Review: The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman

Quick wellbeing book review for you today, which is The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking by Oliver Burkeman.

oliver burkeman the antidote book review

Let’s get this out of the way first, Oliver Burkeman is not anti happiness, nor is he against having a generally positive and curious outlook on life, or planning and goal setting. It’s more that he thinks the cult of total, relentless optimism, and trying too hard to experience only happiness and success are backfiring on us and actually making us miserable. He gives specific examples of data to support this, and suggests alternatives, writing in amusing and frequently self-deprecating style.

Without giving away everything in the book, here are just a few examples:

  • Because of how the human brain works, trying too hard to avoid thinking about any given thing makes us think about it even more. Trying to ‘eliminate negativity’ when we’re unhappy mainly serves to remind us that – yes, you’ve guessed it – we’re feeling unhappy. Forcing ourselves to ‘think positive’ can also remind us that we’re feeling negative, because we’re self-monitoring our progress as we go along, focusing on the difference between where we are and where we think we should be.
  • Rather than experiencing ecstatic happiness, a sense of calm or contentment can be reached by considering the worst case scenario and finding it to be either very unlikely or something that you’d probably be able to cope with. Or you could train yourself to ‘strive’ less in general and learn how to let thoughts and emotions flow through you, like changes in the weather, without getting too caught up in them.
  • People who are extremely successful appear to have some very specific behaviours, attitudes and personality traits. These studies are biased because they don’t look at people who are moderately successful, or below average etc. The people in life who are wildly unsuccessful actually report the same personality traits as the ones who are extremely successful.
  • Completely fixating on a specific materialistic goal can help you to achieve it. But you’re most likely to still end up feeling miserable, and it will probably be at the expense of the things that, deep down, really matter the most to you.
  • Trying to avoid the fear of death can lead to certain unhealthy thoughts and behaviours, and may ironically lead to you dying prematurely in order to ‘immortalise’ your idealised self. Cultivating a sense of memento mori can make life more relaxed and enjoyable.

If I’m going to complain about anything, I’d have to say that there are two or three points scattered throughout the book where the author makes minor inferences and conclusions that I found to be a bit tenuous and non-scientific. Fortunately these are all aside from the main flow of his arguments so they don’t undermine the central purpose of the chapters they’re in.

To sum up, this book points out the major flaws that underpin the worst excesses of the self-help industry, and explains the paradoxes of why they’re more likely to work to make us UNhappy. It also presents a wide range of different ways of thinking and acting that may be of more general use to the average person without being prescriptive, so that the reader can pick and choose for themselves. It’s intelligent journalism rather than hard science – but I’d rather have that than ‘pray to the universe for ultimate wealth’ or ‘refuse to think negative thoughts!’ any day of the week.

The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking by Oliver Burkeman has an RRP of £9.99 for the paperback version, and it’s currently available on Amazon for £6.99.

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