Summary and book reviews of The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman

The Antidote

Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking

By Oliver Burkeman

The Antidote
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  • Hardcover: Nov 2012,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Nov 2013,
    256 pages.

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Book Summary

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.

1

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?', ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. When you first read about the "negative path" and Alan Watts's "backwards law" in chapter 1, did you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with Oliver Burkeman that these might be more sensible strategies for happiness than positive thinking? Have you ever experienced a failure that turned into a success when you stopped pushing yourself to achieve a goal?
  2. In chapter 2, Burkeman writes, "For the Stoics, the ideal state of mind was tranquility...to be achieved not by strenuously chasing after enjoyable experiences but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one's circumstances." In chapter 6, Burkeman visits Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where a woman tells him, "The things you need for happiness aren't the ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

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 that capitalize on the reality of the negative – versus the popular and permeating positive – to promote happiness.   (Reviewed by Stacey Brownlie).

Full Review Members Only (855 words).

Media Reviews
Author Blurb 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

Author Blurb 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.

Author Blurb 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 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.

Publishers Weekly

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.

Kirkus Reviews

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 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.

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Thinkers Whose Theories are Critical to Burkeman's The Antidote

The Antidote introduces readers to numerous intriguing thinkers, past and present. Here is a short sampling with brief introductions:

Daniel WegnerDaniel 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 EllisAlbert 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 ...

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