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.

9 comments on “Book Review: The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman
  • Yes indeed. Life is balanced around dark and light – darkness and lightness. As Jung wrote, to the effect, he had come to the conclusion that as the day arises from the night, the truth arises from the lie. Nor will we know perfectly what is the case – good or evil.

    Any exaggeration of one of these two facets will lead to imbalance even if the balance never will or should be perfect of course.

    In the modern technocratic culture much harm has been done by overempasizing the “bright” side; success, richness and happiness. A and B-teams! We are all the result of long unbroken chains of successes! We are all loosers and winners. Moreover we need “errors”.

    So indeed this is a profound insight. Failure and negative feelings can be good driving forces as well.

  • Reading his first book, which is essentially a collection of his Guardian articles, did away with my desire to read any more self-help books, even this one (his first book succeeded all to well!). The ideas from this book also summarised in some of his recent talks (Yotube, RSA), which makes giving this book an easy choice, as good as it may be.

  • From the sound of it, his thesis is at least somewhat similar to Alan Watt’s “The Wisdom of Insecurity”, which puts forth the idea that our unhappiness arises from our inability to control that which cannot be controlled. I’ll have to check out this book too.

  • Aaah.

    An anti-positive thinking book. This sounds like a self-help book I could actually read without feeling an overwhelming urge to puke, although I’m constitutionally disposed to sneer at the whole genre and anything that promises to change your life, like Burkeman’s blog.

    Friends, if you think you need a book to figure out how to be happy, you’ll never be happy.

    I believe the last self-help book I actually read was Looking Out for Number One by Robert J. Ringer, given to me by my roommate in 1978.

    Although much of that book is commonsense advice useful not just to salesmen and dope-dealers, the theme of the book could be summed up as “Learn to ignore your altruistic instincts”, a quote of Ringer that surely warms the heart of his fellow Ayn Rand admirers.

    Think of it as a primer for sociopaths in the manner of Paul Ryan or Bryan Kaplan.

    Oliver Burkeman’s book sounds like an adult take on the subject of personal growth, and Ben’s review inclines me to read it, but if you want a primary source of cynical realism, read Machiavelli.

    If you feel oppressed by religion and are interested in a gnostic approach to achieving happiness, rather than feel-good “power of positive thinking” hype, I can also recommend Letters from the Earth by the most unchristian Mark Twain.

  • Life itself is a matter of perception. The concepts such as happiness, positivity, optimism, certainty etc. are perceived only by those who have a definite and distinguished experience of their opposites. If you haven’t experienced darkness, you can’t possibly appreciate light. Every piece of knowledge is accoutered upon a firmament of ignorance, that provides the right foundation for initiation and growth. We are anxious about uncertainty because we refuse to underrate the effectiveness of extrapolating past events in predicting future outcomes, not wanting to leave future to deal with future and adapting ourselves to accept events in real time constructs as they occur.

  • Thanks Ben, the intro to the author and the book is really helpful. Especially the quote on love and vulnerability from C.S. Lewis. “goal-setting can be explained by our inability to deal with the anxiety produced by uncertainty” this itself is a whole new way of looking at goals.

  • I haven’t read this book but I already have it. I’m a huge fan of Oliver Burke since the first time I read his article in Guardian US. He is indeed good in his writings and reading his works will give you a great outlook in life. I’m looking forward for more of his works.

    Very well said Krishna! I agree with what you are saying. Life is a matter of perception, you will only learn the opposites when you experience the other.

  • I also have this book in my tbr stack n my desk…I love great books that really just tell you what you need to know and leave it there, it is your journey after all! I would recommend a great Memoir type personal journey book called Breaking Free by Denis Hickey He really makes you think hard about what you would be willing to give up just to find personal clarity in life. It was inspiring!

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