Book review: The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 5:59pm


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


In The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman notes that "something united all those psychologists and philosophers - and even the odd self-help guru - whose ideas seemed actually to hold water". He calls this the "negative path" - the idea that the more we strive for happiness, and other psychological goods such as security and confidence, the less we achieve them.

Paradoxically, it is by thinking more about the downers in life, such as the inevitability of death, the inescapability of suffering or the impossibility of security, that we achieve something like happiness.

Burkeman says the negative path is not "one single, comprehensive, neatly packaged philosophy" and nor is it a "panacea". It is rather a family of approaches that share an interest in coming to terms with the imperfections of reality in a number of different ways.

The bulk of the book sees Burkeman walk down these paths increasingly less trodden. Although extreme insecurity is a bad thing, he writes, it has one benefit: you can't be worried about losing your security if you don't have any to lose in the first place. And worries about becoming insecure do seem to be at the root of a lot of anxiety in Western societies.

It could be argued Burkeman does not go far enough. Even deeper than the problems caused by the ideology of positive thinking is the assumption that it makes good sense to categorise all our thoughts as positive or negative.

Only at the end does Burkeman come close to questioning happiness as the most desirable outcome. He talks about arriving at "a different definition of happiness itself", that "a happiness worthy of the name" must include a mix of the rough and smooth, the aches and pains as well as the joys of life.

The knowledge Burkeman draws on may well come from others, but the book's quiet wisdom is all his own. This is a marvellous synthesis of good sense, and makes a bracing detox for the self-help junkie.

Guardian News & Media