Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Antidote

I had wanted to read it ever since I accidentally saw this book trailer a couple of years back. So, I requested it for Christmas.

What if 'positive thinking' and relentless optimism aren't the solution to happiness - but part of the problem? Oliver Burkeman argues that trying too hard to be happy is making us miserable. And that there's an alternative path to contentment and success that involves embracing the things we spend our lives trying to avoid: uncertainty, insecurity, pessimism and failure. Thought-provoking, counter-intuitive and ultimately uplifting. The Antidote is a celebration of the power of negative thinking.

It's split into the following chapters:

  1. On Trying Too Hard to Be Happy
  2. What Would Seneca Do? The Stoic Art of Confronting the Worst-Case Scenario
  3. The Storm Before the Calm A Buddhist Guide to Not Thinking Positively
  4. Goal Crazy When Trying to Control the Future Doesn't Work
  5. Who's There? How to Get Over Your Self
  6. The Safety Catch The Hidden Benefits of Insecurity
  7. The Museum of Failure The Case for Embracing Your Errors
  8. Momento Mori Death as a Way of Life
  9. Epilogue Negative Capability

I was fairly familiar with bits of it. I spent a portion of my youth frequenting Croydon and Colchester's Buddhist centres, I have a friend who is oft heard quoting Aldous Huxley, I've seen first-hand the phenomena of laughter in an African slum, and I was paying attention to David Damberger's TED talk on Learning from Failure.

What I love about authors such as Burkeman and Ronson is that they bring together all of this interesting stuff in one place, cutting straight to the findings and the useful anecdotes, and dispensing with a large amount of the dry academic waffle you'd have to wade through to get to that information yourself.

Three of the most interesting facts I learned:

  1. Stoics believed in intelligent design! Who knew? (Well, Burkeman, obviously)
  2. There is a word for the struggle to explain why an omnipotent god would allow evil to happen: theodicy
  3. The Japanese have a term for sympathising with inanimate objects: mono no aware 'the pathos of things' (which is why I find it hard to put a toothbrush in the bin, and cry when I have to trade in my car... my friend Paul reckons this is evidence of repressed animism within Western society)

The book is full of interesting information, philosophical and spiritual ideas, globetrotting and good medicine. It really did feel like popping a pill that made a lot of things better. The further through the book I got, the more relaxed I became.

It made me evaluate quite a bit of what I do professionally, as I am a bit of a pusher for the SMART approach, logframes and goal-oriented progress. I've noticed recently that a couple of my work clients seem to suffer significantly from the 'I've thought about the outcome, therefore I have achieved it' syndrome. There's a guy called Robin Speculand who wrote a book called Beyond Strategy which is a bit like the business version of The Antidote, in which it's attested that 90% of strategies never get achieved because nobody ever implements them. Sometimes because they're lacking resources or experience, but, I would hazard, mostly because in spending so much time focusing on and developing your goal-based strategy, you feel as though you've already achieved everything and your work is done.

It was nice to have that suspicion verified, and backed up by research. 

There were also some useful tips for writers regarding The Muse(tm) and 'not having to be in the mood to get stuff done'. Which rather came down on the side of 'writer's block is an illusion'. Watch the canvas of your emotions (a Buddhist trick) and get on with it.

The icing on top was the final chapter, the one on death, where he mentioned Terror Management Theory, which is something I find quite fascinating but which rarely gets a mention. It's kind of hard to whittle down into a few sentences (read the book!) but, start with the bit in the video above where you ask someone not to think about polar bears, and they think about nothing but polar bears for the rest of the day. In the grand scheme of things, a fairly insignificant thing to be obsessing over. Yet Death - the Big D - that happens to us all, obliterates our ego, our identity and everything we come to think of ourselves as being... we are capable of going weeks and months without giving any serious thought to. Precisely because it is so mighty and terrifying.

Therefore, to keep from focusing on our imminent demise, we need to channel that information into other things: culture, religion, politics, nations, empires, entertainment, the arts, war... are, according to TMT, all manifestations of the greatest distraction techniques known to (and invented by) wo/man.

Our survival depends on distraction, otherwise we'd become so morbidly depressed at our own mortality, we'd ask the question: what's the point? and go back to bed.

Now, you ask someone to tackle this topic (a topic that 'the cult of positive thinking' is conspicuous in its avoidance of) and leave you feeling positive and calm, you wouldn't fancy the chances, right? Well, Burkeman manages it.

I think this is a brilliant book. Should probably be compulsory reading on the national syllabus (although things that are compulsory are usually rebelled against, so perhaps just best to wait until young minds find it of their own accord).

If you're feeling deflated, fed up, stressed and upset, or if you just fancy a different perspective on things, get yourself a copy of this, a big mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows, and snuggle up on the couch.

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