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Oliver Burkeman on the positive power of negative thinking

The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman's latest book. Credit: Photo:

For the past six years, Oliver Burkeman has been writing a column in The Guardian on the culture of self-help and the science of happiness. In his latest book "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking," he argues that a focus on the seemingly negative aspects of life — uncertainty, failure, even death — is a surer route to happiness than the positive thinking so often emphasized in our society. The trailer for his book provides a great overview of his ideas.

Earlier this month, Burkeman spoke at Town Hall about his adventures on the “negative path” to happiness, which he called “a very Seattle idea.” The following morning, as a depressing gray fog blanketed the city, I spoke to him over coffee.

In your talk, you mentioned that the focus on positivity is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of thought. Can you tell me a little bit about its origins?

One of the big strands is the evolution of American Christianity, and the way that the growth of the consumer society starts to change the Calvinist work ethic that was so big in America in the nineteenth century. This is partly from Barbara Ehrenreich — she talks about the way that the duty to work, as a Protestant religious idea, starts to colonize the self in America. It becomes a duty to work on your self. It becomes your duty to be upbeat and positive, bright and hopeful.

How much do you think a focus on relentless optimism is an American thing, compared to, say, a British phenomenon?

It’s definitely more American than it is native to anywhere else, but it is everywhere. It does have something to do with national myths, I think. Even if you take the politics out of the equation, that idea of being able to make it to amazing wealth and power, but also being at constant risk of falling right back down to the worst makes for a more anxious way of being. That is going to make you very interested in whatever tools you can find to ensure your upward trajectory.

How challenging did you find confronting some of those ideas about becoming more comfortable with death?

It was difficult primarily because I was really aware of the risk of doing it superficially. I do make it clear in the epilogue of the book that one is on dangerous territory writing about how important it is to confront negativity. Especially if, in your own life, you’ve been fairly fortunate in not having enormous personal tragedy happen to you — or even normal tragedy. I was really concerned about how easy it was to be glib about it. As I say in the epilogue, the test for me of these ideas is almost certainly in my future.

But the ideas in the book can have value whether or not they are born of personal experience, right?

Right, but the tone is key. If you spend a lot of time, as I have, critiquing the output of the self-help industry, you often try to figure out the experience that the book is born of. In some cases it’s very valid, but like Anthony Robbins . . he talks in one of his books about how he hit rock-bottom, then turned his life around by becoming a motivational speaker. That always just sums up the wrongness of it for me. Pick your life up, live for a couple of decades in a tranquil and wise way, then tell us all how to do it.

Being appalled by that sort of thing is another reason I wanted to try as hard as I could to keep this as an account of a reporter going and meeting people and trying things. I do really hope that it basically comes as an adventure in which I am proxy for the reader, instead of telling the reader what’s what.

How did you get on the whole self-help beat?

I started writing this column for The Guardian, which began as a skeptical look at self-help and broadened into being about anything to do with psychology that I think is interesting. It was a twin-track effort to launch justified skepticism at ideas that deserved it, but at the same time to isolate some of the ideas and approaches that are interesting and good, but that are hiding behind corny book jackets.

Have you been incorporating, in a lasting way, any of the things you learned about negativity thinking from the book?

I try, haltingly, to keep up a meditation practice. And lots of the little things I discussed yesterday, like worst-case-scenario thinking, I do use that on a day to day basis. It’s just a great reminder that most of the things you’re worried about can’t really go that wrong.

How much pushback have you gotten about the idea that positive thinking can be a problem?

There’s two different kinds of pushback. The “you’re wrong, positive thinking is amazing” kind is fairly rare, possibly because that would entail those people being negative. The subtler critique is “Well, is this really negative? Don’t we need both positive and negative thinking?”

I haven’t had a lot of “I can’t believe you’re so negative!” … Most of what I get is people saying “you’re putting into words exactly what my position has always been.”

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