The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman is the book that gave me a taste for Stoicism and got me reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. In his book Oliver Burkeman takes on the prevailing ideas about optimism and positivity that are so prevalent today, namely, that unflinching optimism in the face of any situation is inherently good, and that “staying positive” is a recipe for happiness. With a healthy dose of humor, he easily picks apart these arguments and sets off to explore the negative path to happiness. The Antidote pulls from many sources, including Dostoyevsky and the Buddha, ancient philosophy and cutting edge psychology, to convincingly show how our current emphasis on optimism can actually be impeding our search for happiness, and might even be making us miserable.
“… It is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness – that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy”
Burkeman delivers evidence and anecdote to show how the attempt to always “stay positive” can lead our minds to generate negative thoughts. He explains how the refusal to consider what may happen if things go wrong leaves us woefully unprepared when things inevitably do. He urges us to consider the worst case scenario, if only to see how relatively well off we are. He even goes so far as to suggest that keeping an eye on our own mortality can lead us to appreciate our life as we live it. The book is an entertaining read that contains a lot of insight and I would recommend it to most anyone. It is particularly nice as a counterpoint to the majority of self-help books out there.
There is a lot to unpack in The Antidote, but I’d like to focus on a favorite topic of the smiley face self-help industry: Motivation. Burkeman drops this gem while discussing the Buddhist concept of non-attachment:
“Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it? The problem, from this perspective, isn’t that you don’t feel motivated; it’s that you imagine you need to feel motivated. If you can regard your thoughts and emotions about whatever you’re procrastinating on as passing weather, you’ll realise that your reluctance about working isn’t something that needs to be eradicated or transformed into positivity. You can coexist with it. You can note the procrastinatory feelings and act anyway.”
This might sound pretty basic to some folks, but to me it was a revelation. Eleventyone seemed like such a manageable goal in those heady days of Winter 2012, but it’s proving to be tough to come home from a long day of work and sit down to write each night. I am rarely in the mood to dive in to a piece, I just feel like eating dinner and vegetating in front of a screen. I’ve been thinking of this as a problem and trying to come up with solutions. I’ve cleaned off my desk and organized my space. I’ve psyched myself up while driving home, out loud, hoping that the people in the cars around me don’t notice. I’ve printed quotes that inspire me on index cards and hung them on my wall. These tactics help from time to time, but they just as often fail. They can even backfire as they turn into forms of procrastination and perfectionism. But now this perspective shift doesn’t so much solve the problem so much as undermine the idea that there is a problem in the first place.
I can write without feeling like writing. I’m doing it now, in fact. It seems obvious, and yet we often we wait for inspiration, or put things off until we’re in the right mood. We don’t have to overcome our fear or our resistance before we can do the task that lays before us. We can feel scared or stuck or bored and just do it anyway. It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as the Nike slogan, but “Do it anyway” has a certain appeal. It might not be the most motivational sentiment to convey, but that’s kind of the point. And it is a little liberating to realize we don’t have to motivate ourselves or court inspiration, we just have to set to work.