The Antidote | Oliver Burkeman

Summary of: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking
By: Oliver Burkeman


Prepare to embark on a journey that might just change your entire perspective on happiness. ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ by Oliver Burkeman serves as a guide to rethinking our relationship with positive thinking and embracing a more balanced approach. Throughout the summary, we’ll explore the ironic process theory, the pitfalls of affirmations, the role of failures in our lives, the importance of accepting negative emotions, the concept of negative capability, and differing cultural and philosophical traditions that value negativity. Instead of seeking happiness through relentless pursuit of positivity, learn to leverage negative emotions and experiences for a more profound and long-lasting sense of fulfillment.

The Paradox of Positive Thinking

The pursuit of perfection and positive thinking may lead to negative outcomes. The ironic process theory exemplifies how suppressing thoughts can ultimately make them more prevalent. Affirmations, meant to boost self-esteem, can worsen it as people reject affirmations that clash with their negative self-image. Studies show that positive thinking does not necessarily lead to happiness, and may, in fact, make one feel worse. The key is to accept and avoid the urge to control every aspect of life.

Embracing Failure

The life of true risk takers is often rife with failures and setbacks. Even so, self-help gurus insist that their readers can achieve their goals with perseverance and positive thinking. This idea is debunked by the bankruptcy of a prominent self-help author who preached the power of positive thinking while his life crumbled. The media also plays a role in perpetuating the myth of effortless success by highlighting only the positive outcomes of risky predictions. However, a study reveals that failure is an inevitable part of life, and indeed, even success can be attributed to pure chance. By denying the existence of failure, we deny our mortality. Embracing our innate tendency to fail can lead to happier and healthier lives.

Embracing the Inevitable

Most of us try to avoid negative emotions in life, but we can’t selectively numb emotions. Writer Brené Brown and monk Thomas Merton suggest that focusing our energies on not feeling something can make us end up feeling it more. However, some cultures have customs that help us contemplate our mortality and accept death. For instance, in Mexico, they celebrate the Day of the Dead by toasting to everyone who’s died, death itself, and consuming large amounts of tequila and sugar skulls. According to surveys, Mexico ranks among the happiest nations in the world. The ancient Romans also had a similar contemplation of mortality, which stemmed from the joy of being alive. They instructed their victorious generals to remember their mortality to avoid hubris.

Embracing Uncertainty

Life is inherently unpredictable, yet we often seek closure and clear-cut answers. Instead, we should develop a negative capability, the willingness to accept our inner lives, imperfections, and uncertainties. Psychologist Paul Pearsall calls it “openture,” embracing the fact that we can’t dot every “i” and cross every “t” in life and still push forward. This approach aligns with philosophies of the Stoics and Buddhists who focus on controlling their feelings and thoughts during uncertain times. Incorporating negative capability as a skill in everyday life allows us to reflect on failures, accept imperfections, and get things done without trying to eliminate feelings of insecurity.

Facing Fears

Rather than letting fear consume us, confronting it head-on can help alleviate anxiety-inducing power. Albert Ellis, a psychologist advocating for Stoicism, suggests that experiencing the unpleasantness of our fears can help us better understand them. By exaggerating our fears, we can see how irrational our thinking may be. Ellis recommended an exercise known as the “subway-station exercise,” which involves purposely embarrassing oneself in public. By realizing that publicly embarrassing oneself is not as bad as initially imagined, the anxiety-inducing power of fear diminishes. Long-lasting calm can be achieved through negative visualization rather than the short-lived and fragile happiness gained through positive thinking. Confronting and facing fears can sever the connection between negative ideas and the recurring feeling of dread, leading to better outcomes than those initially feared. In the field of cognitive behavioral psychology, confronting fears is a well-established method for dealing with anxiety and uncertainty.

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