July 5, 2016

The Antidote

I had a friend, once, who would spend her idle hours in bookstores, browsing the titles in the self-help section. Her interest was not necessarily in the content of the books—there was no rush for growth and betterment in her browsing—but instead in the delivery, in how self-help books, ostensibly, actually provide the help they claim.

The Antidote is exactly the kind of self-help book she’d enjoy. It bills itself as a guide for happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking;” as such, it positions itself as a self-help book for people who don’t necessarily believe they need help.

The message of The Antidote is simple enough: positive thinking can be a hindrance to achieving happiness. Instead, Oliver Burkeman focuses on seven other strategies, none of them groundbreaking, all of them self-evident but illuminating when put together.

I’ve been told that I come across as permanently-happy, and overly-positive. The truth is that my happiness and positivity aren’t results of positive thinking, but instead of the same strategies Mr. Burkeman elucidates but that I had never named or thought of in a regimented fashion: stoicism (don’t get bothered), Buddhism (feel and experience deeply), goal eradication (embrace uncertainty), self-release (you are not your mind), failure (don’t hide your errors), and memento mori (contemplate mortality—something I do often, it seems).

The strategy of insecurity, that we should be comfortable with impermanence, is the one I struggle with most. Insecurity (particularly in the form of financial worrying) brings me anxiety; instead of embracing that insecurity, I fight that sentiment, much to my detriment. This is where I wish Mr. Burkeman’s book was more than just a lit review. While The Antidote is excellent at positing theory and providing anecdotal and academic reference for those ideas, the information sits mostly at the surface level. There is a paucity of depth, and it is this reluctance to dive deeper that makes this self-help book feel like all the others, no matter what its claims.

Mr. Burkeman’s literature review” on happiness strategies pitches itself as just the kind of self-help book that would intrigue my friend, but fails to deliver on that pitch. There are some nuggets of goodness, but that is all they are: tasty morsels, but inherently not-filling. It’s a book to pick off the shelf and peruse, but then return, fairly quickly, and continue browsing down the aisle.


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