Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking
by Oliver Burkeman
Hardcover (13 Nov 2012), 256 pages.
(Due out in paperback Nov 2013)
Publisher: Faber and Faber
The Antidote is a series of journeys among people who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. What they have in common is a hunch about human psychology: that it's our constant effort to eliminate the negative that causes us to feel so anxious, insecure, and unhappy. And that there is an alternative "negative path" to happiness and success that involves embracing the things we spend our lives trying to avoid. It is a subversive, galvanizing message, which turns out to have a long and distinguished philosophical lineage ranging from ancient Roman Stoic philosophers to Buddhists.
Oliver Burkeman talks to life coaches paid to make their clients' lives a living hell, and to maverick security experts such as Bruce Schneier, who contends that the changes we've made to airport and aircraft security since the 9/11 attacks have actually made us less safe. And then there are the "backwards" business gurus, who suggest not having any goals at all and not planning for a company's future.
Burkeman's new book is a witty, fascinating, and counterintuitive read that turns decades of self-help advice on its head and forces us to rethink completely our attitudes toward failure, uncertainty, and death.
On Trying Too Hard to Be Happy
Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions
THE MAN WHO CLAIMS that he is about to tell me the secret of human happiness is eighty-three years old, with an alarming orange tan that does nothing to enhance his credibility. It is just after eight o'clock on a December morning, in a darkened basketball stadium on the outskirts of San Antonio in Texas, and according to the orange man I am about to learn 'the one thing that will change your life forever'. I'm sceptical, but not as much as I might normally be, because I am only one of more than fifteen thousand people at Get Motivated!, America's 'most popular business motivational seminar', and the enthusiasm of my fellow audience members is starting to become infectious.
'So you wanna know?', asks the octogenarian, who is Dr Robert H. Schuller, veteran self-help guru, author of more than thirty-five books on the power of positive thinking, and, in his other job, the founding pastor of the largest church in the United States constructed entirely out of glass. The crowd roars its assent. Easily embarrassed British people like me do not, generally speaking, roar our assent at motivational seminars in Texas basketball stadiums, but the atmosphere partially overpowers my reticence. I roar quietly.
'Here it is, then,' Dr Schuller declares, stiffly pacing the stage, which is decorated with two enormous banners reading 'MOTIVATE!' and 'SUCCEED!', seventeen American flags, and a large number of potted plants. 'Here's the thing that will change your life forever.' Then he barks a single syllable 'Cut!' - and leaves a dramatic pause before completing his sentence: ' the word "impossible" out of your life! Cut it out! Cut it out forever!'
The audience combusts. I can't help feeling underwhelmed, but then I probably shouldn't have expected anything different from Get Motivated!, an event at which the sheer power of positivity counts for everything. 'You are the master of your destiny!' Schuller goes on. 'Think big, and dream bigger! Resurrect your abandoned hope! Positive thinking works in every area of life!'
The logic of Schuller's philosophy, which is the doctrine of positive thinking at its most distilled, isn't exactly complex: decide to think happy and successful thoughts banish the spectres of sadness and failure and happiness and success will follow. It could be argued that not every speaker listed in the glossy brochure for today's seminar provides uncontroversial evidence in support of this outlook: the keynote speech is to be delivered, in a few hours' time, by George W. Bush, a president far from universally viewed as successful. But if you voiced this objection to Dr Schuller, he would probably dismiss it as 'negativity thinking'. To criticise the power of positivity is to demonstrate that you haven't really grasped it at all. If you had, you would stop grumbling about such things, and indeed about anything else.
The organisers of Get Motivated! describe it as a motivational seminar, but that phrase with its suggestion of minor-league life coaches giving speeches in dingy hotel ballrooms hardly captures the scale and grandiosity of the thing. Staged roughly once a month, in cities across North America, it sits at the summit of the global industry of positive thinking, and boasts an impressive roster of celebrity speakers: Mikhail Gorbachev and Rudy Giuliani are among the regulars, as are General Colin Powell and, somewhat incongruously, William Shatner. Should it ever occur to you that a formerly prominent figure in world politics (or William Shatner) has been keeping an inexplicably low profile in recent months, there's a good chance you'll find him or her at Get Motivated!, preaching the gospel of optimism.
Excerpted from The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman. Copyright © 2012 by Oliver Burkeman. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Antidote is aptly titled: the book is both a cure for what ails most guides to happiness and an anti-self-help title of sorts. Author Oliver Burkeman offers compelling introductions to seven philosophies that capitalize on the reality of the negative versus the popular and permeating positive to promote happiness. While realists and melancholies will feel quite welcome in The Antidote's pages, all readers who have ever been suspicious of the glib advice to "think positive", or flummoxed by society's obsession with goals and success, are likely to find Burkeman's exploration of these philosophical and spiritual habits of mind fascinating stuff.
Burkeman first introduces the idea of a negative road to happiness via Stoicism, or as he puts it, "the art of confronting the worst-case scenario." His tour then moves to a layman-friendly introduction to Buddhism and one of its most well-known practices, meditation. From there, Burkeman tackles the pitfalls of goal obsession and then moves to the murky topic of self-perception. Embracing insecurity and failure, two difficult concepts, follow next in separate chapters and prepare the way for the final, perhaps most difficult one, the remembrance of death, or memento mori. In his closing words, Burkeman joins these reverse psychologies with a kind of catch-all term taken from the poet John Keats, "negative capability," arguing that they all require an openness to the present and willingness to embrace mystery, and that these combined are, truly, the antidote for seekers of happiness.
Part of the success of the book comes from the author's willingness to immerse himself for a time in each of these so called negative paths to happiness. In several cases, this involved travel and conversational interviews with practitioners and experts. In others, Burkeman was involved in more challenging experiences such as not speaking for nearly a week or, conversely, loudly announcing London tube stops to a train car full of unsuspecting riders. His skill as a writer shines in his ability to properly mix such entertaining, but illustrative, anecdotes with the more meaty discussions concerning psychological scientific research, Greek philosophy and mortality.
I was most moved by what, to me, was the common theme across the spectrum of philosophies release of perceived control of our lives. This idea was part of each technique Burkeman explored. It is a difficult, mature and, yes, negative concept. Loss or, more accurately, the giving up of our false sense of being in control is terribly difficult. Can it foster happiness? Each reader must be her own judge, but in my opinion, an author who, like Burkeman, can probe such complicated matters of heart and mind in an even-handed and accessible way speaks much more potently than one who would argue with more volume or dogmatism. And even if you're someone who approaches this backwards concept of finding happiness with more skepticism than I did, I believe that Burkeman's research and open-minded exploration in The Antidote will prove thought-provoking and convincing.
Oliver Burkeman keeps an occasional, but very interesting blog which focuses mainly on social psychology and human behavior.
Reviewed by Stacey Brownlie
The Los Angeles Times
Burkeman’s tour of the ‘negative path’ to happiness makes for a deeply insightful and entertaining book. This insecure, anxious and sometimes unhappy reader found it quite helpful.
None of this is new, but Burkeman's ability to present sentiments in fresh, delightfully sarcastic packaging will appeal to the happy, the unhappy, and those who have already found a peaceful middle ground.
Starred Review. His broad approach toward harnessing our "negative capability" deserves wide readership; the author's nonprescriptive message has the potential to effect genuine, lasting changes for people who find happiness just out of reach.
The Observer (UK)
What unites [Burkeman’s] travels, and seems to drive the various characters he meets, from modern-day Stoics to business consultants, is disillusionment with a patently false idea that something as complex as the goal of human happiness can be found by looking in a book . . . It’s a simple idea, but an exhilarating and satisfying one.
The Daily Mail (UK)
Fascinating . . . After years spent consulting specialists—from psychologists to philosophers and even Buddhists—Burkeman realised they all agreed on one thing: . . . in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions—or, at least, to learn to stop running so hard from them.
The Guardian (UK)
Some of the most truthful and useful words on [happiness] to be published in recent years . . . A marvellous synthesis of good sense, which would make a bracing detox for the self-help junkie
The Telegraph (UK)
This is an excellent book; Burkeman makes us see that our current approach, in which we want happiness but search for certainty—often in the shape of material goods—is counterproductive.
Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind
The Antidote is a gem. Countering a self-help tradition in which 'positive thinking' too often takes the place of actual thinking, Oliver Burkeman returns our attention to several of philosophy's deeper traditions and does so with a light hand and a wry sense of humor. You'll come away from this book enriched - and, yes, even a little happier
Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist and Adapt
Addictive, wise and very funny. Burkeman never takes himself too seriously, but the rest of us should.
Alex Bellos, author Here's Looking at Euclid
Quietly subversive, beautifully written, persuasive and profound, Oliver Burkeman's book will make you think - and smile.
The Antidote introduces readers to numerous intriguing thinkers, past and present. Here is a short sampling with brief introductions:
Daniel Wegner professor of psychology at Harvard and director of the Mental Control Laboratory at the University. Wegner's studies concentrate on what he calls "the precisely counterintuitive error," our propensity to do exactly the thing we're trying to avoid. A New York Times opinion piece by Wegner explores the Web's effect on human memory. He is also the author of the book, The Illusion of Conscious Will.
Albert Ellis a non-traditional psychotherapist who began promoting tenets of Stoicism in the 1950s. He founded the Albert Ellis Institute and was the author of over 50 books. One of his primary goals was to show people the difference between the truly awful and the more common undesirable event. Encouraging people to directly confront their fears by experiencing them was one way he demonstrated and practiced this principle.
D. Christopher Kayes professor of management science at George Washington University who coined the term "goalodicy" to describe the irrational pursuit of a goal. His study of goal setting and its pitfalls originated with a hiking trip to Nepal in 1996 which coincided with the disaster near Everest's peak that killed eight climbers. He is the author of Destructive Goal Pursuit: the Mount Everest Disaster.
Bruce Schneier - an anti-establishment security consultant and head of technology security at the British telecom, BT. He preaches the futility of using ineffective methods of protection to establish a feeling of security rather than the real thing. He is the author of numerous books on cryptology, security issues and fear. A New York Times article about him explores his take on trust in the digital world.