The quest for happiness is a timeless and universal impulse. But is it time to embrace the virtues of negative thinking? British author and pop-psychologist Oliver Burkeman thinks so
“Wanting to be happy and do meaningful work are timeless and universal urges.” This statement, by best-selling British pop psychology writer Oliver Burkeman, is not exactly the most revolutionary statement about the nature of human existence ever made, but one glance at a bookstore certainly suggests that our compulsions are incredibly lucrative. The self-help publishing industry is worth more than a billion dollars a year in the US alone, with books such as How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People continuing to sell by the shelf-load.
Life sucks, but maybe that’s a good thing
And yet their advice is often trite. Keep positive! Set goals! Visualise success! So Burkeman, who has written about the sometimes bizarre world of self-help, happiness and psychology in a brilliant weekly column for British newspaper the Guardian for the past eight years, had an unorthodox plan. He would prick the bubble of positivity by writing a book that embraced the power of negative thinking.
First, he had to dismantle the “cult of optimism”, and a “culture fixated on the notion that positivity is the only possible path to happiness”. Not that this meant walking around in a cloud of gloom. Burkeman’s book is based on a belief that self-helpers’ constant pleas for us to eliminate insecurities, uncertainties, failures or sadness actually cause us to feel much more insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy, because our schemes can never wholly work. Life happens.
And two years since he published The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, the New York- based writer has clearly struck a chord. “At the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai this year, I had people coming up to me all the time telling me: ‘I’m so glad you’re saying this,’” he says. “I’m really not bragging. Obviously, I know that it was a self-selecting audience who wanted to come and listen to me. But you do find that there are plenty of people who are disillusioned with all that positive-thinking stuff, and plenty more who would never go near a conventional self-help book, but are nonetheless interested – because who isn’t? – in the question of happiness.”
And if The Antidote sounds like an ironic book for the sceptical, then nothing could be further from the truth. It is funny: he gets the vacuous 1997 Europop song Barbie Girl stuck in his head in a retreat dedicated to meditation, where speaking is banned for the week, but the arch humour is underpinned by thorough research. And Burkeman found that living more comfortably with the negative aspects of life, rather than attempting to ignore them completely, greatly increases the chances of happiness and wellbeing.
Like many of the most popular self-help books, The Antidote’s ideas are transferable to business, too. Once again, Burkeman takes apart received notions about how happiness in the workplace (usually equated with stellar results) can be achieved by setting specific goals.
It is often suggested that the world’s best leaders will set huge targets for their organisations and then channel every- thing into achieving them. Burkeman’s argument is that it doesn’t always pay to be so rigid in business. Being more open- ended, speculative and aware of failure often leads to better results. “I do think that loosening up on goal fixation is a good thing, even from the point of view of achieving goals,” he laughs. “Not being obsessed with targets isn’t actually about wanting a more chilled-out life. There’s a lot to be said for embracing uncertainty, because it allows for flexibility, and that’s when some of the exciting things can happen in business.”
Essentially, Burkeman argues that openness to all kinds of experience and emotion – from the good to the bad – is a crucial condition of fulfilment. In The Antidote, he mentions the idea of “openture”, first presented by the late psychologist Paul Pearsall. As Pearsall wrote, “Unless you can learn to find a strange, exciting comfort in being presented with and grappling with the tremendous mysteries life offers, you will seldom feel calm.”
Burkeman still embraces this concept on a daily basis. He calls it the “Stoic pause”, a “moment” to be taken directly after that flash of anger when a car cuts you up, or when the queue at the super- market is seven-people deep. “A positive thinker would say you just have to think the best of everyone and everything, whereas a Stoic would ask you to think about where that stress comes from,” he says.
There’s a lot to be said for embracing uncertainty, because it allows for flexibility, and that’s when some of the exciting things can happen in business
“Once you can see that it’s your judgement about the traffic or the supermarket queue, not the situation itself, then you have the potential to see that it might not be that useful. And thinking like that means problems pass with much less friction.”
As a result, you’re probably happier. Or as the New York Observer summarised in its review of The Antidote: “Life sucks, but maybe that’s a good thing.”