The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking – Review

the antidote by oliver burkeman

Have you ever tried hard to be positive and upbeat and wondered why you still felt depressed? I certainly have and it’s left me feeling defeated by gremlins and doomed to a life of unhappiness.

Happiness and Positive Thinking

Happiness has become something of a Holy Grail in modern Western society.  Apart from spawning an entire new self-help genre in the publishing industry and an area of psychological study, it’s the one thing that most people aspire to.  And few feel they actually have.

I have to admit that Positive Thinking has always left me feeling a bit of a fraud, as if I was inhabiting someone else’s thoughts instead of my own.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

It turns out that it was my attempts to think happy thoughts that might have been causing my despair in the first place.

In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman argues that ‘the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable’.

As Aldous Huxley said, ‘the harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed’.

As a self-confessed self-help junkie, I was interested to read if there was an alternative path to happiness. After all, research has shown that self-help books don’t really help and publishers know this. They apparently have an “18-month rule” that states that the person most likely to buy a self-help book is someone who bought another self-help book within the past 18 months. That would be me!

Book cover of The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman book cover Burkeman, who writes the weekly ‘This Column Will Change Your Life’ column in The Guardian, claims that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness – that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.

In researching The Antidote, Burkeman travels to a Texan motivational seminar, a meditation retreat in Massachusetts, the slums of Kenya, the Museum of Failure and a Day of the Dead ceremony in Mexico.

Along the way he meets a range of people from psychotherapists to business consultants and modern-day Stoics. All people who have rejected the rat race in some way and found an alternate path to ‘happiness’ or peace within themselves.

The ‘Negative Path’ to Happiness

The Antidote advocates a ‘negative path’ to happiness, one that involves:

  • learning to enjoy uncertainty
  • embracing insecurity
  • stopping trying to think positively
  • becoming familiar with failure, and even
  • learning to value death.

According to psychotherapist Albert Ellis, ‘If you accept that the universe is uncontrollable, you’re going to be a lot less anxious.’

Now, thinking negatively and becoming familiar with failure I know I can do. But it’s the idea of enjoying uncertainty and embracing insecurity that poses the greatest challenge for me!

Vulnerability and Imperfection

In some ways, Burkeman’s work echoes that of another favourite author of mine, shame and vulnerability researcher, Brene Brown. Like Brown, Burkeman believes in embracing imperfection, and easing up on the search for neat solutions. And as a result of researching and writing the book he comes to understand that in relationships, happiness and vulnerability are often the same thing.

Negative + Positive Emotions = Happiness

The overriding message of The Antidote is that you don’t have to think positive thoughts in order to be happy. In fact, happiness needs to be able to accommodate both negative and positive emotions.

And in order to be truly happy, we might try experiencing more negative emotions – or, at the very least, learn to stop running quite so hard from them.

The Antidote is an entertaining read, full of fascinating insights into the nature of happiness and backed up with research.  Thought provoking, it’s a wonderful antidote to the ‘cult of optimism’ that prevails in our society.

It certainly made me contemplate living my life in a different way.  But for now, I’m happy with the knowledge that my negative, or realistic thoughts as I like to call them, are doing me no harm and may in fact be contributing to my overall sense of happiness.

I am on the ‘negative path’ to happiness.  Care to join me?

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkman 256 pp., Edinburgh: Canongate, £8.99

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2 Responses to The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking – Review

  1. Laska February 10, 2015 at 9:09 am #

    This is a great book. I’d also recomment Vincent Deary ‘How We Are’.

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