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The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking Paperback – November 5, 2013
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“Burkeman's tour of the ‘negative path' to happiness makes for a deeply insightful and entertaining book. This insecure, anxious and sometimes unhappy reader found it quite helpful.” ―Hector Tobar, The Los Angeles Times
“Some of the most truthful and useful words on [happiness] to be published in recent years . . . A marvellous synthesis of good sense, which would make a bracing detox for the self-help junkie.” ―Julian Baggini, The Guardian
“The Antidote is a gem. Countering a self-help tradition in which ‘positive thinking' too often takes the place of actual thinking, Oliver Burkeman returns our attention to several of philosophy's deeper traditions and does so with a light hand and a wry sense of humor. You'll come away from this book enriched--and, yes, even a little happier.” ―Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind
“Quietly subversive, beautifully written, persuasive, and profound, Oliver Burkeman's book will make you think--and smile.” ―Alex Bellos, author of Here's Looking at Euclid
“Addictive, wise, and very funny.” ―Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist
“What unites [Burkeman's] travels, and seems to drive the various characters he meets, from modern-day Stoics to business consultants, is disillusionment with a patently false idea that something as complex as the goal of human happiness can be found by looking in a book . . . It's a simple idea, but an exhilarating and satisfying one.” ―Alexander Larman, The Observer
“This is an excellent book; Burkeman makes us see that our current approach, in which we want happiness but search for certainty--often in the shape of material goods--is counterproductive.” ―William Leith, The Telegraph
“Fascinating . . . After years spent consulting specialists--from psychologists to philosophers and even Buddhists--Burkeman realised they all agreed on one thing: . . . in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions--or, at least, to learn to stop running so hard from them.” ―Mandy Francis, The Daily Mail
“Splendid . . . Readable and engaging.” ―British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Times (London)
About the Author
- Publisher : Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (November 5, 2013)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 256 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0865478015
- ISBN-13 : 978-0865478015
- Item Weight : 8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.58 x 0.69 x 8.3 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #28,318 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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The extraordinarily well-read author's path leads us from Seneca and the Stoics, past some disadvantages of goal-setting to Ulrich Tolle and the benefits of insecurity. He pays a rather entertaining visit to a museum dedicated to products that failed in the marketplace, the "survivor bias," and a discussion about the widespread avoidance of thoughts about death. Each of these is a starting point for his very cogent thoughts and research about a specific aspect of the journey on which he is taking the reader.
I must admit to having been somewhat of a convert to the author's philosophy before picking up the book, so that there is some bias here, but I truly believe that most Westerners would benefit greatly from reading this book slowly and thoughtfully. True, there was a point in mid-read when either my mind wandered, or the author did not clearly explain the connection between the current topic and his main line of thought. However, he (or I) returned well before the end and left me extremely glad to have read it.
In his Epilogue, Burkeman uses two expressions with which I was not familiar but which were particularly interesting to me: First, "negative capability," reportedly coined by the poet John Keats who explained it as "when [one] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason..." Second is a word that may have the same meaning, acceptance of "opensure," which is the opposite of closure. As a counselor and coach I have often thought that if people could end their search for certainty and/or closure they would be much happier, and I am pleased to find a word that describes that state.
The very thoroughly researched text ends with an extensive bibliography, so that the curious can go to sources quite easily.
I recommend Oliver Burkeman's "The Antidote" to just about anyone whose search for certainty, or belief in positive thinking as the path to happiness, have not actually led them to the tranquility that they seek. That would probably be most people.
The book isn't intended as a step-by-step "improve your life" guide like many of the positive-thinking tomes, which I appreciated. But I suppose the downside is that the book also doesn't provide much for people who want to use a more negative approach to grab a hold of. Some of its generalities, though, were interesting. For example, Burkeman argues that rather than set goals, people should take stock of what they have, and begin working from there. Or, the best way to avoid procrastination is not to try to "feel like" doing something--just do it regardless. And for all those irritations in life, Burkeman suggests that we view it not in terms of something being done to us (that kid over there is annoying me) but in terms of how we respond (I'm annoyed because I believe he is annoying). Some of the other ideas I was more familiar with from my psychologist husband, such as imagining worst-case scenarios or separating your sense of self from your feelings, and others from my work as an educator (e.g., the importance of having an incremental mindset about intelligence and ability rather than an innate).
There are certainly things that will stay with me: when I next hear about how Bob Smith became a millionaire because he was perseverant, I'll remember survivor bias--and note that we've ignored all those people who were perseverant and failed. But, as a whole, the book was too focused on philosophy and on quoting various philosophers and not focused enough on practical matters for it to be much use to me.
Top reviews from other countries
Its been a distinctly mixed reading experience, although I really do have to recommend this one. If nothing else Burkeman is a very good writer, he weaves together analogies, knowledge of theory, research and reporting his own experiences when he has tried out certain recommendations himself very well. Its more a page turner than I had expected. The contents are clear, there's great supporting endnotes and references and a good supporting index, all of which make it easy to find what you are looking for quickly, although, as I say, its such a well written book that its easy to read and read chapters at a time too.
Burkeman explores stoicisim, buddhism's non-attachment principles, even meets with the author who created Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, a sort of revitalised stoicism, criticises goal setting, the focus upon the self, talks about the benefits of insecurity, embracing your failures at the museum of failure and finally focuses in on the tradition of momento mori (remember you will die).
I have had some acquaintance with these ideas prior to reading Burkeman, indeed, some of my perspective has been shaped by Erich Fromm who initially promoted Zen Buddhism and some ideas now associated with the so called Optimisation Movement but was pretty scathing about how those ideas were commercialised in his day, the promotion of "easy/effortless fixes" and he really seemed to disapprove of the Human Potential Movement. Burkeman's presentation is good, no prior acquaintance with the ideas is necessary to enjoy the book, or even benefit from some of the insights I would say, it is an antidote to the sorts of positive thinking he finds vexing, and I suspect much of his potential readership too.
The book is similar to Psychobabble: Exploding the myths of the self help generation by Dr Stephen Briers but I think Oliver Burkeman's book is the better of the two, it could just be personal preference but I think the pace of narrative and writing style is more engaging. I would also say cheering or encouraging but that may just be my own personal perspective.
The book sets out to show how negative thinking/pessimism/realistic thinking (call it what you will) is often the better path over positive thinking/optimism/fantasy thinking. It does this by describing the author’s journey of discovery – his interviews with Positive Thinking gurus, psychologists, neuroscientists, academics and other experts, as well as some practical experiments.
Over eight chapters, his advice could thus be summarised as:
1) Don’t Try Too Hard to be Happy – it will have just the opposite effect
2) Ancient Greek Stoicism – Keeping Calm in Chaos - is a good alternative to Positive Thinking
3) Buddhist Thinking – Accepting That Life is Unfair and A Struggle - is a good alternative to Positive Thinking
4) Setting Goals can lead to an ‘all or nothing’ approach to achieving them which can be disastrous; stop Trying To Control The Future – You Won’t Succeed
5) Stop Thinking About Yourself All The Time – it’s not all about you
6) Embrace Uncertainty as part of life and You Won’t be Scared of It
7) Embrace Failure as part of life and You Won’t Be Scared of It
8) Embrace Death as part of life and You Won’t Be Scared of It
All this is very good and sensible advice but I think it could have been said in a much shorter and more dynamic way.