Why Trying to Solve Our Problems Just Makes Us Unhappy

Angst and Desire
7 min readSep 6, 2023
Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” — Søren Kierkegaard

Why is trying to relax so stressful? Why do our attempts to fix our depression and anxiety only send us deeper into the spiral? You might think positive thinking holds the answer, but according to writer and journalist Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote, this only makes things worse.

What’s wrong with positive thinking?

In 2009, a Canadian psychologist called Joanne Wood set out to test the effectiveness of positive affirmations.

In one set of experiments, people were divided into subgroups of those with low and high self-esteem, then asked to undertake a journal-writing exercise; every time a bell rang, they were to repeat to themselves the phrase ‘I am a lovable person.’ According to a variety of ingenious mood measures, those who began the process with low self-esteem became appreciably less happy as a result of telling themselves that they were lovable. They didn’t feel particularly lovable to begin with — and trying to convince themselves otherwise merely solidified their negativity. ‘Positive thinking’ had made them feel worse.

So why did this happen?

In 1957 the American social psychologist Leon Festinger released a paper outlining his theory of Cognitive Dissonance. The theory describes the discomfort we feel when we hold contrary opinions about ourselves, and our tendency to resolve this contradiction by rejecting ideas that conflict with our current sense of self.

Much as we like to hear positive messages about ourselves, this theory suggests, we crave even more strongly the sense of being a coherent, consistent self in the first place. Messages that conflict with that existing sense of self, therefore, are unsettling, and so we often reject them — even if they happen to be positive, and even if the source of the message is ourselves.

I’ve noticed this same phenomena when giving compliments to people who doubt themselves, whether in their work or self-esteem. However earnestly meant, the compliment either bounces right off them or just makes them feel worse. They…

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Angst and Desire

Curating the best of life advice from Philosophy, Psychology and Literature.