Book Review: The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman, who writes a great column / blog titled This Column Will Change Your Life, has a new book out: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

In his book, he argues against an optimism-focused, goal-fixated, positive-thinking approach to achieving happiness. Instead, he praises stoicism, meditation, keeping vague goals, tough love, and pursuing a ‘negative’ path to happiness.antidote-240

It’s a delight to read. Oliver doesn’t cite the same studies of everyone else — he commits real acts of journalism, traveling out to meet people, doing a 10 day meditation retreat himself, drawing upon new and old books alike. And rather than obsess only about the idea of happiness, Oliver riffs on a broad set of “deep” life questions.

He leads a thoughtful discussion about our fear of death and the various “immortality projects” we take on as a result.

He says our attachment to goal-setting can be explained by our inability to deal with the anxiety produced by uncertainty. (I’ve written before about the fact that I’m not an especially goal-oriented person, despite high ambition.)

He suggests that thinking through the worst case scenario in your mind — grappling in your head with possible negative outcomes from a given endeavor — may be more productive than soaking up self-help positivity maxims.

He cites Paul Pearsall’s effort to get the concept of “awe” accepted as one of the primary human emotions, alongside love, joy, anger, fear, and sadness. “Unlike all the other emotions, awe is all of our feelings rolled into one intense one. You can’t peg it as just happy, sad, afraid, angry, or hopeful. Instead, it’s a matter of experiencing all these feelings and yet, paradoxically, experiencing no clearly identifiable, or at least any easily describable, emotion.” (Awe, to me, is the core emotion of a secular spiritual practice that emphasizes nature/the outdoors.)

He also quotes others throughout. For example, on trusting uncertainty:

“To be a good human is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertainty, and on a willingness to be exposed. It’s based on being more like a plant than a jewel: something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.”

— Martha Nussbaum, Univ of Chicago Law School

 On love and vulnerability:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung, and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no-one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with your hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

— C.S. Lewis

The most important characteristic of the book is its tone: it’s not bubbling with sunny, practical solutions for building a meaningful life. It’s a darker view of the human experience. But he does not employ said darkness as a cheap way to seem sophisticated — he’s subtle, and thus worth listening to.

Bottom Line: Oliver Burkeman writes about everyday philosophy and the wisdom of the good life. I believe he is underrated. I recommend his book.

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