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Oliver Burkeman. (Michael Falco, for The Globe and Mail)
Oliver Burkeman. (Michael Falco, for The Globe and Mail)

Oliver Burkeman: a skeptical happiness expert Add to ...

For six years, Oliver Burkeman has written This Column Will Change Your Life, a look at the world of self-help, happiness studies and pop psychology, for Britain’s The Guardian. For two years, I wrote Happiness, a column in this paper.

The weekly exercise often makes him grumpy. “I just thought 80 per cent of this is rubbish,” he tells me by phone from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lives.

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My experience made me tired. All that happiness research can be very annoying. I actually grew to dislike Gretchen Rubin, author of the bestselling The Happiness Project and Pollyanna of the happiness world who figures that every hint of sadness can be fixed with a little determination, change of habit or a mantra.

For his new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, the Cambridge-educated 37-year-old Mr. Burkeman set out to find the “negative path” to contentedness. He thought that all the effort to get happy may be part of the problem. Not only that, he figured that the self-help culture is not very good at helping itself, if it had to keep coming up with happiness schemes. He was going to find a better way.

Finally, a skeptical happiness expert who seems to make sense.

Why are we so obsessed with happiness?

I think we always have been obsessed but under different guises. If you go back to ancient Greece and Rome, philosophy is meant to be therapeutic: The reason for asking what is the nature of the good life is so that you can put it into practice.

But new scientific findings about happiness increase interest, no?

There have been real breakthroughs in how to measure, or roughly measure, well-being in ways such that you can actually get at real truths about them. But the other part of this is, the current modern self-help movement is very much capitalism’s answers to these eternal questions. The happiness literature is an ideological instrument that promotes this individualist philosophy that you’ve got to deal with it on your own.

Were you an unhappy man before writing the book?

I didn’t start the book and research process in a state of terrible misery and end up in some place of complete contentment. But on the other hand, these are things that I have grappled with, and journalism is a brilliant cover for investigating all sorts of things that you’re totally obsessed by.

You basically pooh-pooh positive thinking.

There’s definitely a distinction to be made between positive thinking and positive psychology. You can see positive psychology as a very broad movement to look at the causes of happiness as well as the psychology of problems, and so I have a lot of time for that. But positive thinking is about actually trying to make your mental state something that it isn’t, trying to fill your mind with happy thoughts and feelings. What I wanted to get at is that sometimes the real skill you need is a not-doing skill, sort of learning to resist the urge to always try to do everything right.

Compared with your book, Gretchen Rubin’s to-do approach to happiness (The Happiness Project and Happiness at Home) is much easier to grasp. You’re asking people to incorporate some complicated ideas.

Fundamentally, this is about seeing the world differently – a shift in perspective, the moment when the optical illusion slips from being one thing to another. It’s about trying to trigger that. On the other hand, there are things you can do, and I suggest a few of them. I’m saying, “Look, you don’t need to become a full-time stoic or a full-time Buddhist. Use this technique.” I don’t object to a practical approach.

Your funniest example was going on the London Underground and calling out the names of the stops loudly in a deliberate ritual of self-humiliation. You were inviting negative feelings. That must be hard for a well-behaved Englishman.

The basic idea of it is derived from stoic exercises, which [in ancient times] obviously didn’t involve public transport. But the same idea is behind it. The point is not that it’s fun to do or that it isn’t quite embarrassing but that there’s a huge disproportion between the anxiety that’s provoked by thinking about it and actually doing it. It has this effect of sort of training a muscle, to ask yourself what the worst in any situation could be as a way of defeating anxiety. It’s very contrary to the positive-thinking culture.

Have you used the technique often?

I use it on a daily basis in small ways. If you’re running late for some appointment or you’re going to give some talk that you’re sort of nervous about, it’s always really useful to stop and realize that a certain amount of public embarrassment is the worst that could happen. And yet the thoughts that you’ve been having on a semi-conscious level are a bit more equivalent to the world exploding.

I loved the discussion of how our beliefs or judgments about certain things cause unhappiness, not the things themselves. You give the example of how we might become irritated by a colleague in the next cubicle who won’t stop talking. We think it’s the colleague who’s irritating. But the stoics would say that what is actually causing distress is our own belief that getting work done without interruption is an important goal.

It’s interesting because the cult of optimism would say: Try and force your belief about everything being as upbeat and cheery as possible. But the stoics will say to just remember that it’s your beliefs that are mediating between events and your emotions. You don’t need to, and it’s probably not a good idea, to struggle to make those beliefs totally upbeat.

True. But you even suggest the same holds true when someone we love falls ill. What causes our suffering is the belief that it’s not a good thing for our loved ones to fall ill. That’s interesting from a philosophical point of view, but not very comforting.

You don’t need to let go of the belief. You just need to recognize that it is a belief that is causing what’s happening, and that can trigger a certain amount of calm into the situation that remains a very sad one. I suspect that this mythic stoic sage would remain untouched by emotions, but I’m not sure I would endorse that stance. I want to retain the ability to feel very sad when sad things happen, but it’s just a slightly more calm way to go about it.

But you also discuss uncertainty, a fundamental human discomfort, in a way that’s very poetic, but again, not necessarily helpful. You quote American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who writes that “the ethical life … is based on a trust in uncertainty … on being more like a plant than a jewel: something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.” That’s lovely, Oliver, but very hard to do.

I know. But how we think about something often exacerbates the problem we’re trying to solve. So by constantly chasing after feelings of security and certainty is to somehow deny the fundamental reality of loss, which is that everything changes all the time. The ultimate target, if you can consider it, is to just plug completely into that uncertainty and to recognize it. But don’t get me wrong: The idea of embracing groundlessness is a hard thing, and I have not got it licked.

You got to meet Eckhart Tolle. As a skeptical journalist, were you won over?

I concluded from meeting him and reading his books that he’s the real deal. People assume that a lot of books with weird New Age titles are going to be suggesting that you swing crystals over your liver. But actually if you read someone like Tolle, it’s an exercise in introspection. It’s not some dodgy scientific claim about how the world works. It’s saying, ‘Look inside yourself. Are we not accompanied by this chattering inner voice all the time? What might it mean to consider that you are not your mind.’ That’s really an incredibly profound idea: you can start to watch and observe your thoughts instead of being completely identified with them.

Basically. your book is trying to encourage a self-awareness about the way we think.

Yes, absolutely. It’s about saying that positive thinking says to just change your thoughts. Whereas these approaches say change your relationship to your thoughts and emotions. Don’t struggle to change the thoughts and emotions themselves.

Some people have called your approach to happiness Grinch-like. Does that bother you?

It doesn’t affect me, really. The thing I try to be clear about is that this is a question of balancing imbalance. If I were saying that all positivity should be shunned and avoided, just as positive thinkers say all negative thinking should be shunned, that would be futile and irritating.

Do you get push back from the positive folk?

A little. But I think that I don’t hear as much from positive people who object because it would require them to be negative.

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