The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman cover

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

Date read: 2015-09-30.
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Lovely exploration of happiness by embracing 'the negative path' of achieving it (through failure, pessimism, insecurity and uncertainty - the very things we try to avoid). Burkeman presents a unique collage of inversive ways of looking at life (and death).


On Trying Too Hard to Be Happy

The effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness – that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.

Instead, they argued that it pointed to an alternative approach, a ‘negative path’ to happiness. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death. In short, all these people seemed to agree that in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to learn to stop running from them.

The ‘law of reversed effort’, or the ‘backwards law’ (Alan Watts): the notion that in all sorts of contexts, from our personal lives to politics, all this trying to make everything right is a big part of what’s wrong.

What Would Seneca Do?

The Stoic Art of Confronting the Worst-Case Scenario

The results are striking: spending time and energy thinking about how well things could go, it has emerged, actually reduces most people’s motivation to achieve them.

Stoics: Nature had bestowed uniquely upon humans the capacity to reason, and therefore a ‘virtuous’ life – meaning a life proper and fitting to a human – entailed living in accordance with reason.

The Roman Stoics added a psychological twist: living virtuously in accordance with reason, would lead to inner tranquillity–’a state of mind’, writes the scholar of Stoicism William Irvine, ‘marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy.’

And here lies the essential difference between Stoicism and the modern-day ‘cult of optimism’. For the Stoics, the ideal state of mind was tranquillity, not the excitable cheer that positive thinkers usually seem to mean when they use the word ‘happiness’. And tranquillity was to be achieved not by strenuously chasing after enjoyable experiences, but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one’s circumstances. One way to do this, the Stoics argued, was by turning towards negative emotions and experiences; not shunning them, but examining them closely instead.

Nothing outside your own mind can properly be described as negative or positive at all. What actually causes suffering are the beliefs you hold about those things.

We think of distress as a one-step procedure: something in the outside world causes distress in your interior world. In fact, it’s a two-step procedure: between the outside event and the inside emotion is a belief.

Stood don’t claim that negative emotions don’t exist. They are merely specifying the mechanism through which all distress arises.

Stoic scholar A.A. Long: “this idea that judgements are in our power, that our emotions are determined by our judgements, and that we can always step back and ask: Is it other people that bother me? Or the judgement I make about other people?”

William Irvine argues is ‘the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ toolkit’. He calls it ‘negative visualisation’. The Stoics themselves, rather more pungently, called it ‘the premeditation of evils’. Benefits:

  1. ‘Hedonic adaptation’: we grow accustomed to something, and so it ceases to deliver so much joy, but… thinking about the possibility of losing something you value shifts it from the backdrop of your life back to centre stage, where it can deliver pleasure once more. Epictetus is adamant: the practice will make you love her all the more, while simultaneously reducing the shock should that awful eventuality ever come to pass.
  2. Antidote to anxiety. Confronting the worst-case scenario saps it of much of its anxiety-inducing power.

Stoics point out, things will not turn out for the best. But it is also true that, when they do go wrong, they’ll almost certainly go less wrong than you were fearing. Those fears are based on irrational judgements about the future, usually because you haven’t thought the matter through in sufficient detail.

Instead, try acting as if you had already lost it. ‘Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress,’ he suggests, ‘saying to yourself the while: “is this the condition that I feared?”.’

Stoics on Control

As Seneca frequently observes, we habitually act as if our control over the world were much greater than it really is. Even such personal matters as our health, our finances, and our reputations are ultimately beyond our control; we can try to influence them, of course, but frequently things won’t go our way. And the behaviour of other people is even further beyond our control.

For the Stoics tranquility entails confronting the reality of your limited control. ‘Never have I trusted Fortune,’ writes Seneca, ‘even when she seemed to be at peace. All her generous bounties – money, office, influence – I deposited where she could ask for them back without disturbing me.’ Those things lie beyond the individual’s control; if you invest your happiness in them, you’re setting yourself up for a rude shock. The only things we can truly control, the Stoics argue, are our judgements – what we believe – about our circumstances.

You cannot control the situation, so reacting with fury against that reality is irrational.

It is essential to grasp a distinction here between acceptance and resignation: using your powers of reason to stop being disturbed by a situation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change it.

What matters is how I engage with the situation. Now that I’m here, rather than anywhere else, here in this time and this place – what can I do?

On Albert Ellis

To put it another way, it wasn’t just that he wanted to be less shy, and that he wanted to be able to talk to women. Rather, he had been operating under the absolutist conviction that he needed their approval. Later, he would coin a name for this habit of mind: ‘masturbation’. We elevate those things we want, those things we would prefer to have, into things we believe we must have; we feel we must perform well in certain circumstances, or that other people must treat us well. Because we think these things must occur, it follows that it would be an absolute catastrophe if they did not. No wonder we get so anxious: we’ve decided that if we failed to meet our goal it wouldn’t merely be bad, but completely bad – absolutely terrible.

Explaining the difference between a terrible outcome and a merely undesirable one became a governing mission of Ellis’s career. He went so far as to insist that nothing at all could ever be absolutely terrible – ‘because’, he wrote, ‘when you insist that an undesirable event is awful or terrible, you are implying, if you’re honest with yourself, that it is as bad as it could be.’ Yet nothing could be 100 percent bad, he argued, because it could always conceivably be worse.

Ellis insisted, that the strategy of focusing on the worst-case scenario – and distinguishing between very bad and completely terrible events – really comes into its own. It turns infinite fears into finite ones.

The Storm Before the Calm

A Buddhist Guide to Not Thinking Positively

Meditation has little to do with achieving any specific desired state of mind, no matter whether blissful or calm. At Buddhism’s core, instead, is an often misunderstood notion that is starkly opposed to most contemporary assumptions about how to be happy, and that places it squarely on the ‘negative pathto happiness: non-attachment.

At the root of all suffering, says the second of the four ‘noble truths’ that define Buddhism, is attachment. The fact that we desire some things, and dislike or hate others, is what motivates virtually every human activity. Rather than merely enjoying pleasurable things during the moments in which they occur, and experiencing the unpleasantness of painful things, we develop the habits of clinging and aversion: we grasp at what we like, trying to hold onto it forever, and push away what we don’t like, trying to avoid it at all costs. Both constitute attachment. Pain is inevitable, from this perspective, but suffering is an optional extra, resulting from our attachments, which represent our attempt to try to deny the unavoidable truth that everything is impermanent.

To live non-attachedly is to feel impulses, think thoughts, and experience life without becoming hooked by mental narratives about how things ‘should’ be, or should never be, or should remain forever. The perfectly non-attached Buddhist would be simply, calmly present, and non-judgmentally aware.

‘we do not try to forcefully detach ourselves from the feelings, thoughts and expectations that arise in our mind. We don’t try to force anything into or out of the mind. Rather, we let things rise and fall, come and go, and simply be … there will be times in meditation when we’re relaxed, and times when our minds are agitated. We do not seek to attain a relaxed state, or to drive out our agitated and distracted mind. That is just more agitation.’

This is the first big step towards non-attachment: learning to view passing thoughts and feelings as if one were a spectator, not a participant. Consider it too closely, and this idea becomes dizzying, given that watching your own thought processes is itself a thought process; it can be easy to feel caught in some kind of infinite loop. Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to resolve this conundrum in order to practise meditation. The technique is simply to return – every time you realise you’ve been carried away by a narrative, or by an emotion – to the breath.

The mind, in this analogy, is the sky, and the sky doesn’t cling to specific weather conditions, nor try to get rid of the ‘bad’ ones. The sky just is. In this the Buddhists go further than the Stoics, who can sometimes seem rather attached to certain mind-states, especially that of tranquillity. The perfect Stoic adapts his or her thinking so as to remain undisturbed by undesirable circumstances; the perfect Buddhist sees thinking itself as just another set of circumstances, to be non-judgmentally observed

Non-attachment vs Procrastination

The problem is that feeling like acting and actually acting are two different things. A person mired deep in procrastination might claim he is unable to work, but what he really means is that he is unable to make himself feel like working.

Taking a non-attached stance towards procrastination, by contrast, starts from a different question: who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it? The problem, from this perspective, isn’t that you don’t feel motivated; it’s that you imagine you need to feel motivated.

People who really do get a lot done – very rarely include techniques for ‘getting motivated’ or ‘feeling inspired’. Quite the opposite: they tend to emphasise the mechanics of the working process, focusing not on generating the right mood, but on accomplishing certain physical actions, regardless of mood.

No approach to psychology better expresses the pragmatic benefits of non-attachment than Morita Therapy.

Once we learn to accept our feelings, we find that we can take action without changing our feeling-states. We can feel the fear, and do it anyway.

Goal Crazy

When Trying to Control the Future Doesn’t Work

Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future – not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.

[Uncertainty] feels like you’re sinking, and it is positively imperative to scramble to the next patch of firm ground, whatever direction it may be in. Once you get there, you can let yourself breathe.’ Clinging too tightly to goals is one of the principal ways in which we express the obsession with reaching that next patch of ground.

Goal-free living simply makes for happier humans

‘You can have a broad sense of direction without a specific goal or a precise vision of the future,’ Shapiro told me. ‘I think of it like jazz, like improvisation. It’s all about meandering with purpose.’

Entrepreneurs and goals

We tend to imagine that the special skill of an entrepreneur lies in having a powerfully original idea and then fighting to turn that vision into reality. But the outlook of Sarasvathy’s interviewees rarely bore this out. Their precise endpoint was often mysterious to them, and their means of proceeding reflected this. Overwhelmingly, they scoffed at the goals-first doctrine.

The entrepreneurs didn’t think like high-end chefs, concocting a vision of a dish and then hunting for the perfect ingredients. They behaved more like ordinary, time-pressed home cooks, checking what was in the fridge and the cupboards, then figuring out, on the fly, what they could make and how.

The most valuable skill of a successful entrepreneur, Chris Kayes is convinced, isn’t ‘vision’ or ‘passion’ or a steadfast insistence on destroying every barrier between yourself and some prize you’re obsessed with. Rather, it’s the ability to adopt an unconventional approach to learning: an improvisational flexibility not merely about which route to take towards some predetermined objective, but also a willingness to change the destination itself. This is a flexibility that might be squelched by rigid focus on any one goal.

Saras Sarasvathy has distilled her anti-goal approach into a set of principles she calls ‘effectuation’. It is an outlook with implications far beyond the world of entrepreneurialism; it might serve as a worthy philosophy for life. ‘Causally minded’ people are those who select or are given a specific goal, and then choose from whatever means are available to make a plan for achieving it.

Effectually minded people, on the other hand, examine what means and materials are at their disposal, then imagine what possible ends, or provisional next directions, those means might make possible.

One foundation of effectuation is the ‘bird in handprinciple: ‘Start with your means. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity. Start taking action, based on what you have readily available: what you are, what you know and who you know.’

A second is the ‘principle of affordable loss’: don’t be guided by thoughts of how wonderful the rewards might be if you were spectacularly successful at any given next step. Instead – and there are distinct echoes, here, of the Stoic focus on the worst-case scenarioask how big the loss would be if you failed. So long as it would be tolerable, that’s all you need to know. Take that next step, and see what happens.

Who’s There?

How to Get Over Your Self

Modern neuroscience has provided strong support for the suspicion that the self is not the ‘thing’ that we imagine it to be – that there is, in the words of the neuropsychologist Paul Broks, no ‘centre in the brain where things do all come together’.

We spend our whole lives in the company of a criticising voice. The voice judges and interprets reality, determines our emotional reactions, and chatters so constantly and so loudly that we come to identify with it: we imagine that we are the chattering stream of thinking.

We’re not only distressed by our thoughts; we imagine that we are those thoughts. The ego that results from this identification has a life of its own. It sustains itself through dissatisfaction – through the friction it creates against the present moment, by opposing itself to what’s happening, and by constantly projecting into the future, so that happiness is always some other time, never now.

The way out of this trap is not to stop thinking – thinking, Tolle agrees, is exceedingly useful – but to disidentify from thoughts: to stop taking your thoughts to be you, to realise, in the words of The Power of Now, that ‘you are not your mind’. We should start using the mind as a tool, he argues, instead of letting the mind use us, which is the normal state of affairs.

‘When you listen to a thought,’ he explains, ‘you are aware not only of the thought, but also of yourself as the witness of the thought. A new dimension of consciousness has come in. As you listen to the thought, you feel a conscious presence – your deeper self – behind or underneath the thought, as it were. The thought then loses its power over you, and quickly subsides, because you are no longer energising the mind through identification with it. This is the beginning of the end of involuntary and compulsive thinking.’

Instead of seeking ways to solve your problems in the future, it can be illuminating to try asking yourself if you have any problems right now. The answer, unless you’re currently in physical pain, is very likely to be ‘No’. Most problems, by definition, involve thoughts about how something might turn out badly in the future, whether in five minutes or in five years, or thoughts about things that happened in the past. It can be curiously difficult to identify any problems that afflict you at this very moment, in the present – and it is always the present.

Our sanity depends on maintaining a coherent sense of self, and on setting healthy boundaries between ourselves and others – and neither Alan Watts nor Eckhart Tolle wishes to imperil your sanity. Instead, the conclusion to which both their thinking leads is that the self is best thought of as some kind of a fiction, albeit an extremely useful one – and that realising this, instead of doing everything we can to deny it, might be the route to fulfilment.

The Safety Catch

The Hidden Benefits of Insecurity

‘Security is both a feeling and a reality,’ as Schneier puts it, ‘and they’re not the same.’

there might be something more fundamentally problematic about the goal of security; and that real happiness might be dependent on being willing to face, and to tolerate, insecurity and vulnerability.

But a recurring theme in the study of happiness is that many of the ways in which we try to feel ‘safe’ don’t ultimately make us happy. We seek financial security, yet above a certain threshold level, more money doesn’t translate into more happiness.

Brené Brown, a professor of social work who has studied the psychological benefits of vulnerability, the point is that ‘you can’t selectively numb emotion. You can’t say: here’s the bad stuff; here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment: I don’t want these.’ In the end, the only way you can achieve protection from the negatives is by achieving protection from the positives, too – whereupon you realise that you didn’t really want such protection at all.

Pema Chodron: her point is that when things fall apart, however painful the experience, it’s a good thing; the collapse of your apparent security represents a confrontation with life as it really is. ‘Things are not permanent, they don’t last, there is no final security,’ she says. What makes us miserable is not this truth, but our efforts to escape it.

Alan Watts: To understand that there is no security is far more than to agree with the theory that all things change, more even than to observe the transitoriness of life. The notion of security is based on the feeling that there is something within us which is permanent, something which endures through all the days and changes of life. We are struggling to make sure of the permanence, continuity, and safety of this enduring core, this centre and soul of our being, which we call ‘I’. For this we know to be the real man – the thinker of our thoughts; the feeler of our feelings, the knower of our knowledge. We do not actually understand that there is no security until we realise that this ‘I’ does not exist.

The Museum of Failure

The Case for Embracing Your Errors

Failure is everywhere. It’s just that most of the time we would rather avoid confronting that fact.

The Stoic technique of negative visualisation is, precisely, about turning towards the possibility of failure. The critics of goalsetting are effectively proposing a new attitude towards failure, too, since an improvisational, trial-and-error approach necessarily entails being frequently willing to fail. The spiritual ruminations of Eckhart Tolle and Alan Watts, meanwhile, point to an even deeper kind of failure: the ultimate – and ultimately liberating – failure of the ego’s efforts to maintain its separation and security.

The first big problem with our reluctance to think about or analyse failure – whether our own, or other people’s – is that it leads to an utterly distorted picture of the causes of success.

‘Survivor bias’ or the ‘undersampling of failure’, is already extremely familiar in many areas of scholarship, and of life.

It is worth bearing in mind, moreover, that virtually any advice about how to succeed, in life or work, is at constant risk of being undermined by survivor bias.

But a more deeply counterintuitive possibility is that there is happiness to be found in embracing failure as failure, not just as a path to success – that welcoming it might simply feel better than perpetually struggling to avoid it.

As Christopher Kayes’s notion of ‘goalodicy’ suggests, we too often make our goals into parts of our identities, so that failure becomes an attack on who we are. Or, as Albert Ellis understood, we alight upon some desired outcome – being happily married, for example, or finding fulfilling work – and elevate it into one we feel we must attain, so that failing at it becomes not just sad but catastrophic. To use the Buddhist language of attachment and non-attachment, we become attached to success. All these counterproductive ways of thinking about failure manifest themselves most acutely in the phenomenon of perfectionism.

Fortunately, it may be possible to cultivate some of this attitude towards failure without reaching the rarefied heights of Buddhist enlightenment.

The work of the Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that our experiences of failure are influenced overwhelmingly by the implicit beliefs we hold about the nature of talent and ability – and that we can, perhaps quite easily, nudge ourselves in the direction of a more healthy outlook. Each of us can be placed somewhere on a continuum depending on our ‘implicit view’ – or unspoken attitude – about what talent is and where it comes from. Those with a ‘fixed theory’ assume that ability is innate; those with an ‘incremental theory’ believe that it evolves through challenge and hard work.

If you’re the kind of person who struggles mightily to avoid the experience of failure, it’s likely that you reside near the ‘fixed’ end of Dweck’s continuum. ‘Fixed theory’ people tend to approach challenges as occasions on which they are called upon to demonstrate their innate abilities, and so they find failure especially horrifying: to them, it’s a sign that they tried to show how good they were, but didn’t measure up.

Incremental theory’ people are different. Because they think of abilities as emerging through tackling challenges, the experience of failure has a completely different meaning for them: it’s evidence that they are stretching themselves to their current limit. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t fail.

Happily, Dweck’s studies indicate that we are not saddled for life with one mindset rather than another. Some people manage to alter their outlook simply by being introduced to the ‘fixed’ versus ‘incremental’ distinction. Alternatively, it’s worth trying to recall it when failure strikes: next time you flunk an exam, or mishandle a social situation, consider that it is only happening because you’re pushing at the limits of your present abilities – and therefore, over the long run, improving them

Memento Mori

Death as a Way of Life

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death. The lack of serious thought we give to mortality, for Becker, is no accident or oversight: it is precisely because death is so terrifying and significant, he argues, that we don’t think about it. ‘The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else,’. But the consequence is that we dedicate our lives to suppressing that fear, erecting vast psychological fortifications so that we can avoid confronting it. Indeed, an enormous proportion of all human activity, in Becker’s view, is ‘designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man’.

We are able to sustain this denial, he explains, because we possess both a physical self and a symbolic one. And while it is inevitable that the physical self will perish, the symbolic self – the one that exists in our minds – is quite capable of convincing itself that it is immortal. The evidence of this is all around us; in fact, it’s so ubiquitous that you might miss it. In Becker’s view, all religions, all political movements and national identities, all business ventures, all charitable activity and all artistic pursuits are nothing but ‘immortality projects’, desperate efforts to break free of death’s gravitational pull. We long to think of ourselves not as mortal humans but as immortal ‘heroes’. Society itself is essentially a ‘codified hero system’ – a structure of customs, traditions and laws that we have designed to help us feel part of something bigger, and longer-lasting, than a mere human life.

If Becker is right, the ‘wondrous’ fact that we behave as if we’re immortal isn’t so wondrous after all. You don’t fail to think about your mortality. Rather, your life is one relentless attempt to avoid doing so – a struggle so elemental that, unlike in the case of the ‘white bear challenge’, for much of the time you succeed.

The Stoic technique of the ‘premeditation of evils’. Death is going to happen, Seneca would say, and so it must be preferable to be mentally prepared for its approach, instead of shocked into the sudden realisation that it is imminent.

Coming to understand death as something that there is no reason to fear, yet which is still bad because of what it brings to an end, might be the ideal middle path. The argument is a thoroughly down-to-earth, pragmatic, and Stoic one: the more that you remain aware of life’s finitude, the more you will cherish it, and the less likely you will be to fritter it away on distractions.

Remembering our mortality moves us closer to the deathbed mindset from which such a judgment might be made - thus enabling us to spend our lives in ways that we’re much less likely to come to regret.

Steve Jobs commencement speech: ‘Remembering that you are going to die is the best way that I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.’

Epilogue: Negative Capability

More loosely defined, ‘negative capability’ is really just another term for living in accordance with the ‘backwards law’ - and it might be a good label to describe the chief talent I kept discovering among the people I encountered in the course of researching this book. What they all shared was this same turn of mind, which I came to visualise as a sort of graceful mental dance step: a willingness to adopt an oblique stance towards one’s own inner life; to pause and take a step back; to turn to face what others might flee from; and to realise that the shortest apparent route to a positive mood is rarely a sure path to a more profound kind of happiness.

Oliver’s daily rituals:

  • Stoic pause’ - which is all that it takes to remember that it’s my judgment about a situation or person that is the cause of my distress, not the situation itself.
  • Even five or ten minutes’ vipassana meditation.
  • Eckhart Tolle’s deceptively simple-sounding question - ‘Do you have a problem right now?’ - is a marvellous antidote to low-level stress.
  • Shoma Morita’s insight that there’s no need to ‘get motivated’ before you get on and act.
  • Albert Ellis’s distinction between a very bad outcome and an absolutely terrible one. Imagining worst-case scenarios is one of my greatest sources of solace in life, actually. When you really try to answer, rationally and in detail, the question ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’, the answer is sometimes pretty bad. But it is finitely bad, rather than infinitely terrifying, so there is always a chance of coping with it.
  • Like a good Stoic, I tried to stay conscious of that, so as to derive happiness from feeling gratitude for my good fortune

The real revelation of the ‘negative path’ was not so much the path as the destination. Embracing negativity as a technique, in the end, only really makes sense if the happiness you’re aiming for is one that can accommodate negative as well as positive emotions.

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