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The Power of Pessimism and Negative Thinking (Part Three)

Contra the Cult of Positive Thinking Pabulum, Faith, Hope and Optimism

Part Three (Links to Part 1 and 2 following the Preface below)

By JR, April 2023


More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly – Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates, 1979*

*The date eerily coincides with the dawn of corporate fascism under the guise of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism. Consequently Allen’s pessimism was clearly warranted as the situation of gangster capitalism today is increasingly corrupt, criminal and gruesome for 99% of the now 8 billion homo saps on a polluted overheated dying planet. Ecosystems are circling the drain as waterways, oceans and soils are contaminated and all species except the semi-intelligent ape called the human is in extinction mode. We’re mired in a new global Robber Baron era of financial chicanery and parasitism, perhaps even more grotesque than the US during the latter half of the 19th century described by Mark Twain as “The Gilded Age”.


Getting comfortable with uncertainty, forgetting about the egoism of self-esteem (the illusion of superiority) and grandiose goals*, understanding logic, fallacies of reasoning and cognitive biases, embracing negative thinking and a good dose of pessimism will prevent the sorrows of disappointment on the infamous hedonistic consumer treadmill. So please so remove those rose tinted spectacles and visit here, here and here for inspiration. Face reality; positive thinking and continuous optimism about the future only create a greater shock to your psyche when things go awry. Most businesses fail and 99% of all species that we know have existed on planet earth have gone extinct. As someone by the name of Murphy claimed, if things can go wrong, they will; and recall Shakespeare informed us that “to err is human” and people, particularly those in positions of power, often make incredibly bad decisions and screw up with regularity. For a healthier sane outlook remember the adage of Murphy’s Law, study some stoical philosophy with Zeno, Epicurus, Seneca, Lucretius and Diogenes, Buddhist, Zen and Taoist philosopher Alan Watts and finally check out Irvin Yalom and the renegade psychotherapist Albert Ellis who referred to conventional psychology as “horseshit”.

*The Chinese sage Lao Tzu advises, “A good traveller has no fixed plans and should not be intent on arriving at a destination”.

Previous Rants on Pessimism and Negative Thinking:

1.     https://www.skeptic.ca/The%20Power%20of%20Pessimism%20and%20Negative%20Thinking.htm

2.     https://www.skeptic.ca/On%20the%20Perils%20of%20Faith,%20Hope,%20Optimism%20and%20Positive%20Thinking.htm



I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the “backwards law.” When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float... Insecurity is the result of trying to be secure...contrary wise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves – Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity

In the long run we are all dead – John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren (1930)

Westerners, especially US Americans and the brainwashed citizens of US copycat country, vassal state and constitutional monarchy called Canada, are enamoured and fixated with the cults and pathologies of the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is promoted and even underwritten in the silly elitist Declaration of Independence [1] and Constitution that were written by wealthy slave owners that incite the evangelists of the power of positive thinking and optimism to chant mind numbing patriotic drivel like national anthems and dimwitted politicians at every opportunity to shout inane slogans such as “God Bless America” about which the late great  George Carlin had some astute comments. Notwithstanding the incoherence and opaque conceptual conundrums regarding “God”, whatever in hell happiness means I have no idea but this and the palliatives of positive thinking, optimism, self-help palliatives, delusions of religion and the paranormal, quest for certainty and the misconstrued notions of self-esteem are endlessly peddled in the West. In many cases these afflictions are merely the upshot of refusals to face unpleasant facts and the real history of our so-called “democracies” of “humanity” and “civilization”.  Not unlike the delusions of faith and prayer, many people actually believe that you can think yourself to wealth and success - however defined - and that the capitalist nation state in which by mere contingency they happen to be born in is honourable, just and democratic.  

Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was right when he wrote:

A man is never happy, but spends his whole life in striving after something that he thinks will make him so; he seldom attains his goal, and when he does, it is only to be disappointed; he is mostly shipwrecked in the end, and comes into harbour with mast and rigging gone. And then, it is all one whether he is happy or miserable; for his life was never anything more than a present moment always vanishing; and now it is over.” -Studies in Pessimism: The Essays

The celebrated philosopher of On Liberty John Stuart Mill once remarked, “Anyone who has to ask himself if he is happy quite obviously is not”. One of the most astute definitions of happiness I have read is “Happiness is the brief period between long stretches of unhappiness”. I suggest that most people who are happy rarely think about it; they are too busy living their interesting lives with passion and intense curiosity for whatever interests them. The pursuit of happiness is about as silly as trying to know “what is the meaning of life?” It seems to me if you take an interest in life, are inquisitive and engaged you haven’t time to get bored (In his book The Conquest of Happiness, one of Bertrand Russell’s reason’s for unhappiness is boredom). Isn’t life to short to be bored? The late Barbara Ehrenreich (1941-2022), studied physics but eventually turned to biochemistry and cellular biology, earning a PhD in 1963. She eventually turned to writing brilliant critiques of religion, capitalism and the idiocies of modern culture. Her most brilliant book which I highly recommend is Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America; the you can find an excellent review here, here and a bookstore talk here. Another great book is Smile or Die which she discusses with her great sense of humour, here. The stock market gurus, analysts and capitalist dogmas in general are infected with irrational optimism, delusions of the self-made man, their players never thinking about its intrinsic risks, black swans and sequential periodic implosions and subsequent bailouts by the nanny capitalist state. Always think of what might go wrong and you’ll never be shocked or disappointed with grim surprises.

Sadly, most people in the indoctrinated working and lower middle classes continue to embrace capitalism, support the traditional conservative and liberal political parties that don’t give a rat’s ass about their interests and continually delude themselves into believing they may become rich, the chances of which are slim and none. It would seem that many of the people enamoured by capitalism’s never ending supply of superfluous products such as the latest “smart” phone are also sport fans who don’t seem to be agitated by the marketing bombardment of every available square millimetre of space. Watch hockey and you see the boards plastered by computerized images of corporate logos and even the ice surface defaced by the same, leaving almost no space for the face off circles, goaltender and offside lines. The whole grotesque marketing spectacle is depressing at best. as inane  slogans such as “Preparation H, the haemorrhoid treatment of the Vancouver Canucks” or “Southern Comfort, the rot gut whiskey of the Dallas Cowboys” are spewed out as if there’s some semblance of sincerity and honesty about them. Even former professional athletes like the obtuse clown Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky are peddling online betting on pro sports. Most of these people, including rabid sport fans, are not born with the silver spoon and the 99 metre advantage in the 100 metre dash of life. They often take risks in the manipulated stock markets of which they have little understanding and even resort to buying lottery tickets and gambling on pro sports and traditional crap shoots which have now been legalized and have become an epidemic fetish. Most have little or no understanding of the miniscule probabilities of winning anything of significance. Lotteries and casinos are total wastes of money and, more importantly, time. Keep in mind the great existentialist 1970s pop song by Kansas called Dust in the Wind.

Moreover, not only do the gig worker and other victims of austerity and capitalist exploitation never support a genuine leftist revolutionary political party, they rarely vote for social democratic parties which are in the neo-liberal era have morphed into left-leaning liberal capitalists. In Canada for example the brutal transformation of the CCF/NDP is a national tragedy. The great Canadian socialist, former Premier of Saskatchewan and leader of the federal NDP Tommy Douglas, who died in 1986, must be upchucking in his coffin. But even traditional liberalism in the spirit of John Stuart Mill and John Rawls has been dead in the water for several decades. The Democratic Party in the US and Liberal Party in Canada are full throated neo-liberal corporatist capitalists and both abandoned the working classes many decades ago. The love-hate relationship of the working stiff with capitalism and its neo-fascist corporatist mutation continues despite the ongoing state bailouts, the offshoot of “boom-bubble-bust-bailout” scam sequences of the banking mafia. Are the masses of struggling workers ever bailed out? Did the millions who lost their homes in the 2007-09 financial fiasco get a golden parachute, like the financial oligarchy that demolished the economy?

Noam Chomsky was a courageous critic of many aspects of the authoritarian nature of capitalist culture including education, rightly claiming that, rather than the system of indoctrination that it is, the most important goal ought to be “to inquire and create”, in addition to promoting independence of thought, critical thinking and most importantly, relentless  curiosity. The great chemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov and brilliant Nobel Prize physicist Richard Feynman had similar philosophies of education. Noam Chomsky and both Asimov and Feynman have had a profound influence on my thought and outlook. Feynman who in addition to being a brilliant physicist, independent thinker and iconoclast, despised dogmatism and the politicization of science [2], had a wonderful sense of humour, an engaging eccentric personality and was an anti-authoritarian in addition to being a great teacher, wrote, “I prefer questions that can’t be answered to answers that can’t be questioned” and “Never confuse education with intelligence, you can have a PhD and still be an idiot”. Do you think any of these three men suffered from boredom or melancholy?

If a person maintains a vibrant curiosity and dedicated pursuit of enlightenment, knowledge and a demand for truth, boredom will never be an issue. Sadly most people, thanks to the dogmas of religion and ideology of capitalist culture, prefer comforting puerile palliatives rather than knowledge and truth. George Carlin, an autodidact who left school in grade nine because it wasn’t sufficiently challenging, rightly argued that the purpose of education is to churn out not sceptics and critical thinkers, but mindless consumers and “obedient docile workers”. But the terminally bored can always take the advice of Albert Camus: there is always the option of suicide.

A recent well-written and well-argued book I highly recommend is The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. My first instalment of the benefits of pessimism and negative thinking I wrote in 2019 after the abomination of Trump was nearing its abyss. You can read it here. Reading Burkeman’s compelling arguments, I decided to craft this update. Global conditions of our dystopian neo-fascist so-called “democratic civilization” has only become progressively worse, even without serial liars and con artists like Mein Trumpf who is now facing multiple charges of corruption, cronyism and theft. Trump of course is not an isolated problem within  capitalism which continues its toxic death cult of economic growth and plunder unabated as every living species is in decline (except the dumb uncaring ape called humans or homo saps) and the planet’s ecosystems are circling the drain. Moreover, Murphy’s Law has become axiomatic. And will the sociopathic beast Trump spend even a day in jail?

Endless repetitive recitations from the smiley face business marketing drones such as “have a good day” and “your call is important to us” are affectations that permeate and pollute every aspect of the hegemonic quasi-religious capitalist culture and ideology, including popular movies such as “Life is a box of chocolates” Forest Gump. People seem to ignore the fact that the charming Gump character was at best bipolar, intellectually challenged, naive, credulous and likely autistic. But as Tom Hanks in the character of Gump proclaimed, “You have to do the best with whatever God gave you”. It would have been more reasonable to complain why God dealt him such a raw deal; but as we’ve all been told as children which I recall in the boring Sunday school sessions, “God works in mysterious ways”. No doubt! Or was he merely asleep at the wheel when people like F Gump and millions of others like him were born. Be prepared for bad shit happening to both good and bad people. Murphy’s Law remains in effect whether you like it or not so being prepared for the worst can have beneficial effects, one of which is you will never be disappointed and contemplate jumping off a bridge.

If you travel to Asian countries and the Far East, you’ll likely find these rose-tinted attitudes are not so pervasive, despite the influences of the West. High school students in the East such as Japan, Korea and China perform far better on International Math and Science competitions than the North America and Europe. I taught many of these dedicated hard working young people as exchange students in Math 12 an AP Calculus so I have some personal experience with their attitudes and work ethic.  Moreover, when asked about their abilities they tend to be humble and pessimistic, downplaying the confident positive optimistic self-esteem attitudes of students in the West who perform far below these Asian students. Perhaps the Buddhist philosophies of pessimism, stark realism and the inevitability of pain and suffering are still an influential part of their world view. Unlike the authoritarian horrors of the two primary monotheisms of Christianity and Islam, I’ve learned much from reading Buddhist, Zen and Taoist philosophy. I highly recommend any and all of the works of Alan Watts, an intellectual Englishman who was one of the 20th century’s most popular proponents and explicators of Buddhism. Check his many talks that are posted on you tube and elsewhere. Most of his excellent books are still in print.

Central to this power of positive thinking syndrome are a plethora of self help books, “life coaches” (yes I’m serious), motivational speakers like Tony “High Five” Robbins and the inane inspirational posters required by management on classroom and office walls which, like the self-esteem bullshit became the popular manias. This bovine excrement corporatization of the schools was polluting the public schools, providing me with just one more reason to retire early from 30 years toiling as a high school mathematics teacher. I refused to comply since my classroom was walls were already used up with pictures and quotes by people like Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, Richard Feynman, Richard Dawkins and other intellectual influences. Of course humility and the social gospel have been purged from the Christian churches, replaced by the multi-millionaire “prosperity gospel” preachers who peddle the message that “The Lard wants you to be rich.” Professional baseball players, especially the many Latinos have been systematically brain washed into Catholicism as soon as they pop out of their mother’s womb, wear massive crucifixes and point to the heavens on every base hit, home run and catch of a fly ball heading over the fence. Oddly, this strange behavior is absent when they strike out or fumble a routine ball on a routine double play. Contradiction and incoherence doesn’t seem to bother these pro athletes. [3]

But the cult of positive thinking ultimately has more secular roots. “It grew because corporations needed a way to manage downsizing, which really began in the 1980s,” Barbara Ehrenreich explained. Businesses that fired masses of employees had a message that “you’re getting eliminated… but it’s really an opportunity for you. It’s a great thing; you’ve got to look at this positively. Don’t complain.”

Eventually, Americans and most other Westerners internalize the notion that losing one’s job is merely an example that something better is just around the corner (good karma) because “everything happens for a reason.” You are now an entrepreneur of the self so sign up as a wage slave with Door Dash or Uber. Did somebody say “Skip”? No, they said “Fuck Skip!” There must be a reason for vulture capitalist outfits like Skip the Dishes, perhaps bad karma. But when people say make statements such as this they usually don’t mean a scientific explanation, contingency or conceivable black swan event. Why have you never won Lotto 6-49 and why did you lose your shirt at the casino or the latest irrational farcical scam endlessly peddled on TV – betting on sports online? It’s because the odds of winning are next to zero as any introductory course in probability theory will clearly explain. Other alternatives are to blame your parents, teachers, horoscope, the devil or some other supernatural/paranormal hocus pocus such as the will of some sky daddy, demon or the invisible flying purple unicorn. People screw up, bad things happen and “life’s a bitch and then you die”.  Be prepared for the worst and you’ll never be disappointed or depressed about it.

But human brains seem to be wired for an affliction which psychologists and those who generally hold to scientific world views refer to as magical thinking. The religious, those who accept the supernatural and even some rare secular thinkers who accept paranormal phenomena typically assume some magical force that dictates causation. Yes. Everything happens for a reason but not the mumbo jumbo explanation you’ve dreamed up. Magical thinking and other irrational behaviors play a significant role in self-inflicted misery that some cognitive scientists consider to be foundational for religious belief. Suppose that the sky darkens with the approach of a frightening thunderstorm, tornado or hurricane?  Someone implores or prays that their all-powerful deity Zeus, Thor or Odin to send the storm away and unexpectedly the storm retreats. Fear is mitigated, the act of prayer has apparently been confirmed and these gods that are no longer with us are deemed responsible for having quelled the disaster. [4]


[1] “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” – The US American Declaration of Independence, 1776. Please take note of the words “creator” (which is religious mumbo jumbo), “all - specifically white Christian - MEN are equal” (which is patently false regardless of gender or which sky daddy you worship) and “pursuit of happiness which is not the same meaning as happiness guaranteed. This bullshit has been pilfered from Aristotle who wrote, “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”. Aristotle, like many of the religious and New Age kooks today assume there is some teleology, an end game that has been revealed to you by an external omniscient source. The fact of your birth is a mere contingent fact: That two sex-crazed people did the wild thing at a particular moment in time and Sammy the Sperm arrived at the egg before Stanley the Sperm is why you exist. Deal with it. Anyone who has any pretence to autonomy surely would prefer to decide his own purposes, interests and projects in life. Try taking an interest in your pathetic life and if you can’t find anything interesting you can always opt for the Albert Camus option – suicide. Why would anyone want meaning imposed on them from anyone but himself, especially an asshole tyrannical deity? Isn’t our capitalist system authoritarian, exploitive and oppressive enough?

[2 Richard Feynman on the political corruption of NASA and science on the Challenger disaster:


73 Seconds | THE CHALLENGER DISASTER - Bing video

CNN, Feynman and the Challenger disaster - YouTube

Several movies and documentaries are available on the amazing life of Richard Feynman, most of which are well worth watching. Here are three:

BBC - The Fantastic Mr Feynman - YouTube

Infinity 1996 - YouTube

Richard Feynman biography - YouTube

[3] Consider ATP #1 and certified anti-science and anti-vaccination jerk, Serbian Orthodox Church (a sect of Catholicism) member and intellectual minor leaguer Novak Djokovic.



Behold Novak Djokovic after air mailing a forehand. Novak’s silly ritual of crossing himself and pointing to the sky after a winning shot is this time mysteriously absent. Isn’t your omniscient omnipotent big man in the sky responsible for your blunders as well as successes? And why would he/she/it give a rat’s ass. This quite obvious logical conclusion doesn’t seem to be a problem for one of the sport’s most annoying assholes and twits.



     Djokovic following a match in which the Lard Failed Him


Off court rituals of devout orthodox Christian Novak Djokovic such as this photo with the Church hierarchy (second in command to his non-existent God) are as inane and puerile as they are on court

[4] From a very early age we search for reasons, causal connections, intent and agency behind threatening or awe-inspiring events, even things that go bump in the night. Failure to identify a cause can lead to the conclusion that the agent is present but invisible, resulting in increased belief in undetectable supernatural agencies. This is especially true if the child has had religious mumbo jumbo and other superstitious drivel pummeled into his head. And because people often have similar childhood experiences, beliefs in supernatural beings—gods, ghosts, goblins, angels, and demons—have developed in every culture and society. An inquisitive intelligent child begins to question this hocus pocus by the time they begin grade school especially after you are informed that Santa Claus is a big fat lie. This horse manure is not just promoted by mainstream religions but perhaps through childhood experiences such as bedtime stories read to us our mothers. My mother did this but qualified them by informing me that they were not true, but mere fantasy. In the hated Sunday school I was fed even more bizarre stories than Little Red Riding Hood, Three Little Pigs and Jack and the Beanstalk my mother read to me. Interpreting events as divine interventions, messages, warnings, threats or punishments serves as further confirmation of the existence of the divine entities. Indeed, in every society that anthropologists have examined, uncontrollable tragedies have been interpreted by many people as having been deliberately caused by some supernatural agent. An unexpected and violent fire or flood may be interpreted as an expression of God’s wrath in response to some transgression. The transcendental temptation of religion and fascination with the paranormal seems to be wired into the brains of many all-too-credulous humans searching for some external validation or meaning. Life has no meaning other than what you can discover and provide for yourself, not from some external source. Isn’t curiosity about your existence and the rest of the universe sufficient? Non-scientific non-rational explanations for phenomena can be incredibly bizarre. To cite one that comes to mind; the epidemic of HIV/AIDS was taken by some fundamentalist Christians in the United States, including US President Ron Ray Gun and his dim bulb astrology believing wife to be God’s punishment for homosexuality.


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