“Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” is the subtitle of Oliver Burkeman’s new book “The Antidote.” In part it’s a critique of various (there are so many) self-help books and programs requiring that one’s outlook be relentlessly upbeat. Burkeman questions if such methods work, exploring the dark side, as it were. The surprising short answer is no.
While some bits might help temporarily, the constant maintenance required to reassure that everything will be OK exhausts. In the long run the fairy dust wears off, and research indicates that desperately seeking to suppress, rather than acknowledge, negative thoughts defeats the exercise. Alternatives are provided!
Burkeman discovers that “Happiness reached via positive thinking can be fleeting and brittle,” but surprisingly, “negative visualization generates a vastly more dependable calm.” He attends a motivational seminar, a meditation retreat, and engages in an exercise to invite embarrassment (as part of exploring how our fears are often worse than what we fear).
Along his journey (which is much fun to read), he interviews modern researchers and philosophers, and reads the Stoics. They argue wisely that the only thing we can truly control is what “we believe about our circumstances,” and that’s all we need to control because “tranquility results from replacing our irrational judgments with rational ones.” Sounds so simple.
I loved Burkeman’s encounter with the work of Saras Sarasvathy, and what Sarasvathy calls “causally minded” people. These people are “effectualists,” they take action based on what is readily available: “what you are, what you know and who you know.” Then they “see what happens.” This means not waiting till all the heavens align on some perfect day, but do now, with what you have.
He also talks about the important distinction made by working authors and artists who know it’s not about “getting motivated” or “feeling inspired,” but rather about the power of employing specific routines and “rituals which provide a structure to work in.” Close to home: get out the paints, open a drawer or box of stamps and “see what happens.”
Burkeman, a features writer for The Guardian newspaper, describes himself as a “skinny, pale Englishman” in the midst of his search for Santa Muerte in the Mexico City suburb of Tepito. In the chapter titled “Momento Mori,” he details a culture more comfortable with death than ours.
The chapter ends with Burkeman inviting the reader to do a specific exercise, which aims to help us achieve “mortality awareness.” It’s not complicated. Simply imagine yourself as 80 (or older if you are 80) and complete these sentences: “I wish I’d spent more time on…” and “I wish I’d spent less time on….