In "The Antidote" Oliver Burkeman argues that happiness (whatever that is) can not be achieved through manic positive thinking, motivational pep talks, or narrowly-focused goal setting. Instead one can find a fulfilling way to live by embracing uncertainty and giving negative thoughts their due. In eight chapters we meet Stoics, Buddhists, and other thinkers who all possess:
"A willingness to adopt an oblique stance towards one's own inner life; to pause and take a step back; 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."
Burkeman emphasizes that, unlike so many motivational speakers, he is not intending to offer fail-safe rules for a happy life. Instead he thoughtfully and thoroughly explores topics we might usually shy away from, arriving at wise advice. I already feel calmer and more content having been immersed in his ideas, and perversely I'm looking forward to a chance to test his techniques.
Having greatly enjoyed and valued Burkeman's previous book Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done, I was worried that "The Antidote" would cover too much of the same ground. This new book, however, felt fresh and readable offering a more sustained and meaty thesis than the short articles in "Help", whilst still retaining the humour and anecdotes that made the first book such a pleasure.
on 24 February 2014
Reading THE ANTIDOTE: HAPPINESS FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN'T STAND POSITIVE THINKING isn't a comfortable experience. I'd run into an excerpt in the online magazine BRAIN PICKINGS and was prepared for a snide, curmudgeonly critique of our be-happy-or-something's-wrong-with-you culture. And Burkeman certainly demonstrates many of the hallmarks of a grumpy old man. He's skeptical, judgmental, argumentative. He also seems to be onto something that most of us, in our rush to capture joy and fulfillment in a (recycled) bottle, never manage to grasp: prayers, wishes and abundance spells aside, things do not always work out for the best. Worse, as good as things might be at the moment, it'll all head downhill as we inevitably age and die.
One day the sun will rise without us.
That's the plain truth of the matter. It's also, according to Burkeman, why it's so important that we live our time here on earth with our eyes wide open. Even if it's hard. And scary.
Burkman gathers evidence from various schools of philosophy/religion/psychology. One of the most entertaining parts of the book is the chapter about his week in the forests of Massachusetts attempting Buddhist meditation. His evaluation of the power our momentary (and often inaccurate) thoughts/judgments have over our perception of our world is fascinating.
I also enjoyed his discussion of Stoicism, basically, the idea that emotional pain results not from outside events themselves, but from our judgement about those events. This isn't, as many people believe, an attitude of "life's terrible so deal with it." It's more "plan for the worst and hope it doesn't turn out quite so bad." Some would call this crass pessimism or even nihilism, the belief that life is essentially meaningless. I don't think this is Burkeman's contention at all. He seems to be prescribing an unsentimental common sense. Like, save for retirement because, though you may die before you need the money, it'll be worse to be old and destitute. Or, if your cholesterol is high, skip the fried food--sure, you're going to die anyway, but why rush into it?
According to the author, rather than being a depressing way to live, this close attention to reality, especially the reality of our own mortality, can actually lead to a meaningful and--dare we suggest--joyful life. So, in the end, THE ANTIDOTE isn't an argument against optimism and positive thinking. The question it addresses is far more basic and useful than that. Namely, does it really matter whether the glass is half full or half empty if you don't appreciate the contents?
Reading this book requires and open mind and some bravery, but it's worth the effort.
Perhaps the most deflating thing you can do to a supposedly serious book of non-fiction is to describe it as 'journalism', suggesting that, whatever its merits, the work is essentially ephemeral. Oliver Burkeman is a very accomplished journalist, and he even describes himself in The Antidote as 'a reporter'. Yet despite being highly entertaining (and it's worth reading for its entertainment value alone) his book is eminently serious, tackling important issues like insecurity and the sense of self. Moreover, Burkeman's argument that adopting a negative outlook has positive benefits is potentially life-enhancing. It's an idea that's pursued rigorously and it gives coherence to what could otherwise read as little more than an episodic collection of feature articles.
The Antidote is intended to have a wider and more popular appeal than that of the average psychology text. In true investigative reporter style, Burkeman seeks out colourful, 'larger-than-life', characters who embody attitudes, theories and beliefs, like Positive Thinking and Buddhism. So, for example, he seeks out a modern-day Seneca (enter Keith of Watford), or a mind-changing, bench-sleeping, drop-out (the Russell Square hermit, Ulrich Tolle). He visits a lawless and life-threatening part of Mexico which, infested with criminal gangs and with zero police presence, is home to a bizarre new religious cult devoted to Saint Death.
But there is purpose behind each 'journalistic' foray. According to those quoted in the chapter entitled Who's There?, for example, there may not be any such entity as the undivided self, and it may not even be meaningful to talk in terms of self and non-self (or the dividing line between one's body and the space around it). But for me, if that's a meaningful concept, this chapter is the most puzzling and rewarding of all. And the book as a whole is one you'll probably want, or need, to revisit in order to puzzle over its implications. For despite its irreverent wit and often flippant prose, The Antidote is deceptively profound.
Burkeman explores various approaches to tranquility, rather than happiness: he considers many avenues that I have researched too, such as the philosophies of the Stoics and the Buddhists as well as teachings of individuals such as Albert Ellis (whom I found practically helpful) and Eckhart Tolle (I bought all of his CDs and books but never got much practical benefit).
He explains that the Stoics believe that it is your thinking that makes any event good or bad. As Ellis points out, however bad any event (even death), it could have been worse. They don't claim that negative emotions don't really exist or that they don't really matter or that they can easily be brushed aside through sheer effort of will. Their view is that it's the beliefs you hold about the disadvantages of death, starvation, losing a home or a job, that makes them distressing. This is the underlying insight behind contemporary cognitive behavioural therapy too.
I particularly appreciated the author's discourse on the Stoics because "To Love is to Be Happy With" by Kaufman, which created such a positive impact on the quality of my life, is based on their school of thought but with many practical examples and questions. It doesn't go as far, though: the Stoics also advise negative visualisation - regularly reminding yourself that you might lose any of the things you currently enjoy, even to reminding yourself that your children may die tomorrow. Although this might strike any parent as horrifying, the practice will make you love them even more, while simultaneously reducing the shock should it happen. It is also an antidote to anxiety, which is a subtler and apparently even more powerful benefit.
Spend time vividly imagining exactly how wrong things could go, IN REALITY. You will usually find your fears were exaggerated. All too often, things will not turn out for the best, but the premeditation of evils, of the worst that could happen, usually means that things almost certainly go LESS wrong than we feared. If you lose your job, there are specific steps you could take to find a new one. If you lose your relationship, you would probably manage to find happiness in life despite being single. Confronting the worst-case scenario saps it of much of its anxiety-inducing power. By contrast, happiness reached via positive thinking can be fleeting and brittle. Negative visualisation generates a vastly more dependable calm.
I found the more practical first part of the book the most interesting. He covers, for instance:
- Daniel Wegner's studies showing that the internal mechanism responsible for sabotaging our efforts at suppressing negative thoughts might govern an entire territory of mental activity and outward behaviour. All too often the outcome we're seeking to avoid is exactly the one to which we seem magnetically lured.
- Joanne Wood's research that, the lower our self esteem, the worse affirmations and forced positive thinking make us feel.
- Tali Sharot's book "The Optimism Bias" compiling growing evidence that a well-functioning mind may be built so as to perceive the odds of things going well as greater than they really are. Healthy and happy people generally have a LESS accurate, overly optimistic grasp of their true ability to influence events than do those who are suffering from depression (and who perceive events far more realistically).
- Gabriele Oettingen's research which reveals that spending time and energy thinking about how well things could go actually reduces most people's motivation to achieve them. Subjects encouraged to think about how they were going to have a particularly high-achieving week at work, for example, ended up achieving less than who were invited to reflect on the coming week, but given no further guidelines on how to do so. In experiment after experiment, people responded to positive visualisation by relaxing. They seemed subconsciously to have confused visualising success with having already achieved it. Focusing on the outcome you desire may actually sabotage your efforts
His conclusion is that negative thinking is not 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 the skills of 'doing', in how we think about happiness, and that we chronically undervalue negativity and the 'not-doing' skills, such as resting in uncertainty or getting friendly towards failure. We are 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, instead of easing up on the search for neat solutions and embracing imperfection.
I got this book mainly for my husband who is an out and out pessimist, he works on the principle 'expect the worse and if it happens then you are not disappointed, if a good thing happens instead then you come away happy, either way you are never dissapointed'' this he claims is his theory of pessimism and happiness.
I read this book after my husband came waving it in my face claiming that he had been right all along. I am a born optimist and doubted this claim so I read the book, OMG it may be that my husband is right (now can I admit it to him?).
What Oliver Burkeman says is more or less what my husband has been saying all along, we should stop this mindless pursuit of happiness charging around looking for nirvana. We should instead embrace all the things that go wrong in our lives and look for the goodness in them, can I ever look my husband in the face again?
OB observes that for a population so obsessed with seeking happiness we are absolutely rubbish at finding it, money does not make you happy (although husband does say 'better to cry in a mercedes than a mini!!')Romance and family life all often lead to stresses that we don't want or need.
Using an eclectic mix of guides OB leads us through finding happiness in unusual places, who would consider using a buddhist and a terrorism expert to guide us to harmony?
A thought provoking book and well worth the effort of reading it.
This is a book full of insights, presented in an engaging manner. There are plenty of ideas you can take away from this book, including an entirely new way of thinking about the pursuit of happiness. The approach is thoughtful and offers no easy solutions. You won't come away from this book filled with Tony Robbins-style enthusiasm, but I would venture to say the changes you make as a result of this book will be more sustainable.
Burkeman starts his journey in San Antonio, Texas, at a traditional self-help style motivational rally, and ends with an insight by the poet Keats. In between we meet Stoics, Buddhists and Eckhart Tolle. We discover the dangers of goal setting, explore 'the museum of failed products' and visit Mexico to witness the Mexican approach to being reminded of death. Burkeman discusses ideas, before visiting the source of this wisdom. This gives the book a feeling of travelogue, even if sometimes our destination is only the London Underground.
The conclusions that Burkeman draws are small, but profound. We must accept uncertainty, understanding that the more we chase certainty and happiness the more elusive they will be. I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed Oliver Burkeman's last book Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done, or Richard Wiseman's Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives.
on 24 August 2012
I loved this book. It's as if Bill Bryson or Louis Theroux had performed a road trip into the world of self help. Yet the book has Burkeman's excellent style as a rational, intelligent journalist at heart and this work is both readable and important. Why important? Because it is the first book I have ever read that effortlessly and amusingly conveys hundreds of philosophical and psychological points on happiness into a coherent whole in a way that makes it a pleasure to consume. It should be required reading for all 18 year olds! I am 47 ... Buy it!
on 21 April 2013
This is an excellent book. I did not expect it to be great as I normally do not like amateur psychology. However, this is the work of no amateur. Oliver Burkeman's synthesis of the subject is as good as any practicing psychiatrist/psychologist but Burkeman has a great journalistic way of keeping your interest so the book is never dry or dull. Although I have seen other people remark that the overall thesis is not original, the "negative" route to happiness (or self-acceptance/contentment would be a better way of putting it) does fly in the face of many conventional approaches, even some of the traps that a CBT approach can appear to fall into.That said, Burkeman's endorsement of meditation approaches Albert Ellis' teachings do draw on some very mainstream thinking. Overall, I think this book would be helpful for anyone who generally prefer to take a realist approach to life's trials and tribulations, anyone who hates gimmicky forms of self-agrandisement. I will definitely give it a second going over, because it is so well-written and because the messages are important and health-enhancing ones. I wish Burkeman would consider writing a book for young people on a similar topic.
I really love this book. I've done my fair share of self-help books. In particular the idea of aligning your vibration clearly with what you want.
This book is quite different to that but I feel does not completely contradict that view point.
The book shows the benefits of actually looking at the worst outcome of a given situation. There being a big difference from pretty bad outcome to a catastrophic one.
Once you have analysed an outcome to its pessimist outcome possibility, you are in a way freed up. You realise that most of the time the outcome is not that serious and you take action. It then becomes possible to try move towards a goal and not get overly anxious about the outcome because you already know the possible worst outcomes.
What I like about this book is that it uses a blend of ideas rather than one technique to fix everything and have an amazing happy life.
Meditation is one such technique. Using a form of meditation to observe oneself and not try to reach a particular outcome. Also the meditation is showing the existence of an observer. One who is a step back from all the action and the emotions.
"The Antidote" is the product of the lifetime battle between positivity, negativity, and realism. When how we see the world shapes the world we live in, what is important is not what, but how : tempered by the counterweight of sense. The straightforward, conversational style is accessable and approachable, and the philosophy within is deceptively obvious : don't chase happiness as an objective, just be at peace with whatever is happening you cannot control.
Life isn't a set of goals or a checklist, but just a bunch of stuff : you don't need the perfect house, or car, or wife, just to enjoy as best one can what there is. It offers some thoughts on how to understand the normal as normal, that life sometimes holds without sense, that commitment bias can destroy the objective. But tempered with a cautious realism, that there is a limit of optimism and interpretation of fact, there is a comfort in realism/acceptance, that judgement is reality, how the world sees us. A useful and innovative approach more people should take, perhaps.