Journalist Oliver Burkeman cheerfully guides us through the power of negative thinking in his new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Culled from his popular Guardian column, this book’s central insight is that positive thinking doesn’t make anyone happier. In fact, chanting affirmations and focusing on success may undermine our happiness by reminding us how we fall short of it every day and in every way.
So what is the “negative path” to happiness? Mining a long and venerable philosophical tradition, Burkeman introduces us to a variety of approaches that encourage us to detach from our relentless pursuit of betterment. His epigraph from Alan Watt evokes the central paradox of this way of thinking: “When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float.” From the negative visualization of Greco-Roman Stoicism to the detachment of Buddhism, these schools of thought remind us that although we may not be able to control what happens to us, suffering is optional.
Although Burkeman dives into more contemporary New Age-y waters in his hilarious character assassination of The Secret, he admits to finding himself drawn to best-selling author Eckhart Tolle. Tolle’s philosophy, like much of contemporary Buddhism, encourages us to stop identifying with the self, if by “self” we mean those endless chattering voices in our minds. One of Tolle’s techniques that Burkeman finds himself using in daily life is the simple question: Do I have a problem right now? This reminds us that much of our anxiety concerns a future that hasn’t happened yet.
In other fascinating chapters, Burkeman looks at how goal-setting may have contributed to the tragic deaths on Mount Everest in 1996; how our post-9/11 preoccupation with security may be making us less safe; and how embracing failure, false starts and uncertainty may help us move forward in our lives. Burkeman’s book is indeed a witty antidote to the shelves of self-help books that don’t seem to help anyone but their authors; but it also has a serious purpose. Embracing uncertainty and detaching from our monkey-minds may help us become happier.