Juliane Marie Schreiber: Just Say No

Juliane Marie Schreiber’s new book explores the tyranny of positive thinking, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be happy. In our interview, the political scientist and freelance journalist explains the downsides of the pressure to be happy and optimistic, and why it’s perfectly okay to be in a bad mood every now and then. We think that sounds like a great idea.
Text Michael Köckritz
Photo Juliane Marie Schreiber

These days, it seems, we’re always supposed to be in a good mood, to see everything in a positive light: in social networks, at work, with our friends and acquaintances. The ideal of optimism, of always being cheerful and thinking positively, is ever-present. Why do we so vehemently try to exclude anything negative from our lives?
There are several explanations for this, if you ask me. Of course, we always want to be happy and strive for a good life. That’s a basic human disposition, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. I do believe, however, that we are living in a time when people who have a good life are always being told that they need an even better life, that they need to be getting more out of it, that they should be even more attractive, more educated. This pressure comes from various sources, including the consumer industry. And to a great extent, we have internalized this ideal.

Does this positive thinking pose a threat? It seems like an ideology.
I take a closer look at this threat in my book. Surprisingly, positive thinking can lead to negative results. Several studies have shown that optimistic people tend to see themselves and the world more unrealistically. They greatly overestimate themselves. One might even speak of an optimism bias. People who are moodier and more melancholic, on the other hand, have a much more realistic view of the world.

But can’t having more self-esteem also be a source of strength?
Of course, though it depends on the situation. It’s definitely good to draw motivation from a sense of confidence. But the limits are quickly reached. If someone thinks they’re a great driver when they’re not, and then they have to tackle a narrow, winding road in foggy conditions, that sort of overconfidence becomes dangerous.

"People who are moodier and more melancholic, on the other hand, have a much more realistic view of the world."

Juliane Marie Schreiber

In your book, you call on people to rebel against the 
pathological search for happiness. Why do we need negative feelings?
Negative feelings serve a function, otherwise they wouldn’t have been passed on through evolution. Pain, for example, is an important protective mechanism that tells us when something is wrong with our body that needs attention. Or cursing. Cursing has a negative connotation, but it is actually very liberating and can alleviate physical pain.

It’s interesting that cursing is frowned upon in our society just because people assume that someone who complains a lot won’t get ahead in life. This may be true at times, but in itself swearing is beneficial. Studies have shown that people can endure physical pain longer if they swear when they experience pain. That’s also the reason why women often shout the wildest expletives during labor.

Juliane Marie Schreiber:
Ich möchte lieber nicht – eine Rebellion gegen den Terror des Positiven,
Piper, 208 Seiten,
Klappenbroschur, 16 €.

You also write about anger. Why should we allow ourselves to be angry?
Anger is an important emotion, though we should distinguish between justified and unjustified anger, which is the subject of ethical debate. Assuming that the anger is justified, it is an important driver of social progress, because people first have to get angry in order to indicate to others that there’s a problem. So anger can be an important form of political expression that brings people together to do something about a problem. Without anger, there would never have been any kind of revolution. Today we are living in a time when we suppress anger because people think they need to control their emotions.

"Cursing has a negative connotation, but it is actually very liberating and can alleviate physical pain. It’s interesting that cursing is frowned upon in our society just because people assume that someone who complains a lot won’t get ahead in life."

Juliane Marie Schreiber

So your advice is, as the title of your book says, to say “I would prefer not to” more often.
Exactly, because saying no can set us free. And it’s important to live in harmony with yourself and with your personal convictions. You may have to practice that at times, but you can apply it in small and large ways, in everyday life as well as in your social and political decisions.

Looking at the world and at our society: Is everything going to be fine in the end? And are you an optimist or a pessimist?
I consider myself a depressive realist. The question of whether everything in society is going to be fine in the end is almost impossible to answer. There’s this saying, after all: “If it’s not fine, it’s not the end.” In my opinion, that’s nonsense. Things can also end badly. I may (…)

→ Read what a "depressive realist" is and what role humour plays in life in Michael Köckritz' exclusive interview with Juliane Marie Schreiber in rampstyle #26.

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