In December 1817, the poet John Keats, then twenty-two years old, went to see the annual Christmas pantomime at the Theatre Royal, in London’s Drury Lane. Also in attendance was his friend, the critic Charles Wentworth Dilke, and as they strolled home, the two men fell into conversation about writing — and specifically about the nature of literary genius. Somewhere between the theatre and his home, Keats was struck by a realisation, the which he set down several days later in a letter to his brothers. That letter records what one Keats biographer has called “a touchstone moment” in the history of literature:
“I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously: I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”
There is something both awe-inspiring and perhaps faintly irritating about a twenty-two-year-old not only capable of such insights, but capable of having them so casually, on the way home from the pantomime. But we shouldn’t let the dazzling nature of the insight distract us from its wisdom: sometimes, the most valuable of all talents is to be able not to seek resolution; to notice the craving for completeness or certainty or comfort, and not to feel compelled to follow where it leads. Keats thought this addiction to comfort and completion was Dilke’s biggest flaw: “He will never come at a truth so long as he lives,” Keats wrote, “because he is always trying at it.” It was the trying — the “irritable reaching” — that was the whole problem.
More loosely defined, “negative capability” might be a good label to describe the chief talent I kept discovering among the people I encountered in the course of researching my book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. They had learned to put aside the “irritable reaching” after unbroken cheerfulness – the affirmations, motivational slogans and self-persuasion techniques of pop psychology – to turn to face what others might flee from; and to realise that the shortest apparent route to a positive mood is rarely a sure path to a more profound kind of happiness.
The point here isn’t that negative capability, in this broader sense I’m using the term, is always superior to the positive kind. Optimism is wonderful; goals can sometimes be useful; even positive thinking and positive visualisation have their benefits. The problem is that we have developed the habit of chronically overvaluing positivity, and of “doing”, in how we think about happiness, and of chronically undervaluing the “not-doing” skills, such as resting in uncertainty or getting friendly towards failure. To use an old cliché of therapy-speak, we spend too much of our lives seeking “closure”. Even those of us who mock such clichés are often motivated by a craving to put an end to uncertainty and anxiety, whether by convincing ourselves that the future is bright, or by resigning ourselves despondently to the expectation that it won’t be. What we need more of, instead, is what the psychologist Paul Pearsall called “openture”. Yes, it’s an awkward neologism; but its very awkwardness is a reminder of the spirit that it expresses, which includes embracing imperfection, and easing up on the search for neat solutions.
Take the Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome: for them, the realisation that we can often choose not to be distressed by events, even if we can’t choose events themselves, is the foundation of tranquility. For the Buddhists, a willingness to observe the “inner weather” of your thoughts and emotions is key to understanding that they need not dictate your actions. Each of these is a different way of resisting the “irritable reaching” after better circumstances, or better thoughts and feelings. But negative capability need not involve embracing an ancient philosophical or religious tradition. It’s also the skill you’re exhibiting when you move forward with a project — or with life — in the absence of sharply defined goals, or when you put aside “motivational” techniques in favour of actually getting things done.
“Proficiency and the results of proficiency,” wrote Aldous Huxley, describing what he called the law of reversed effort, “come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, of combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person in order that the immanent and transcendent Unknown Quantity may take hold.” The chief benefit of “openture”, Paul Pearsall argues, is not certitude or even calm or comfort as we normally think of them, but rather the “strange, excited comfort [of] being presented with, and grappling with, the tremendous mysteries life offers.” Ultimately, what defines the “cult of optimism” and the culture of positive thinking — even in its most mystically-tinged, New Age forms — is that it abhors a mystery. It seeks to make things certain, to make happiness permanent and final; and yet this kind of happiness — even if you do manage to achieve it — is shallow and unsatisfying. The greatest benefit of Negative Capability, and the true power of negative thinking more generally, is that it lets the mystery back in.
Oliver Burkeman is an author and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York.
This post is adapted in part from Oliver’s book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, published by Text AU and Canongate UK.
Image kindly provided by illustrator and author Matthew Johnstone, taken from his book Alphabet of the Human Heart.