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The Antidote

Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

By Oliver Burkeman
15-minute read
Audio available
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

The Antidote is the intelligent person’s guide to understanding the much-misunderstood idea of happiness. The author emphasizes that positive thinking isn’t the solution, but part of the problem. He outlines an alternative, “negative” path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity and uncertainty – what we usually spend our lives trying to avoid.

  • Anyone who wants to feel happy, even when things go wrong
  • Anyone who’s tired of setting and trying to follow through rigid goals
  • Anyone who wants to learn to appreciate what they have

Oliver Burkeman is a British journalist who writes the popular weekly column “This Column Will Change your Life” for The Guardian. He won the Foreign Press Association’s Young Journalist of the Year award and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. The Antidote (2013) is his second book. He currently lives in New York City. 

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The Antidote

Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

By Oliver Burkeman
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman
Synopsis

The Antidote is the intelligent person’s guide to understanding the much-misunderstood idea of happiness. The author emphasizes that positive thinking isn’t the solution, but part of the problem. He outlines an alternative, “negative” path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity and uncertainty – what we usually spend our lives trying to avoid.

Key idea 1 of 9

The happier we want to be, the unhappier we usually are.

Most of us would like everything in life to be just right. But perhaps our urge to have everything perfect is a big part of what’s wrong.

The ironic process theory states that when you try to suppress certain thoughts or behaviors, they (ironically) end up becoming more prevalent. This has been demonstrated in the so-called white bear challenge: if you’re told to not think about a white bear, you can’t help but think about a white bear.

Affirmations, those peppy, self-congratulatory phrases designed to make readers feel happier through repetition, can also be ultimately counterproductive. This is because, given that it’s usually people with low self esteem who seek affirmation, when they say an affirmative phrase like “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better” to themselves over and over, it clashes with their poor self-image. Then they automatically reject the affirmation because it threatens the coherence of their sense of self, a strong driver within us. This could worsen their low self-esteem, as people struggle to reassert their existing self-images against the incoming messages.

In fact, several experiments have found that people with low self-esteem who were asked to write down “I’m a lovable person” repeatedly became less happy in the process. They didn’t feel particularly lovable to begin with, and trying to convince themselves otherwise merely reaffirmed their negativity. In short, “positive thinking” made them feel worse.

The flaw of positive thinking is summed up best by one character in an Edith Wharton story: “There are lots of ways of being miserable, but there’s only one way of being comfortable, and that is to stop running around after happiness.”

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