Jan 7, 2014

The Antidote

I've just started reading The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman. Mr Burkeman writes a column for The Guardian called This Column Will Change Your Life, which is one of my favourite reads.

In one of those columns he recently said: "Happiness is reality minus expectations."

There's been a bit of resistance to the "pursuit of happiness"/positive thinking paradigms in recent years, with books such as The Happiness Trap reminding us that trying to be happy seldom makes us happy and studies demonstrating the value of pessimism.  Work-related articles on the internet are finally starting to look beyond the whole "follow your bliss" theme we've been fed for some time. The only self-help book that I like, Maurice Seligman's Learned Optimism, espouses realistic strategies using cognitive behavioural therapy to combat depression and anxiety, and rejects the more common positive affirmations and mantras that tend to irk people like me.

I'm less than halfway through The Antidote, but I like it a lot.

Here are some excerpts that grabbed me:

That we yearn for neat, book-sized solutions to the problem of being human is understandable, but strip away the packaging, and you'll find that the messages of such works are frequently banal.

There are good reasons to believe that the whole notion of 'seeking happiness' is flawed to begin with. For one thing, who says happiness is a valid goal in the first place? Religions have never placed much explicit emphasis on it, at least as far as this world is concerned,; philosophers have certainly not been unanimous in endorsing it, either. And any evolutionary psychologist will tell you that evolution has little interest in you being happy.

This last reminded me of what a psychologist told me, when I told her about the anxiety I felt every day when my children were little, terrified something bad would happen to them; how I couldn't watch them play in the park without visualizing them falling off things. I was not terrified all the time, and I didn't stop them doing normal things, but I would have these constant intrusive visualizations and then feel annoyed with myself, or anxious. While I expected her to counsel me on how not to worry, she told me instead that my worrying was what was keeping my children safe. "Your brain is not interested in keeping you relaxed or making you happy," she said. Once I accepted that this worrying was there to stay, I was able to accept it.

On positive thinking:
...once you have resolved to embrace the ideology of positive thinking, you will find a way to interpret virtually any eventuality as a justification for thinking positively. You need never spend any time considering how your actions might go wrong.
And when bad things happen ("and such things will happen"):
Trying to see things in an exclusively positive light is an attitude that requires constant, effortful replenishment. Should your efforts falter, or prove insufficient...you'll sink back down into - possibly deeper - gloom.  

On 'positive visualization' as a way to achieve goals (a la The Secret):
...focusing on the outcome you desire may actually sabotage your efforts to achieve it.
...as the brain "subconsciously [confuses] visualising success with having already achieved it."

On outcomes:
[W]e habitually act as if our control over the world were much greater than it really is. Even such personal matters as our health, our finances, and our reputations are ultimately beyond our control

I think when it comes down to it, almost every philosophy we espouse is a way of convincing ourselves we can control what happens to us. We can do some things of course, and there's no benefit in being totally pessimistic and defeatist - but so, so much of what happens to us is down to luck.

That's no justification for inaction, just a way of looking at things and not shrinking from the bad:

'The cucumber is bitter? Put it down,' Marcus [Aurelius] advises. 'There are brambles in the path? Step to one side. That is enough, without also asking: "How did these things come into the world at all?"'

Of course, these philosophies are all easy from our part of the world, and when we're talking about the usual gamut of everyday trials and losses.   There are few among us who cannot ask "WHY?" when bad things happen. But I'm not a person who can totally embrace "positive thinking" and the type of philosophy this book promotes is indeed, for me, a good antidote.

What do you think?


  1. I think that positive thinking is often not thinking. Ignoring reality in favour of rose coloured glasses. Not safe.
    And The Antidote sounds fascinating. A final review when you finish would be appreciated.

  2. Sounds a little too highbrow for me, too literary perhaps. I like easy to read fiction.

    1. It's not literary really - some quotes from ancient Roman Stoic philosophers so far. It's my favourite reading genre: pop science.



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