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

Before inadvertently starting one in The Haven, I had never been involved in an official reading group before. I’m still not sure  how they are ‘supposed to be’. But what I do know is I love reading books alongside other people. Especially when those people have a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences, and ways of seeing the world.

This is why I love the Haven Book Club. It started in October 2020, and we have just finished our fourth book. Yes, we take things slowly, which is one of my favourite things about it.

Books provide tramlines which give us the opportunity to unpack the themes as use them as a catalyst for meaningful and relevant conversations.

We have spent the past two months diving through The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (by Oliver Burkeman). And I lay down a challenge for myself…to summarise the book and my takeaways from it (and our weekly discussions about it).

There was a mixed reaction to The Antidote. As with all the books we’ve covered so far, some people found it easier and more compelling to read than others. We have learned this as something to expect and accept. And that just because the style of a book doesn’t resonate with us, it doesn’t make it bad. And it doesn’t get in the way of interesting conversations as a group.

The Antidote is a little more ‘journalistic’ in tone and style than previous books we’ve explored so far together (Year of Yes, The Gifts of Imperfection, and Untamed)

The Backwards Law and Trying Too Hard to Be Happy

“When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float” – Alan Watts

This idea sits at the core of the whole book. Burkeman moves through a range of communities, philosophies, and cultures that embark on a ‘negative path to happiness’. This, he suggests might be an antidote to the dangers of ‘toxic positivity’ emanating from the ‘cult of optimism’, which research suggests could be doing the opposite of making people happier and healthier…despite the claims of its proponents.

The Backwards Law proposes that by actively trying to pursue, grasp, and hold happiness, we struggle to find it. And it is by surrendering to the ordinariness of mundane life that we create space for joy to filter in through the gaps.

What Would Seneca Do? The Stoic Art of Confronting the Worst-Case Scenario

Burkeman introduces some of the core teachings in Stoic Philosophy, such as the Premeditation of Evils (confronting all that could go wrong). Much of which it turns out in discussions, is common sense in everyday experience for a lot of us. We know that our response to events that happen beyond our control is a choice we can make. And that wishing things had turned out differently won’t make it so.

We explored the idea of non-attachment and what that can look like in reality. As well as its challenges, and potential implications for our engagement with the world.

The Storm Before the Calm (A Buddhist Guide to Not Thinking Positively)

Burkeman went on a week long silent meditation retreat. He met a woman there who said she was attending because she felt like she had no roots anywhere…nothing to hold on to, no structure in her life. She was hoping that meditation might be a way not to “stop feeling lost, but to come to see the lostness differently – to embrace it, even”.

This led to a great conversation about ‘groundlessness’. The American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön emphasises the value of ‘relaxing into the groundlessness of our situation’. Chödrön suggests that ‘groundlessness’ is actually everyone’s situation, all the time, whether we like it or not. This gave us another angle to think about the concept of non-attachment.

We talked about how it feels to be ‘groundless’, and what it might mean for us to accept this as a basic truth.

How does it relate to other ideas we hear as good for us like grounding or centering practices?

Meditation and Positive Thinking

Burkeman examines the way meditation and positive thinking have become bed fellows in recent years. It’s easy to see how this might happen, with some of the calming promises implied in mindfulness practices. But far from being something that should be easily commodified as an object to make life better, happier, and more productive, Burkeman quotes Barry Magid who suggests it might not be so simple.

Magid argues that using meditation to make your life ‘better’ or ‘happier’, in any conventional sense, is a misunderstanding, based on a westernised individualistic and simplistic appropriation of something far more profound.

This provided an interesting backdrop for a conversation about the attraction we have to ‘numbing’ and a quest to avoid truly confronting difficult things in our modern world. Does escapism and numbing lead us towards happiness and contentment, or does it make us more anxious and detached from a meaningful life?

This led us into conversations about sensitivity.

Re-sensitising to The World

We live in hyper-sensitive desensitised times. We are highly reactive and operate on the surface of things. We don’t truly see, hear, smell, taste, or feel what is right before us. The world is too busy, noisy, and distracted for that.

Burkeman talks about becoming hyper-attuned to the environment when he went to the forest on a walking meditation; every crackle of every twig underfoot registered like a splintering diamond. And the nondescript lentil stews, peanut butter on rye crackers, they were eating for meals had started to taste extraordinary.

He said he discovered subtle sub-flavours in peanut butter he’d never have imagined might be hiding there. The Massachusetts winter sunset, viewed from the building’s main porch, was often so beautiful as to be almost painful. At night, I was sleeping more deeply than I could remember.

The trajectory of positive thinking and the pursuit of happiness is often underpinned by the demand to add MORE flavours, to have MORE profound experiences. It’s about adding. The assumption being that we can have a fuller existence by exposing ourselves to more and more. But Burkeman’s experience suggests the opposite is true. And from our conversations it would appear that many of us make similar observations. Desensitisation results from removing space around the margins. Too much stimulation, noise, information, overwhelm.

The Museum of Failure (The Case for Embracing Your Errors)

Another particularly interesting part of our dive into the book came around the concept of failure. It’s another word that we see time and again in self-development literature and memes. It is presented as a virtue, but only as part of the story that ends in success.

In this part of the book, Burkeman takes us to The Museum of Failure, which began life as a reference library of American consumer products. Its identity as a museum of failed products was contingent on the apparent truth that “most products fail”, and a collection of products will naturally consist overwhelmingly of unsuccessful ones.

This gave rise to a really interesting conversation about failure as a point of connection and common experience.

According to absolute measures of competitive success most Olympic competitors “fail”. The overwhelming majority of Olympians will never win an Olympic medal. And of all the species that have ever existed, fewer than 1% still survive today.

In this chapter, Burkeman reassures us that failure brings people closer together, it gives life its sense of meaning, and it helps us nurture empathy and communality. What’s more, the idea of judging ourselves as individuals through the lens of success or failure is only a recent phenomena, which seemed to emerge in the 19th Century.

The chapter also questions one of the prevailing narratives around failure that we see in almost every book about success. This is the idea that failure is often a part of the road to success.

Survivor Bias and The Silence of Failure

Survivor Bias means that the stories of those who fail don’t get heard. And we take the analyses from those who succeed at their word. This was demonstrated in a TED style leadership talk, where a management theorist surmised that “high achievers demonstrated two key characteristics: they were willing to persevere in the face of setbacks, and they possessed enough charisma to convince others to follow them”.

But Jerker Denrell noticed a glaring mistake by the person giving the speech…these characteristics are shared by high achievers AND extremely unsuccessful people. He says that “the only indisputable difference between the two is that the very unsuccessful are much, much less frequently interviewed by management scholars who are studying the causes of success.”

The book finishes with the subject of death. In particular the Latin idea of Memento Mori; “remember you shall die”.

This led to a beautiful discussion, in which we found ways to understand death as a route into the very heart of a more meaningful life. And the denial of death as intrinsically linked to the denial of life. It is only when we see life in light of death that we might glimpse life in its magnificent beauty.

Negative Capability

Burkeman finishes by saying, “the problem is that we have developed the habit of chronically overvaluing positivity, and of the skills of ‘doing’, in how we think about happiness, and that we chronically under-value negativity, and the ‘not-doing’ skills, such as resting in uncertainty or getting friendly towards failure.”

By cultivating these negative capabilities, we can let go of toxic positivity and truly enjoy life in all its messy, chaotic beauty!

This final part really chimes at the heart of what we do in The Haven. Valuing and sharing in the joy of being. And it’s why I love taking long slow dives into books like this.


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