BOOK OF THE WEEK: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman’s book is a phenomenal account of Stoicism, Buddhism and displays an overall contrarian philosophy that is highly practical for leading a happy life amidst an ever changing and uncertain world.  It is very well written and provides highly relevant and effective strategies and stories for anyone who wants to improve their life.  Though this isn’t the most popular self help book on the market, I believe it to be a great starting point for someone who is just getting their feet wet in personal development.  It is written for the lay person, so the concepts and strategies he includes are clearly and succinctly presented.  I even recommend this book to more advanced readers,as he does an excellent job integrating several different philosophies and presenting a highly practical approach to living life.  The essence of the book can be understood by the ironic fact that the happiest people are not those who experience the most positive outcomes, but rather those who are most comfortable living amongst uncertainty, ambiguity, frustration and suffering.

Memorable Passages:

“The effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable.  And it is our constant effort to eliminate the negative- insecurity, uncertainty, failure or sadness- that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy. A negative path to happiness involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death” (7-8)


“The law of reversed effort, or the backwards law: the notion that in all sorts of contexts, all this trying to make everything right is a big part of what’s wrong. . . the harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed” (9)


“For Stoics, the ideal state of mind was tranquility, not the excitable cheer that positive thinkers usually seem to mean when they use the word happiness. And tranquility was to be achieved not by strenuously chasing after enjoyable experiences, but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one’s circumstances” (29)


“Psychologists have long agreed that one of the greatest enemies of human happiness is ‘hedonic adaptation’- the predictable and frustrating way in which any new source of pleasure we obtain, whether it is as minor as a new piece of electronic gadgetry or as major as a marriage, swiftly gets relegated to the backdrop of our lives. We grow accustomed to it, and so it ceases to deliver so much joy.  It follows then, that regularly reminding yourself that you might lose any of the things you currently enjoy- indeed, that you will definitely lose them all, in the end, when death catches up to you- would reverse the adaptation effect. Thinking about the possibility of losing something you value shifts it from the backdrop of your life back to the center stage, where it can deliver pleasure once more. Whenever you grow attached to something, writes Epictetus, do not act as though it were one of those things that cannot be taken away, but as though it were something like a jar or a crystal goblet… if you kiss your child, your brother, your friend… remind yourself that you love a mortal, something not your own; it has been given to you as a present, not inseparably nor forever, but like a fig, or a bunch of grapes, at a fixed season of the year” (33)  


“Reassurance is a double edged sword.  In the short term, it can be wonderful, but like all forms of optimism, it requires constant maintenance: if you offer reassurance to a friend who is in the grip of anxiety, you’ll often find that a few days later he’ll be back for more. Worse, reassurance can actually exacerbate anxiety: when you reassure your friend that the worst-case scenario he fears probably won’t occur, you inadvertently reinforce his belief that it would be catastrophic if it did.  You are tightening the coil of his anxiety, not loosening it.” (34)


“Never have I trusted fortune, Seneca writes, even when she seemed to be at peace.  All her generous bounties- money, office, influence- I deposited where she could ask for them back without disturbing me. Those things lie beyond the individual’s control; if you invest your happiness in them, you’re setting yourself up for a rude shock. The only things we can truly control, are our judgments- what we believe- about our circumstances.” (40)


“If you accept the universe is uncontrollable, you’re going to be a lot less anxious” (49)


“The very thing in which you’re in flight- well, it’s the fleeing that brings on the problem.  For Freud, our whole psychology is organized around this avoidance. The unconscious is the repository of everything we’re avoiding” (56)


“Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest even more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future- not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps us rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present. Uncertainty prompts us to idealize our future.” (86)


“Formulating a vision of the future requires by definition, that you isolate some aspect or aspects of your life, or your organization, or your society, and focus on those at the expense of others.  But problems arise thanks to the law of unintended consequences, sometimes expressed using the phrase ‘you can never change only one thing’.  In any even slightly complex system, it’s extremely hard to predict how altering one variable will affect the others.  When we try to pick out any thing by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”. (93)


“The most valuable skill of a successful entrepreneur isn’t vision or passion or a steadfast insistence on destroying every barrier between yourself and some prize you’re obsessed with.  Rather it’s the ability to adopt an unconventional approach to learning: an improvisational flexibility not merely about which route to take towards some predetermined objective, but also a willingness to change the destination itself.  This is a flexibility that might be squelched by rigid focus on any one goal” (98-99).


“Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers” – Erich Fromm (99)


“We tend to assume that having high self esteem is a good thing, but some psychologists have long suspected that there might be something wrong with the whole notion- because it rests on the assumption of a unitary, easily identifiable self. Setting out to give your ‘self’ one positive rating may in fact be deeply perilous. The problem lies in the fact that you’re getting into the self-rating game at all; implicitly, you’re assuming that you are a single self that can be given a universal grade. When you rate your self highly, you actually create the possibility of rating your self poorly; you are reinforcing the notion that your self is something that can be good or bad in the first place. You have strengths and weaknesses, you behave in good and bad ways. Smothering all these nuances with a blanket notion of self esteem is a recipe for misery” (117)


“If you react to news stories about air terrorism by taking the car when you’d otherwise have taken a plane, or if you spend time and energy protecting your home from attackers that you could have spent on improving your diet, you’ll be letting your biases guide you toward a greater feeling of security at the expense of your real safety” (132)


“Seeing a tv report of a terrorist attack on foreign soil, you might abandon plans for an overseas holiday, in order to hang on to your feeling of safety- when in truth, spending too much time sitting on the sofa watching tv might pose a far greater threat to your survival” (133)


“What we are really doing when we attempt to achieve fixity in the midst of change, Watts argues, is trying to separate ourselves from all the change, trying to enforce a distinction between ourselves and the rest of the world. To seek security is to try to remove yourself from change, and thus from the thing that defines life. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Which brings us to the crux of the matter: it is because we want to feel secure that we build up the fortifications of ego, in order to defend ourselves, but it is those very fortifications that create the feeling of insecurity: ‘To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I”, but is just this feeling of being an isolated “I” which makes me feel lonely and afraid” (147)


“Next time you flunk an exam or mishandle a social situation, consider that it is happening only because you’re pushing the limits of your present abilities- and therefore, over the long run, improving them” (175)


“The psychotherapist Irving Yalom, in his book Staring at the Sun, points out that many of us live with the dim fear that on our deathbeds we’ll come to regret how we spent our lives. Remembering our mortality moves us closer to the deathbed mindset from which a judgment might be made- thus enabling us to spend our lives in ways that we’re much less likely to come to regret” (192)


“All external expectations, fear of embarrassment and failure- these things fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important” (193)


“Imagine you are 80 years old and then complete the sentence, “I wish I’d spent more time on … and “I’d wish I spent less time on …” (203)


“Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, of combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person in order that the immanent and transcendent Unknown Quantity may take hold” -Aldous Huxley (208)

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving” – Lao Tzu (212).




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