Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking [Booklist]

by Todd Hebert on December 24, 2012

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The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking
Oliver Burkeman
Faber & Faber, inc. (2012)

Newsflash: life isn’t always a bowl of cherries. There are a lot of happy, joyful events that happen every day, but there is also a lot of sadness, failure and stress. Is the key to happiness focusing on the positive events and minimizing the negative as many self-help books and motivational speakers would tell you? Absolutely not, argues Oliver Burkeman in his book, “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.” In fact, our constant effort to be positive and look at the bright side of things – chasing happiness – is exactly what makes us miserable, he says. Perhaps the way to true happiness is accepting and embracing negativity, failure, uncertainty, insecurity, and even death.

Setting up the premise of the book, Burkeman asks the reader to take the “white bear challenge.”

Can you succeed in not thinking about a white bear for one whole minute? You guess the answer, of course, but it’s nonetheless instructive to make the attempt. Why not try it now? Look at your watch, or find a clock with a second hand, and aim for a mere ten seconds of entirely non-white-bear-related thoughts, starting…now.
My commiserations on your failure.

The problem is our uniquely human capacity for metacognition, our ability to think about thinking. When we tell ourselves to suppress thoughts of white bears, our metacognitive monitoring process is constantly scanning our thoughts for evidence of whether we are succeeding at the task. “If you try too hard,” says Burkeman, “it will jump to the forefront of consciousness – and suddenly, all you will be able to think about is white bears, and how badly you’re doing at not thinking about them.”

The same concept goes for trying to replace gloomy thoughts with happy ones. The harder you strive for it, the worse off you will be.

“The Antidote” is a truly fascinating and addictive addition to the “psychology of happiness” genre. One of the few that focuses on a negative path to happiness as opposed to a positive one. But Burkeman is sure to emphasize that this “path” is certainly not a neatly packaged step-by-step how-to on being happy. It is a variety of approaches, and philosophies that share the idea of embracing reality as it is, not as you would like it to be.

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