Book Review – Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote

The Antidote
Oliver Burkeman
Faber & Faber, 2012
256 pages

The Power of Positive Thinking, Personal Power, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, How to Make Friends and Influence People. These classics of the self-help genre have sold millions and have spawned an industry of personal growth gurus and motivational speakers that promises to supercharge your life and make you a beacon of positivity and productivity. But your bullshit detector asks: if this stuff works, why are all these people still in business? What’s the catch? And why are the most upbeat people I know also the biggest pessimists?

According to industry figures, repeat buyers of self-help books purchase a new title every 18 months, which may suggest that these volumes have limited shelf lives, or at least waning effectiveness. Or is it even worse. What if self-help books don’t work at all? What if they are predicated on a false premise? This is the delicious setup for Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking, a quick read for self-help skeptics like myself.

The Antidote is eight chapters of contrarian thinking peppered with personal experience, expert interviews and philosophical and psychological theory. Burkeman goes on a seven day mediation retreat, visits Detroit’s Museum of Failed Products, and travels to rural Mexico to experience Day of the Dead celebrations. He also interviews the usually insufferable New Age guru Eckhart Tolle and distills his message to something usable and free of metaphysical filigree and feel-good fairy dust.

Burkeman takes his cue from the ancient Greeks and examines various approaches to the Stoic practice of examining the worst possible future.  One experiment at facing the worst has him riding the London Tube and announcing stations at the top of his lungs before the automated system does so. He attempts this with great trepidation, terrified that he will make a fool of himself, but ends up learning that most commuters barely registered his presence, or at least pretended not to. During his Massachusetts mediation retreat, he discovers that, a few days in, he is becoming very annoyed with the breathing of a nearby meditator and tells us that this kind of rage is a common experience for people undertaking such workshops. These and other personal anecdotes illustrate the various philosophical and psychological strategies that require one to embrace negative thoughts as a path to positive outcomes and suggest that rich rewards await those who are willing to try, provided that they are willing to make tremendous efforts and face some rather inconvenient truths.

The Antidote is not a comforting book in the same way as most self-help manuals. It does not promise instant results and it offers no self-improvement strategy other than skeptical  and reasoned inquiry. It’s a fast read (it took me about 4 hours to get through the whole thing) but is a springboard to further reading. It also bears rereading as Burkeman packs a lot of punch into  256 rewarding pages.

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