book review: the antidote – happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking

antidotebook

 

4star

AKOSMED Book Review Series Presents: The Antidote — Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman (2012)

I listened to The Antidote on the heels of several psychology books in popular literature and it made me question almost everything that I had ever previously believed about happiness, balance, and positive thinking.

I have a confession to make. I didn’t actually read this book the first time around. During a flurry of weeks in which I spent several solo hours road-tripping back and forth across the east coast, I decided to download a few books to my phone to pass the time. I chose The Antidote on a whim — because let’s be honest, the title appeals to the gleeful cynic in all of us. I loved it so much, as soon as I got hold of an internet connection, I bought the paperback version too.

Oliver Burkeman narrates the audio version in his dry British accent, which is the perfect complement to the content of his book. He begins by making the case against traditional positive thinking as a means to achieving happiness. Positive thinking often seeks to banish the negative from our minds. But this is just like the white bear problem — if you are told not to think about a white bear, it becomes nearly impossible to not think about a white bear. In the same way, trying to avoid negative thoughts is nearly impossible — and when we inevitably fail, our negative thoughts are compounded by our feeling of failure.

His arguments bring to mind the how the burgeoning American diet-and-fitness industry doing is little to help Americans’ waistlines and may actually be making them worse by encouraging an unnatural preoccupation with food. “It’s striking,” Burkeman writes, “that the ‘happiest’ countries are never those where self-help books sell the most, nor indeed where professional psychotherapists are most widely consulted. The existence of a thriving ‘happiness industry’ clearly isn’t sufficient to engender national happiness, and it’s not unreasonable to suspect that it might make matters worse.”

In just a little over 200 pages (or 6 hours of listening), Burkeman runs us through the history of the original Stoics of ancient Greece to the present-day Stoics, a short overview of Buddhism and meditation, the problems with goal-setting, mindfulness and the self, and the surprising benefits of insecurity, failure, and contemplating death.

In sum, I listened to The Antidote on the heels of several psychology books in popular literature and it made me question almost everything that I had ever previously believed about happiness, balance, and positive thinking. I found it to be a fresh and thought-provoking perspective that was much easier to swallow compared to some of the other books sharing the same shelf in the Self-Help/Psychology section at Barnes and Noble. I’d highly recommend it to skeptics, realists, people who think The Secret is rubbish, or anyone unsure if they want to jump on the wellness bandwagon to begin with but are willing to try.

AKOSMED Rating 4/5 Stars

The Antidote — Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is available in hardcover, paperback, and audio versions from the online sellers Amazon and Audible.

Table of Contents

  1. On Trying Too Hard to Be Happy
  2. What Would Seneca Do? The Stoic Art of Confronting the Worst-Case Scenario
  3. The Storm Before the Calm: A Buddhist Guide to Not Thinking Positively
  4. Goal Crazy: When Trying to Control the Future Doesn’t Work
  5. Who’s There? How to Get Over Your Self
  6. The Safety Catch: The Hidden Benefits of Insecurity
  7. The Museum of Failure: The Case for Embracing Your Errors
  8. Memento Mori: Death as a Way of Life
  9. Epilogue: Negative Capability

About the Author

Oliver Burkeman is a feature writer for The Guardian and also maintains a popular weekly column entitled “This Column Will Change Your Life,” in which he writes about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness. He is a winner of the Foreign Press Association’s Young Journalist of the Year award, and has been short-listed for the Orwell Prize. www.oliverburkeman.com

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