Oliver Burkeman’s ‘The Antidote’ rethinks positive thinking

Oliver Burkeman’s ‘The Antidote’ rethinks positive thinking
Author Oliver Burkman
(Jeff Mikkelson / Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

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

Oliver Burkeman


Faber & Faber: 256 pp, $25

Oliver Burkeman’s book “The Antidote” begins with thousands of people trying to think positive thoughts together.


A British journalist, Burkeman attends a “Get Motivated!” session in a Texas baseball stadium. In exchange for a pricey admission fee, he gets to hear President George W. Bush deliver a talk on the power of optimism. And he listens as Robert H. Schuller, the self-help guru and founder of the Crystal Cathedral, confidently reveals the secret of success.

“Here’s the word that will change your life,” Schuller tells his audience. After a dramatic pause he yells out, “Cut! … Cut the word ‘impossible’ from your life.... Cut it out forever!”

A few months later Schuller, the ringmaster of this failure-is-not-an-option lovefest, declares his Crystal Cathedral bankrupt.

This deliciously ironic opening is one of several amusing and instructive passages in “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” which takes every self-help book you’ve ever read and turns it inside out.


Burkeman, a columnist for the Guardian, begins with a skillful and entirely persuasive dissection of the arguments that have sent millions of books about success and happiness flying off the shelves.

Examine those books closely and you’ll find nothing more than banal messages, Burkeman writes. Scientific research shows that they rarely help anyone. Publishers are well aware of this: They have an “18-month rule” that states that the person most likely to buy a self-help book is someone who bought another, evidently not-very-helpful self-help book within the past 18 months.

Having established that the ideas in self-help books are superficial and often self-defeating, Burkeman heads off in search of what he calls a “negative path to happiness” where a “backwards law” prevails.

Accept the idea that you will inevitably die. Learn to celebrate your failures. See the wisdom in your pessimistic thoughts. Burkeman writes that “the effort to try and feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable.” He argues that “it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.”


In search of the “negative path” to happiness, Burkeman’s book takes us to a slum in Kenya, to a Massachusetts meditation retreat, and to the deathbed of a man who dedicated his life to writing eloquently about death.

Some of the people he meets — like the modern-day stoics of Britain — are kooky individualists who’ve found their own, unique paths to happiness by latching on to some old ideas. They’re not the kind of people you’d want to emulate, but their insights into modern definitions of happiness are instructive.

More persuasive are the findings of the academics who have conducted scientific studies of the self-help movement, and Burkeman’s own insights into the motivational stories that are suppose to teach us how to be successful. Using the example of the disasters that have befallen many who have tried to climb Mt. Everest — the ultimate type-A personality goal — Burkeman shows persuasively that “goal setting” as a path to success is a fallacy.

Countless books relate the triumphs of the adventurers and the corporate executives who set ambitious goals for themselves — and who take risks in the relentless pursuit of those goals. What those books don’t tell us is that the leaders responsible for the world’s most spectacular failures possess exactly the same qualities. It’s a simple insight, but a powerful one.

Instead of thinking about success so much, Burkeman writes, consider the nirvana one reaches in failure. In failure our ambitions are stripped away, and we see who we really are. We learn that failing miserably at something usually isn’t the disaster we imagine it to be.

“I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive,” J.K. Rowling says of the moment she hit bottom, as a divorced single mom. Failure, Rowling says, gave her “an inner security” that remains as valuable to her as any success.

Of course, you can read those same kinds of deep truths in countless works of philosophy. And it isn’t at all surprising that Burkeman eventually finds himself walking in the footsteps of Buddha and the Seneca, the stoic philosopher of ancient Greece.

Eventually, he ends up at a meditation retreat in Massachusetts where he must remain silent for a week and thus learn the power of the Buddhist idea of “non-attachment.” Burkeman arrives at some critical personal realizations there, though his account of his search for self-knowledge lacks the drama and the lyricism you can find in many other works on meditation.

“The Antidote” is at its best when Burkeman deconstructs some of our most commonly held obsessions. For example, the billions spent on airport security, he argues, are mostly just making us feel better about flying rather than actually making it safer.

But when he discusses life in the Nairobi slum of Kibera, Burkeman engages in the same kind of reductionist thinking of which he is so critical. The people of Kibera, he says, are measurably “happier” than their better-off neighbors. Why? Because they are more accepting of the insecurity of life, Burkeman says. That may be true, but they’d certainly be better off if they didn’t have to worry about crime so much.

Still, that misstep subtracts only fleetingly from the great appeal and value of “The Antidote.” Burkeman’s tour of the “negative path” to happiness makes for a deeply insightful and entertaining book. This insecure, anxious and sometimes unhappy reader found it quite helpful.

Get the latest news and notes from our Book Club.