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Book Review: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

“Positive thinking is so firmly enshrined in our culture that knocking it is a little like attacking motherhood or apple pie.” -Srikumar Rao, Ph.D., author of Happiness at Work.



Thinking about what can go wrong with a business plan is a secret task, lest anyone in the board room sniff out treachery. Planning for the worst possible scenario in life is chastised as a Fates-tempting practice, as if the idea itself could manifest doom. Positive thinking has taken over the culture. Any attempt to examine its logic, as Dr. Rao implies above, is met with disdain and even fear.


But we must examine the tenants of positive thinking. Visualizing a positive outcome, eradicating negative thoughts, setting meaningful goals, and being optimistic in all endeavors can actually lead us down paths to failure and sadness. Research shows that these practices can be dangerous pursuits that evoke the opposite of their intentions. Some studies discovered that visualizing yourself as having accomplished a goal decreases your likelihood of achieving that goal.  In educational studies, the almost-holy positive-thinking concept of telling children they are smart harms their ability to do well on increasingly hard tasks. All of this “glass half full” stuff has a dark side.


What if bubbly (but ignorant) bliss was replaced by sensible realism? Would we descend into the dark depths of cynicism if we examined the cracks in the positive thinking armor?


In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman shares his own journey across the underbelly of the optimism movement in America. In the spirit of Barbara Ehrenreich and Julie Norem, Burkeman sets out to test some of the more damaging principles of positive thinking and battles with the assumptions surrounding them. Burkeman educates us about the Stoics and their hard-won and precious reality focus. He also visits an extreme Buddhist meditation retreat to become hyper-aware of the “bad thoughts are our enemy” myth. His meeting with an Oprah guru  teaches him that silence gets a bad rep. Other adventures and more lessons continue toward the end of the book, where Burkeman realizes we all may be asking ourselves the wrong question. It isn’t about “how to be happy” as much as it’s about “defining happiness” that fits into our human existence.


Combining Stoic and Buddhist teachings, Burkeman gives us this alternative perspective on how people and companies can release their fears by “leaning into the discomfort” (as therapists say) as opposed to turning our backs to it. We need not stare at the sun to see the light, nor must we always be thinking “positive” thoughts in order to succeed. As humans, we can’t keep tensing that positivity muscle and expect it to hold out. Instead, Burkeman suggests, perhaps we should wonder why we insist on positivity in the first place.


I like this book. It’s a fun read and the storytelling makes difficult concepts easy to understand. I’ve already put some things I’ve learned from the book into practice. For example, I now know that my anxious thoughts are not me, no more than my internal organs are “me”. I can step back from my thoughts and observe them like I can observe my breath, or the weather, and realize I have little to do with them, and they have little to do with me. When I feel anxiety creeping up, I go into this “movie mode” and let it play out. At the end, I see what’s left. What issues really need addressing? What are my resources? What do I need? I can disown the anxiety and take responsibility for solving the problem instead. Circumstances are weather. They are neither good nor bad. They just need to be dealt with.


The “negative” path to happiness, Burkeman poses, will render a more solid and realistic pursuit and destination than constantly fighting against our own nature to spot the inconsistencies and dangers that await us. This path to a happy realism may be just what we need to get out of the positive thinking hangover we’ve all been nursing for the past 30 years.


Check out my interview with Oliver Burkeman, the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, at PurpleCarPark or on iTunes at PurpleCar Park. (transcript available).


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ZucchiniBikini 7 January 2013, 3:27 pm

    This sounds like an interesting book. I think the emphasis on positive thinking may be a cultural phenomenon more prevalent in the US than in my country, Australia – business analysis, planning and advice that I have been involved with here has always involved a strong dose of risk triage and indeed what I’d call “failure planning”, and hyperbolic approaches to goals are not generally seen as a good thing. One such process I recently participated in did a lot of “leaning in to the discomfort”, and ended up with a very honest, accurate, and useful result.

    • PurpleCar 8 January 2013, 9:45 am

      I’ve heard the sentiment in Australia is a little more realistic and rugged. I would love to hear more about it. Perhaps you are just a very practical people? Here the culture is getting a bit overwhelming, going overboard and all that. I’ve just consigned myself to being a “bitch” if I want to bring up a possible roadblock. Because here in the US we must be HAPPY! We must THINK POSITIVE! Thanks for giving some insight into another way.