The antidote: happiness for people who can't stand positive thinking

“It's recently occurred to me I might not even have a problem.” (Andrew Largeman, Garden State)

I’m home for Christmas, and starting to get nervous. Soon I will meet my relatives, and with that a bunch of nagging questions will be waiting for me. Questions like “How’s your thesis going?” and “What will you be doing after graduating next summer?” and “What, you still don’t have a plan for the future? Doesn’t that make you feel uncomfortable?” – Well, what am I supposed to say? “No, I don’t” and “Yeah, a little”? “Can we please talk about someone else’s problems?” I ask my brother. “Sister, I think there’s a book that you should read..."

The book my brother told me to read is The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking written by Oliver Burkeman. Though I find the irony instantly appealing, I’m still convinced that what I definitely don’t need right now is one of those self-help books.

Fortunately, I’m wrong.

Because Burkeman, too, is annoyed; not only with self-help books or motivation seminars, but with the entire self-help industry that developed in the United States and across Europe in recent years. In his view, one fundamental problem of these programs that promise you the “one and only” way to true and eternal happiness, is their ambition to show you how to avoid and ban feelings of unhappiness from your life. The irony of it: “All too often, the outcome we’re seeking to avoid is exactly the one to which we seem magnetically lured” (p.13). For those of you who don’t immediately know what he alludes to, I recommend the following: Try not to think about a polar bear for the next minute! (And write me an email if you succeeded…) So, what does Burkeman recommend? Should we apply reverse logic and try to avoid being happy, hoping we will become happy in the end? No. According to Burkeman, being happy cannot be the result of such simple tricks of mind or straightforward strategy. What he instead suggests is doing the illogical: That is, to turn to our negative emotions and insecurities from time to time, because happiness may (unexpectedly) originate from that.

The Antidote is about Burkeman's journey to discover and articulate different ways of what in his view means to "do the counterintuitive or illogical". Each chapter is dedicated to a different, counterintuitive approach that Burkeman discovered for himself. If you decide to go on that journey and read The Antidote, you will find out why at times it is good for you to be more pessimistic, because expecting the worst may actually be the best to hope for (see Chapter 2). You will also realize why having 'SMART' (i.e., Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realisitic, Time-bounded) goals definitively isn't always smart (Chapter 4). A visit to the bizarre 'Museum of Failure' will teach you to learn from your mistakes instead of pretending they never happened (Chapter 7); and you will find out why of all things facing your own death will help you to live a happier life (Chapter 8). If you haven't done so already, you will figure out that most of your problems are in your mind – and hence why getting over your 'self' may actually be a good thing to do to be happier.

Why should you read this book? Because it definitely isn't one of those "refuse to lose in 7 steps program" books. Burkeman knows the central psychological concepts and theories, he knows the relevant research, and most of all, he knows how to tell a story. He proves to be open-minded and very observant, his writing is witty, entertaining, and to the point. There are no ready-made opinions in this book, telling you what you should and shouldn't do (indeed, Burkeman is well aware of the thin line between criticizing the typical self-help gurus and becoming one yourself). Instead, Burkeman offers a lot of thought-provoking material for you as a reader, which is a quality I really appreciate in books. Most importantly, I think The Antidote is a good read for those of you who haven't studied psychology, and it's still a good read if you're a psychologist – which in my experience is rare.


Burkeman, O. (2012). The Antidote. Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. Edinburgh, UK: Canongate Books

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