how’s this new happiness trick: do the opposite

This week in Sunday Life I do the opposite

angela boatwright suicide practice how's this new happiness trick: do the opposite
Photo by Angela Boatwright

George Costanza is not one of life’s most inspired or bountiful contributors. But there are two things I give him full props for: the under-the-desk nap (I employed it during my newspaper days doing the 4am shift; the trick is to pull the swivel chair in after you and use it as a leg rest), and his “The Opposite” theory.

Given everything he’d done in life had been so wrong, George reasoned that if he did the exact opposite of what he normally did, he’d get it right. It works and he picks up a hot woman instantly with the line, “I’m unemployed and I live with my parents”. (Women’s attraction to raw honesty really is their Achilles heel.)

Rather than being a mere Seinfeld absurdity, this idea has much appeal and merit. When I worked in magazines, coverlines that went, “Everything You Know About [insert topic: skin whiteners, nipple covers, reversible jackets…] is Wrong” always focus-grouped well. It’s not so much that we like to be corrected.

We like opposites. They feel fresh.

This week, though, I realized opposites are also productive. Recently I read a theory by Tony Schwartz, author of Be Excellent at Anything, for dealing with compulsions and procrastination. Whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t, he advises. Schwartz argues that in the face of difficulty or discomfort we’re programmed to react (flight or fight). The problem is, most modern dilemmas – as opposed to the prehistoric ones – don’t require rash reaction; they require considered thought. And so after we react, we regret. Because we just didn’t think, did we!

We get insecure, we grab for sugar. We’re unmotivated by a pressing project, we go shopping for…reversible jackets.

Schwartz’s antidote is to stop as soon as you feel that tingle of reaction – a tight jaw, a heart-sinky drop in the gut,  Inhale to a count of three and then feel your feet, “to get out of your head”.  All of which buys you time, he says.

It’s funny. This opposite thing is gaining momentum. When I interviewed The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin for this column a year ago she told me the most popular wisdom she’d shared with her millions of readers was this: if you don’t normally make your bed, make it; if you do, don’t. Thinkers from Einstein to Edward de Bono have espoused the same and argue doing what you don’t normally injects surprise, which can jerk you into freshness and innovation.

New research has also found not setting goals works. In fact, recently it was found that the original and oft-cited Yale study that claims graduates who set goals made 10 times more than those who didn’t…never existed. The sublime brain commentator Jonah Lehrer this month wrote about the benefits of having vague aims as a counterpoint to the deluge of precision we have access to now. And in the book Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder it’s argued the cost of being neat outweighs the benefits.

Everything You Know About…Life…is Wrong! Ergo, just do the opposite, right?

I endeavoured to find out. On Monday I didn’t do what I felt compelled to. I did the opposite. I made my bed. And I didn’t tell my friend what to do when she shared her financial grief with me. I simply pressed delete on an email from a guy whose demands of me were screaming out for a well-crafted dressing down. I didn’t get up to make chai tea when my inbox flooded with bothersome emails.

The novelty of not doing what you’re meant to was refreshing. Actually, as a chronic over-doer living in a world brimful of betterment rules and productivity dictates, simply not doing was novel enough. But the real beauty of Schwartz’s idea is its blanket approach. You do the opposite every time you feel a compulsion. Which means you don’t have to wrangle with yourself as to whether this or that compulsion or aversion is one to fight. It’s like being told to exercise 4-5 times a week – you spend most of the week deliberating and bargaining with yourself which days. And wind up doing none.

If there’s one thing I’ve found in this world brimful of rules and dictates, complications are a compulsion.

Do the opposite. Simplify.

What opposites break ruts for you?

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