The Antidote (Burkeman)

Book #8, read August 2018

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Oliver Burkeman)

Someone on Goodreads recommended me this book as tangentially related to my death project, and I vaguely remembered being interested in it when it came out. Except for a “Memento Mori” chapter on “death as a way of life,” it’s mostly about living well and not dying well – but the dichotomy is sort of a false one, and anyways we the living will have to deal with the deaths of many others prior to our own.

To make a long story short, The Antidote explains why most positivity practices don’t (and can’t) work reliably to enhance human happiness. Monitoring your effervescent, chattering internal monologue for evidence of happiness actually causes you to hone in on the negative emotions in there. Visualizing what can go wrong is often much more instructive than visualizing what can go right.

Goals don’t always make people motivated, they can easily make people stupid instead. True, full security in life is both impossible and undesirable to achieve, but that doesn’t stop people from trying (at great cost). Failure has become a little trendy since the book was published, but Burkeman is still right that many failures go regrettably unexamined and unlearned from.

At the highest level, failed happiness can result from a misunderstanding of what one’s “self” is in the first place. Since you are not your thoughts, there’s nothing wrong with you if you have thoughts you don’t like. A slim breezy volume like The Antidote is unlikely to convince you of a totally different theory of self than whatever one you already hold, but pushing back against positivity in all its forms does lead there. Planting intellectual seeds (like bits of Eckhart Tolle and Alan Watts) sometimes bears fruit only much later.

As much as I appreciated The Antidote, I do have 2 complaints about the book. The first regards a big fat hole in the story: if positive thinking doesn’t work, can’t work, then why on earth is it so popular? Negative thinking and mindfulness meditation may indeed provide a better path forward towards happiness broadly construed, or at least a life well-lived. But still my story-telling brain wants for an error theory about positive thinking.

The best I can muster right now is that people are aesthetically attracted to positive thinking, which enhances the perceived benefits of positive thinking. At the same time, this aesthetic appeal shields positivity believers from absorbing a gradually-unfolding truth: that positivity doesn’t quite work like it’s supposed to. Instead, positivity ratchets itself up – no matter how bad things get, no matter how little positivity practices help, their value remains unfalsified and the answer is always more cowbell. I don’t know where the original aesthetic judgment (or any aesthetic judgment…) comes from though.

My second complaint is a bit more specific to me. As Burkeman freely admits in the final pages of The Antidote, “I’m acutely aware that, during the time I spent exploring this perspective on life, no great tragedies befell me, and my family and friends largely thrived.” As it happens, my father has come down with a rare, incurable, aggressive brain cancer, so I enjoyed no such luxury in my exploration of the antidote.

So, when I ask the question “what is the worst that could happen?,” the answer seems rather close to what is in fact happening — closer than it might be for most. Sometimes this makes me feel bad, and especially unlucky. But at other times, I am forced to realize that you do survive even the worst-case scenarios (except for the ones that kill you, duh).

I don’t have to like or “accept” what happened in any strong sense, I don’t have to develop any sense of “closure” or come to see this thing as a “blessing in disguise.” I don’t have to jam my random thoughts and cycling emotions into any coherent narrative about what’s unfolding. I just have to keep living my life, which is what I was already doing and all anyone ever can do. The freedom afforded from revised standards is an antidote all its own.