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

The light hearted cover of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking can fool the reader into thinking this is an easy read. In fact, The Antidote is a powerful argument for embracing ambiguity and uncertainty (which includes our fear of death). It explores Stoicism, meditation, philosophy and psychology, mixed with offbeat situations and characters. The central idea is that we should accept negative feelings, thoughts and experiences as essential aspects of life. Do not try to avoid these.

British journalist Burkeman is straightforward and cynical. The Antidote contains ideas from the writer’s popular Guardian feature “This Column Will Change Your Life” strung together in a coherent narrative, leading to some inevitable conclusions.

In this post I’ll run though what I learned from the book. For completeness, I’ve also posed my ‘raw’ highlights from the book too. Have you read The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking? What did you think of it, or learn from it? Please consider leaving a comment below:

What I Learned

Happiness

Don’t think of a bear. Too late, you’ve just done it. Trying to avoid an outcome is one we are most drawn to. This is why positive thinking doesn’t work. Add low-self esteem too and you’ll end-up less happy than when you started. The unwanted feelings become ever more solidified.

Burkeman explores Stoicism as a possible way forward, which is:

He suggests that is you visualise a successful outcome, then your motivation to achieve a goal reduces. By using negative visualisation you focus on what can go wrong, then cultivating a calm indifference towards things outside of your control. It is by adopting this process that you achieve tranquility.

After all it’s not a situation, events or people that cause us distress:

By considering losing the things you take for granted then you cultivate gratitude and reduce hedonic adaptation. As he says here:

Thinking about the possibility of losing something you value shifts it from the backdrop of your life back to centre stage, where it can deliver pleasure once more.

He goes onto say:

… reassurance can actually exacerbate anxiety: when you reassure your friend that the worst-case scenario he fears probably won’t occur, you inadvertently reinforce his belief that it would be catastrophic if it did. You are tightening the coil of his anxiety, not loosening it.

All too often, the Stoics note, things will not turn out for the best. But it is also true that, when they do go wrong, they’ll almost go less wrong than you feared. Thus, negative thinking should be something we do, and not something that happens to us.

Happiness isn’t about trying to control circumstances, hoping that the universe fall in line with your plans. This approach to negative thinking isn’t the opposite of positive thinking. It involves embracing our insecurities, flaws and sorrows and acknowledging that because we are human, we fail and make mistakes.

Burkman also advises that you avoid becoming hooked on mental narratives which promote how things should or shouldn’t be, something which I’ve written about before. By doing this then you avoid attachment, a Buddhist idea:

We “pursue” happiness because we think it comes outside of ourselves. But it’s also because we think things are outside of ourselves that we are stressed about them and worry about them. Whatever can be found can also be lost.

There’s nothing wrong with striving to accomplish something, or making friends, or loving your spouse and children. The Buddha himself, after all, spent his life after his enlightenment associating with people, and teaching them. Non-attachment does not require extreme asceticism or shunning human contact. Non-attachment comes from the wisdom that nothing is truly separate.

The self is best thought of as some kind of a fiction, albeit a useful one. It’s difficult to control the chattering stream of thinking which makes up who we are, this ‘I’ that does not exist. Clinging to a particular version of a happy life, while fighting to end all possibility of an unhappy one, causes more problems than it solves.

Goals

The Antidote Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive ThinkingBurkeman also backs up my thoughts on goal setting. He highlights a specific example. Everest climbers who had been lured into destruction by their passion for goals. The more they fixated on the endpoint, the more that goal became not just an external target but a part of their own identities. They reinterpreted negative evidence as a reason to invest more effort and resources in pursuit of the goal. And so things would go even more wrong.

To avoid the anguish that follows lack of goal achievement, you have to accept the mood you’re in then just get on do what you have to do. Sometimes you can’t make yourself feel like acting. Taking a non-attached stance: Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something to start doing it? Note the procrastinatory feelings and act anyway. The working routines of prolific authors and artists – people who do get a lot done – rarely include techniques for ‘getting motivated’. Quite the opposite: they tend to emphasise the mechanics of the working process. We can take action without changing the way we feel.

Interestingly, he also uncovers that The Yale Study of Goals never took place.

For me goals have to be set at an high level to be of any use. Some people have known for awhile now what they want, but just haven’t pursued it, and for them, it just takes a little contemplation to realize what they’ve wanted all along. Others will have a more difficult time, as they have never figured out what their dream is, or what they’d like to do. A simple exercise to help is to imagine you are eighty years old. Complete the sentences: ‘I wish I’d spent more time on…’ and ‘I wish I’d spent less time on…’. The answers should help provide guidance of your true life goals. Start living your life so that you will get to that point.

Uncertainty

Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more in our preferred vision of that future. Not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.

Consider any significant decision you’ve ever taken that you subsequently came to regret: you felt the gut-knotting ache of uncertainty; afterwards, having made a decision, did those feelings subside? If so, this points to the troubling possibility that your primary motivation in taking the decision wasn’t any rational consideration of its rightness for you, but the urgent need to get rid of your feelings of uncertainty.

Try asking yourself if you have any problems right now. The answer, unless you’re currently in physical pain, is likely to be no. Most problems involve thoughts about how something might turn out badly in the future, or thoughts about things that happened in the past. A staggering proportion of human activity is motivated by the desire to feel safe and secure.

In turning towards insecurity we may come to understand that security itself is a kind of illusion – and that we were mistaken, all along, about what it was we thought we were searching for. People have always believed that they are living in times of unique insecurity. Many of the ways in which we try to feel safe don’t make us happy.

We protect ourselves from physical danger by moving to safer neighbourhoods, but the effects of such trends on community life have been demonstrated to have a negative effect on collective levels of happiness. We seek the fulfilment of strong romantic relationships and friendships, yet striving too hard to achieve security in such relationships stifles them.

What’s the solution then? Like a frog: You should sun yourself on a lily-pad until you get bored; then, when the time is right, you should jump to a new lily-pad and hang out there for a while. Continue this over and over, moving in whatever direction feels right.

Death and Love

Reduce the terror induced by the mere thought of death. Fearing being dead yourself makes no sense. You don’t look back with horror at the eternal oblivion before you were born. Live a life suffused with the awareness of its own finitude, and you can hope to finish it in something like the fashion that Jean-Paul Sartre hoped to die:

… quietly … certain that the last burst of my heart would be inscribed on the last page of my work, and that death would be taking only a dead man.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung, and maybe broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no-one. The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you.

Book Notes

The Antidote Book Notes

In Summary

After reading the book you realise that no matter how bad the situation, there is always a worse one. What the cult of optimism and positive thinking tries to do is to end uncertainty, to make happiness fixed and final. And unfortunately it all to often has the opposite effect. Accept your fear and your failure, don’t repress them or hide them under a bogus positive mindset.

Bonus Content

This is my YouTube playlist of Burkeman talking about the central ideas from The Antidote:


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One thought on “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

  1. It seems to me that the sentence: “the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer” is a paradox, at least to me, because I like Stoics because I want to suffer less

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