Friday, July 13, 2012

Oliver Burkeman's "The Antidote"

Oliver Burkeman is a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. His new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in "This Column Will Change Your Life" he writes about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and makes unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

Burkeman applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Antidote and reported the following:
The page 99 test works rather pleasingly on The Antidote. It’s the closing passage of my chapter on contemporary cult of goal-setting -- and why learning to remain open to uncertainty, rather than trying strenuously to plan the future, may be a better idea. There’s some truly marvelous writing on that page, actually, which is something I’m allowed to say in this case because it’s a quotation from the philosopher Martha Nussbaum:
To be a good human… is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control… It is based on a trust in the uncertainty, and on a willingness to be exposed. It’s based on being more like a plant than a jewel: something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.
What I’m getting at in this chapter is that an awful lot of goal-setting activity, in the corporate context or in our personal lives, is motivated mainly by a desire to get rid of unpleasant feelings of uncertainty. (A story earlier in the chapter explores the possibility that the climbers involved in the Mount Everest tragedy of 1996 might have become fixated on perilous goals for precisely this reason.) This is one facet of the book’s broader thesis -- that we’re so allergic to negative emotions and situations that we struggle hard to avoid them, often with counterproductive results: we end up even less happy, less successful, more insecure and more stressed. That’s my case against the culture of positive thinking and relentless optimism -- that all this trying so hard to be happy is making us miserable. But most of the book is concerned with exploring the more fruitful alternative: finding ways to embrace uncertainty, the experience of failure, insecurity, even our own mortality. Embracing uncertainty, as page 99 recommends, is a huge part of that. The philosophers and the psychologists whose work I explore are in agreement: if you can learn to move forward without knowing exactly where you’re headed, remaining ever open to the possibility of revising your destination, you’ll be happier, achieve more worldly success, and live more meaningfully. On page 99, I also quote Erich Fromm: “The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning.”
Learn more about the book and author at Oliver Burkeman's website.

Now available in in the UK, The Antidote is to be released in the US in November 2012 by Faber & Faber.

--Marshal Zeringue