The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

The Antidote book jacketI have to admit, part of the reason I picked up this book at the library was to joke with my daughter. One of the things she will tell you about me is that I am anything but overly peppy or bubbly. It’s not that I am negative, or a “Debbie Downer.” I consider myself more of a realist who likes to look at all potential outcomes of a situation. So when I saw this book displayed on the bookshelf, I thought it’d be a great kick off to my 2018 reading list.

And it truly was. Burkeman, a journalist and author, sets out in this book to explore the negative path to happiness. Motivational seminars and self-help positive affirmation books can actually lead to less happiness. Through his research of various psychologists, philosophers, and religions “…it pointed to an alternative approach, a ‘negative path’ to happiness, that entailed taking a radically different stance towards those things that most of us spend our lives trying to avoid. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death. In short, all these people seemed to agree that in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions—or, at the very least to learn to stop running quite so hard from them.”

You know, maybe I should just let this video explain it:

Some specific quotes that jumped out at me:

“The effort to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness – that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.”

“Confronting the worst-case scenario saps it of much of its anxiety-inducing power. Happiness reached via positive thinking can be fleeting and brittle, negative visualization generates a vastly more dependable calm.”

“Reassurance can actually exacerbate anxiety: when you reassure your friend that the worst-case scenario he fears probably won’t occur, you inadvertently reinforce his belief that it would be catastrophic if it did. You are tightening the coil of his anxiety, not loosening it. All to often, the Stoics point out, things will not turn out for the best.”

“A person who has resolved to ‘think positive’ must constantly scan his or her mind for negative thoughts – there’s no other way that the mind could ever gauge its success at the operation – yet that scanning will draw attention to the presence of negative thoughts.”

“But sometimes you simply can’t make yourself feel like acting. And in those situations, motivational advice risks making things worse, by surreptitiously strengthening your belief that you need to feel motivated before you act. By encouraging an attachment to a particular emotional state, it actually inserts an additional hurdle between you and your goal. The subtext is that if you can’t make yourself feel excited and pleased about getting down to work, then you can’t get down to work.”

“Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.”

What it means to me

IMG_8773.jpgI just keep thinking about the anxiety levels of my daughter leading in to her high school final exams. She was a miserable human being. I saw more tears in a 7 day span than I had probably seen the past year. And I wonder if it’s because our current society focuses so much on positive thinking and goals and “you can do it.” Her fear of not doing “it” was crippling her. Had she been exposed to negative thinking, she would have been able to see that the worst-case scenario (failing the test) would have resulted in maybe a B in a class. And truly, in the grander scheme of things, is that B worth the anxiety she put herself through? (She passed, by the way, and maintained her straight A record…)

Are we teaching students resilience? Are we teaching them how to cope with failure? Or are we just piling on the gold stars for everything they do? Embracing a growth mindset does not mean ceaseless optimism. It means wiping the dirt off our knees when we fall and looking for a plan B… or C.. or maybe even a Plan W.  But does it also mean asking students to consider what’s the worst that could happen if it doesn’t work out? Are we helping students to see that their life is NOW or are we always talking to them about “one day” and “in [next grade/school/etc] you’ll need to know this…” When we talk about goal setting, how do we frame it? “There’s a real benefit to finding ways to loosen our grip as goal driven people. When you look at successful entrepreneurs…you find they don’t follow this stereotype.” Instead, Burkeman says, we should remain ready to adapt where we are heading and embrace the uncertainty that scares us.

Maybe that should be added to my one word 2018… can I commit to uncertainty? What are your thoughts on this?

A full review of the book via The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman – review | Books | The Guardian

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One Comment on “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

  1. Living in the Now, reframing one’s thoughts, and being resilient are exactly the lessons our students should be learning. Thank you for sharing and the book recommendation – adding it to my reading pile.


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