Saturday, January 5, 2013

"The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking" by Oliver Burkeman

In The Antidote, Burkeman attempts to provide a counterpoint to the ubiquitous positive-thinking messages we hear, from The Secret to corporate goal setting. He argues that our attempts to find happiness by thinking positively, concentrating on success, eliminating doubt, and setting specific goals actually make us more unhappy. As some one whose response to "positive thinking" is typically eye-rolling, I was excited to read the book, hoping to find useful tidbits that would help me utilize my more cynical view of life to my advantage. And while there are a few points in the book I found interesting, I was also disappointed by the vague and philosophy-heavy descriptions of alternatives to positive thinking Burkeman presents, from Buddhist meditation to Stoicism.

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.

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