found the theory espoused by Bowen family therapy as useful in understanding the emotional life of organisations:

      Critical is the role of the leader in managing his or her own anxiety.

      The enemy of happiness is not sadness, but anxiety, which is simply entrenched, irresolvable stress… often due to toxic bosses, or double-bind job descriptions. Anxiety tends to flow through organisations. If your boss is anxious, you will be anxious. If your coworkers are anxious, it will flow to you. So one of the key roles of the leader of organisations is to dampen anxiety by being exemplary in dealing with his or her own anxiety. Think of Nelson on his ship.

      I’m convinced that a good organisation will help people grow up, and an organisation can only be emotionally mature in so far as its being crewed by grown ups.

      David W

      March 7, 2012 at 7:46 pm

  3. Some great ideas here.

    You might want to rethink TED and take in some other sources of inspiration. Not everything positive is inspiring, while negative stories can be very motivating.

    I have also grown weary of TED and am now very selective in the videos I see through to the end. Sure, they are highly polished and entertaining, but some exhibit shallow thinking and even barmy ideas. The apparent focus on outgoing personalities and stage presence is also a turn-off for me. I prefer things a little more rough and real.

    For disparate views on optimism vs realism, these two books might be of interest:

    Thali Sharot (UK) – The optimism bias: a tour of the irationally positive brain.

    Barbara Ehrenreich (USA) – Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

    Scott McQuade

    March 7, 2012 at 7:38 pm

  4. I just came across this quote, from Samuel Beckett, which you might enjoy:

    “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”


    David W

    March 7, 2012 at 7:49 pm

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