Oliver Burkeman- The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking


What if everything we’ve been taught about obtaining happiness is wrong? Is our “constant effort to be happy” counterintuitive? Instead, should we “embrace failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty?” These are the questions Oliver Burkeman explores in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

I spend a good chunk of my working day encouraging sixth grade students to look on the bright side. After all, I ask them, what’s the use of drowning in misery? I often explain to my students that each of us has a choice of bringing good or bad into this world. God knows there’s enough bad. And yet, it’s a daily struggle to stay positive myself. I’ve always been drawn to poignant songs, movies, and stories. After all, there’s often beauty in sadness. And as a writer, or artist of any kind, it’s imperative to embrace all emotions.  Therefore, should we always try to think positively? Should we strive for constant happiness?

Although Burkeman focuses on the happiness theme, he touches upon a variety of topics. Some of the most interesting points include:

  • Procrastination: some of the most successful authors write/wrote whether they feel/felt like it or not. For example, Anthony Trollope wrote three hours per day, before his day job.
  • Living in the Present: Spiritual author Eckhart Tolle explains that “Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.”
  • Embracing failure: “You can’t turn a sow’s ear into a Veal Orloff. But you can do something very good with a sow’s ear.”- Julia Child.

There’s a ‘museum of failed products’ in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which displays tens of thousands of failed products. Burkeman suggests that we should “embrace failure as failure, not just as a path to success—that welcoming it might simply feel better than perpetually struggling to avoid it.”

Psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that people generally believe that their success is based either on natural talent or hard work, and the latter tend to be more successful. Dweck suggests that children are better off being praised for their effort rather than their intelligence. It reminds me of Calvin Coolidge’s famous quote:

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

  • Outlook on Death: Writer Victor Landa, who was raised in Mexico, explains that in his culture, people die three deaths. “The first is when our bodies cease to function; when our hearts no longer beat of their own accord, when our gaze no longer has depth or meaning. The second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground. The third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left alive to remember us.”

I think it’s important to find a balance between pessimism and optimism. It reminds me of the quote in the movie Vanilla Sky: “You can do whatever you want with your life, but one day you’ll know what love truly is. It’s the sour and the sweet. And I know sour, which allows me to appreciate the sweet.”


7 thoughts on “Oliver Burkeman- The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

  1. I think embracing misery is as relevant as embracing failure, if only to immerse yourself in the emotion simply for the sake of experiencing it in a pure state. However, if people absorb those emotions as a means to justify daily crankiness, it’s just a cop out. Anyone who is blissful all the time is either highly medicated or a lobotomy survivor. All emotions are ok and should be given their due if it helps someone move on.


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