I first ran across the Antidote in an article on Brain Pickings (which, incidentally, you should check out if you haven’t already. Just be careful it doesn’t eat your afternoon, and not just because the articles tend to be long). Happiness was something that fascinated me in college and up until recently. The Antidote (and Bright-Sided, which we’ll get to later) were basically the final nail in the coffin that killed it for me. These days I’m more interested in contentment as laid out by Leo Babauta, which is more like a stable baseline of satisfaction with the current state of affairs to work from, not trying for a constant, permanent emotional high. Contentment in this case is not laziness and should not be confused with it, but that’s another post entirely.
The first two chapters of Oliver Burkeman’s the Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, are focused on a discussion of Stoicism and Buddhism. “I thought Buddhism was pro-happiness” you’re probably thinking to yourself. Well, no, not exactly. The goal of Buddhism is the end of suffering, not necessarily happiness, there’s a big difference. Ending suffering is learning not to fixate on the bad shit that happens, whether getting a paper cut, or breaking up with your girlfriend, or something far worse. The goal is more akin to Babauta’s conception of contentment, or the ability to “roll with the punches,” to fully experience whats going on right now completely without being invested in it so much you suffer when it inevitably ends. This is learned, in this case, through Mindfulness techniques.
Stoicism has gotten a bit of a bad wrap in the modern US, but only because most people don’t know much about what it actually teaches except believing that it involves ascetic degrees of denial. As we learn in the first chapter, Stoicism is a much more realistic philosophy. Its more interested in confronting reality instead of deluding yourself into thinking everything is going to be great, right up until its not. The Stoics did this by conducting experiments to prove to themselves that something wasn’t as bad as their minds wanted them to think. While these experiments occasionally had a tendency to be more than a little dangerous, we get a bit of a safer taste when Burkeman performs a stoic inspired experiment and gets on public transit, announcing each stop just before the system does. The idea here is to put yourself in a potentially embarrassing situation, and prove to yourself that the world won’t end, to discover that the world doesn’t revolve around you, and that’s a good thing.
Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich is the perfect introduction to Burkeman’s book, as she lays out why “Positive Thinking” is so destructive. The book opens with her diagnosis with breast-caner, and the first chapter is a condemnation of the culture that’s grown up around the disease as actually inhibiting a realistic approach to dealing with it, instead seeing it as a “right of passage,” and a demeaning one at that. The most important chapters in the book are near the end, showing how Positive Thinking led to the collapse of the US economy through “Prosperity Gospel” preachers who owe more to New Thought than the gospel of Christianity, and motivational coaches who were brought in to the workplace of most every major company to stifle any negativity, including not telling bosses when plans would have crippling fall-out, and treatment that approaches brainwashing of newly fired employees. She also takes pains to point out that this is something that occurs along the entire spectrum, discussing liberal and conservative entities who swear by this flawed practice.
Ehrenrieich goes on to suggest in the postscript that the proper response to Positive Thinking is not Negativity, which Positive Thinking proponents seem to imply is the only alternative, but a sort of realism that resembles Stoicism and Buddhism as discussed in the Antidote.
Certainly fans of New Thought and Positive Thinking will not like these books, but they are the ones that most desperately need to read them. Their strength is that while they condemn the practice, they defend the people who believe such things will save them, explaining how Positive Thinking hobbles and dis-empowers the exact people who think it will empower them.
Both Burkeman’s “The Antidote” and Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided” get my Buy recommendation. Go get yoyurselves your own copy and study this stuff. I promise you won’t regret it.