Book Review The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

I recently attended a two-day workshop on developing publicity for SMEs. The course was mainly about teaching you how to write a press release that would attract media attention and where to distribute it. It was an excellent, practical workshop but even it was permeated with a section on positive thinking. I am all for realistic goal setting and love quoting one of my first sales mentors that that the only thing more contagious than enthusiasm is the lack of it. However when someone starts quoting The Secret and the pseudo-scientific Law of Attraction my bullshit monitor starts ringing alarm bells. Rhonda Byrne, the book’s author, claims to have never studied physics or science at school, and yet when she read complex books on quantum physics she understood them perfectly because she wanted to understand them. The wish is often father to the thought. I studied quantum physics at Cambridge. The desire to understand quantum physics burned within me but the reality is that the mathematics was beyond my understanding. So I switched to economics.

Thus when Amazon recommended the The Antidote and I read in the summary that it is our constant effort to be happy is what is making us miserable I decided to buy and read the book. My decision was reinforced that 209 of the 228 reviews were positive.

The key message from the book is that there is an alternative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty, the very things we spend our lives trying to avoid. Burkeman writes well. The book begins by demonstrating why so many of the ‘Positive Thinking’ schemes fail. Burkeman then examines a diverse range of sources: Buddhism, stoicism, cognitive behavioural therapy, and doubts on the concept of the self to arrive at a philosophy that says authentic happiness is only achieved when we can confront our fears and overcome the challenges that life inevitably brings.

While a I am a great believer that nature is twice is important as nurture as fellow alumnus of Cambridge I think his study there has had major effect on Burkeman. He studied Social and Political Sciences matriculating in 1994. I was 30 years earlier but Cambridge still has the reputation of being the ultimate rationalist university. The common impression that Oxford is stronger in politics and the humanities, while Cambridge is stronger in the sciences and engineering. At Cambridge you are taught to doubt everything, and always seek rational basis for belief, particularly if it can be either be proven by experimental science or mathematics. Free and open debate that allowed differing opinions to finally reach a conclusion was another core principle. While he studied the “soft sciences” the Cambridge approach is definitely inculcated in this book. The other great benefit of Cambridge is the tutorial system. I had to write two essays a week and then defend them in an hour long session with my tutors. Under that discipline you learn to write and to think.

My guess is that many of the reviewers have not read many books based on this approach and it is another reason for its popularity. Unfortunately with the rise of political correctness and moral certainty by their students, universities (including Cambridge) are becoming places of censure and prohibition. Regrettably books like The Anecdote are going to become rarer.


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