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Oliver Burkeman (Handout)
Oliver Burkeman (Handout)

REVIEW: IDEAS

The positive power of negative thinking Add to ...

  • Title The Antidote
  • Author Oliver Burkeman
  • Genre nonFiction
  • Publisher Allen Lane Canada
  • Pages 236
  • Price $32

Embrace your inner crankiness, your ill humour, your withering disdain! Positive thinking as an overarching philosophy of life is lightweight stuff, a cult, unworthy of serious pursuit. Your skepticism, it turns out, has been healthy all along.

And now, at last, there’s a book that will confirm your long-held peevish thoughts on the subject, hitherto suffered only by family and friends.

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The book, by the very smart, very funny Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman, is Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

But the title is a sly one. It may sound like all those other oppressive self-help books exhorting you to “get Motivated” and “succeed,” but don’t be put off; Burkeman’s book isn’t spiritual entertainment. Or perhaps it is – spiritual entertainment of a perverse kind. Because what he has written is a kind of debunker’s bible. And lucky you. The book arrives in time for the Christmas season which, for many, entails a forced march to the land of relentless good cheer.

Relentlessness is something Burkeman excels at, but in his case it has to do with the chapter-by-chapter skewering of the “cult of optimism,” better known as the idea that the secret to human happiness lies in your being positive at all times.

He also suggests a deeper form of personal happiness, one that embraces, with grace and equanimity, life’s bad bits, as well as its good ones.

So let’s start with being stoical in the face of the overbearing exhortation to find happiness through the practice of positive thinking. Burkeman gives the Stoics a full chapter, and deservedly so. They were, he notes, “among the first to suggest that the path to happiness might depend on negativity.”

Negativity, as derived from the early Greek Stoics who were writing around the third century BC, forms the core of Burkeman’s thesis. It’s a tough-minded approach that involves “developing a kind of muscular calm in the face of trying circumstances,” and is nothing less than reasoned thinking with a dash of Buddhism thrown in to keep things nicely non-attached.

“Happiness reached via positive thinking can be fleeting and brittle,” Burkeman writes. “Negative visualization generates a vastly more dependable calm.”

Bending circumstances to your will, he says, is doomed to failure. Better to embrace all of life, and not waste your time in the desperate, and usually failed, pursuits of happiness, security, wealth, and so forth.

Then there’s the wonderfully edgy psychologist, Arthur Ellis, whose work Burkeman recounts at length. Ellis wrote that the worst thing about any event is “usually your exaggerated belief in its horror.” Asking yourself what’s the worst that can happen in a situation can work as an antidote here. Diffusing beliefs and judgments and confronting reality as it is, Ellis claimed, as well as accepting that you are “a fallible human being, just like everyone else,” will go a long way toward having a more meaningful, less deluded existence. “If you accept that the universe is uncontrollable,” Burkeman says via Ellis, “you’re going to be a lot less anxious.”

Burkeman travelled widely to research his book – to the remote Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts, to Mexico City to experience Day of the Dead festivities, to Ann Arbor, Mich., and a warehouse there containing failed consumer products that “stands as a memorial to humanity’s shattered dreams,” and to a hilarious Dr. Robert H. Schuller motivational seminar in a Texas stadium – hilarious in Burkeman’s hands.

He also interviewed Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now) to explore the ways in which the pursuit of happiness and success seem to backfire, and he sought the counsel of Chris Hayes, a former stockbroker turned “expert on organizational behaviour,” to discover all that is wrong with relentless goal-setting. As well, there’s a nifty chapter on the denial of death and on personal failure, both of which, Burkeman contends, the culture of positive thinking “strives to avoid at all costs.”

So now you have it. And all you have to do to benefit from Burkeman’s refreshing ideas is to find a quiet, tinsel-free place to read his book. Being miserable on occasion, he will tell you, can be good for you, and can even make you happy. And how’s that for an early Christmas present?

M.A.C. Farrant’s latest book is The Strange Truth About Us: A Novel of Absence.

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