Over the last decades, the self-help industry has become booming business, filling numerous shelves in every local bookshop. For example, even those without special interest in this field could not have escaped the amount of success The Secret achieved in 2006. The law of attraction portrayed in this book, or simply the benefits that positive thinking is said to provide, remains a popular approach in the quest to finding happiness. Now Oliver Burkeman present us with The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. What a relief!
The first page grabs your attention with a funny scene where Burkeman attends a Get Motivated! seminar in the United States. His sharp and humorous description of the hysterical conference helps to get you in the mood for his philosophical search of happiness, without giving the subject too much weight. For me, it was good to realise that self-help books or philosophy needn’t be dry stuff.
After starting out with quite some examples of why irrational optimism as a lifestyle – as a way to find happiness – doesn’t work or can even lead to dangerous situations, Burkeman shifts his focus to other lifestyles. He argues that it is impossible to try to ‘outthink’ negative situations and ban them from your life and that the real way to a peaceful and happy life is to learn how to deal with negativity, instead of rigorously ignoring it. This is what he calls the ‘negative path to happiness’.
With this in mind, he guides the reader through various philosophical traditions, from the ancient Stoics to the works of Eckhart Tolle. This central part of Burkemans work is where readers might or might not find something to his or her appeal. For example, I found the theories of the Stoics interesting but they did not really fit in with my own life and personality, whilst his exploration of Buddhism appealed to me more. Then again, his study of the revelations of Eckhart Tolle and the loss of Self really were too much for me. Luckily, the author kept alternating anecdotes and philosophy, which in total makes the book accessible, and it kept me reading. I also found the less weighty chapters about the downsides of goal-setting – with plenty references to the current global economic crisis – and the plea for embracing your own errors interesting and insightful.
All in all, the book offers a huge amount of information on several philosophical traditions. As the book is not that long, this sometimes leads to descriptions that are too uncritical or simplified for subjects that deserved a more multidimensional approach. The author’s focus on serious versus funny passages was sometimes unbalanced. This meant that questions were left unanswered or not asked at all. For example, Burkeman sees only Death as something factually negative, while the question is not raised whether immortality would be a good thing for mankind instead.
I feel this book is a good and accessible first step into the world of philosophy, and that it may direct the interested reader towards further reading. It is definitely a very welcome addition to the world of self-help books, offering the culture of exaggerated optimism some much needed counterbalance.