We seem to be in the middle of a happiness epidemic.  Self-help book after self-help book advises us to improve our mental state by “thinking positive.” However, can such mental gymnastics really improve our mood?  According to British journalist Oliver Burkeman, in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, the more we try to be happy by thinking positive, the unhappier we make ourselves. This non-self-help self-help book is a brilliant expose of the happiness industry but, more importantly, a guide to finding both wisdom and the deep, inner, fulfillment that counts.

Burkeman isn't just a cranky Brit, but a man on a mission to get to the bottom of such questions as what truly makes us happy in the deepest sense of the word. He begins his quest by taking apart the various claims of the typical happiness self-help books. As Burkeman points out, if self-help books really worked, people wouldn’t be buying new ones on average 18 months after buying a previous one. In addition to being banal and trite, these books make claims that aren’t supported by empirical research: “The evidence suggests,” he reports, “that venting your anger doesn’t get rid of it, while visualizing your goals doesn’t make you more likely to achieve them.” The so-called “happiest” countries (if we in fact believe the survey data) aren’t the ones that publish the most self-help books. As he states, “the existence of a thriving ‘happiness industry’ clearly isn’t sufficient to engender national happiness, and it’s not unreasonable to suspect that it might make matters worse” (p. 6).

Perhaps it’s not quite fair to call Burkeman a pessimist, but he clearly believes that the negative path is the one, if not to happiness, then to fulfillment.  His brilliant analysis of what’s wrong with that “happiness industry” shows the limitations of spending your mental energy on such staples of the self-help guides as positive imagery, getting yourself motivated(!!!), and dousing your mind of all thoughts that you could possibly fail at your life’s most cherished goals. On the contrary, he advises thinking about the some of the very worst outcomes you could possibly imagine, including your own demise. Instead of trying to rid your mind of all negative imagery, he advocates embracing it, watching the negative thoughts drift in and out of your consciousness without trying to drown them out.

It’s advice that Burkeman arrives at through an exhaustive but fascinating account of the great philosophers and psychologists who advocate accepting your fears, doubts, and unpleasant feelings  to enhance your sense of fulfillment in the moment. As he points out: “The negative path to happiness is not an argument for bloody-minded contrarianism at all costs… nor is it implying that there’s necessarily anything wrong with optimism… this ‘negative path’ … isn’t one single, comprehensive neatly packaged philosophy [or] panacea” (p. 9).  

In his journey to identify the antidote to happiness, Burkeman interacts with a variety of sources ranging from the esteemed psychologist Albert Ellis (whom he interviewed shortly before his death) to gurus in a Massachusetts medidation retreat, to a barrio in Mexico, where he risked encounters with drug lords to learn about the traditional celebrations of the Day of the Dead.  Reports of his travels, all told with that inimitable British wit, are mixed in with brief synopses of relevant research from the classics such as Daniel Wegner’s “white bear” experiment (by trying not to think of a white bear, you’re more likely to do just that). 

Burkeman strips his “antidote’s” message down to its roots in Stoic philosophy which, as he argues, forms the basis for modern cognitive behavioral therapy. By this he means that the Stoicists of ancient Greece believed that our emotions are determined by our judgments—or, as Hamlet said, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” An event, in and of itself, has no emotional meaning. It’s what we make of it that determines how we feel. Stoicists could observe events without judging their inherent goodness or badness and, as a result, accept these experiences on their own terms. Things happen and it’s up to us to decide how to interpret what these things mean and how they ultimately will affect us.

In learning to accept his thoughts for what they are, Burkeman became increasingly conscious of their ebb and flow in his mental conversation with himself. Some thoughts scare us, especially those in which we or someone we knows dies, especially if these outcomes result from our own actions. However, by thinking about the worst of these scenarios, instead of fighting them, we’re more likely to avoid ever enacting these very behaviors we dread. The more you try to suppress a bad thought, like Wegman’s white bear that wouldn’t vanish from the minds of his subjects, the more it will lie there, like a time bomb, waiting to cause you anxiety and despair.  In his meditational retreat, Burkeman became better able to listen to his mental chatter, and watch his thoughts come in and out, without being bothered by even the worst ones.

Failure is one of those negative thoughts that we try, in a happiness-oriented world, to avoid. We find it difficult to think about failure because the idea that we might fail threatens our sense of self. But what is this “sense of self” about? As Burkeman points out, the dividing line between you and your environment is really only a matter of a few cells of skin.  If you were to look at these cells under a high-powered microscope, you might not even be able to make the distinction between where the stuff inside your skin ends and the stuff in the air begins. The self, as he points out, is “best thought of as some kind of a fiction…realising this, instead of doing everything we can to deny it, might be the route to fulfillment” (p. 122).  If you’re willing to give up on this notion of the self, you’ll be more willing to avoid the trap of needing to bolster your self-esteem in order to feel happy. You can just “be,” not perfect and not successful and, as a result, not disappointed in yourself or depressed about whatever goals you haven’t achieved.

Speaking of not achieving your goals, how about focusing on the possibility of failure? Burkeman took a visit to the legendary Museum of Failed products in Michigan, home to such manufacturing debacles as “Low Ash Cat Food” and a yogurt-containing shampoo (I told you this book is entertaining!). We don’t like thinking about failure, because “failure is so ubiquitous” (p. 158).  There’s even a term for fear of failure: “kakorrhaphiophobia.” Once we do confront this fear, however, we can embrace our failures with the same dispassionate regard as we more typically expect to bask in our successes.  You can survive failure and still go on with your life. In fact, by looking objectively at how and why you failed, you’ll be more likely to have your efforts result in better outcomes in the future.  Burkeman points out that scientists themselves suffer from fear of failure. Even though they should be objective about the outcomes of their experiments, they bury the results that don’t support their hypotheses and seek glory for the ones that do.  Rather than advancing the cause of science, this failure to recognize failure only guarantees that these efforts will stall.

Ultimately, Burkeman believes that we can experience true fulfillment (if not happiness) when we come to realistic terms with our own mortality. As a society, we avoid thinking about death as it is the ultimate threat to our sense of self. We don’t like thinking that we (or our legacy) will not survive forever. However, by recognizing our limited existence, we can enjoy each moment we have, no matter how many or few those will be. Burkeman’s reasons for encouraging us to focus on the moment aren’t the same as those who exhort us to experience “mindful” living. Don't think that things will get better (or worse) in the future. Stay within the moment you are in now- no matter whether it’s painful or pleasurable. 

To summarize, Burkeman suggests that you take these 5 less traveled routes to experience true fulfillment:

  1. Accept your thoughts for what they are. You may have bad thoughts, good thoughts, or no thoughts at all. By watching your thoughts come and go, you don’t have to be afraid about what the bad thoughts will do to you.
  2. Focus on the present moment, including all of your sensations. Don’t judge whether the present moment is good or bad.  Let the moment happen and accept its reality.
  3. Learn from “failure.” Disappointing outcomes are just that- disappointing. If you can accept the results of your actions, for better or worse, you’ll be better able to understand why they happened.
  4. Stamp out your need for self-esteem. If you let the need for self-esteem dominate your experiences, you’ll inevitably find yourself disappointed and even depressed about the times when events didn’t turn out as you wished.
  5. Allow yourself to think about mortality. Death, as the end of life, carries no inherent meaning. After you're gone, you won't be here to enjoy your family and friends, but you won’t know it.  By not being afraid of death, you also won’t be afraid of the future and therefore better able to accept the present.

The antidote to happiness is not misery, but instead a deeper enjoyment of what your life can offer. 

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013

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