Oliver Burkeman is talking in muted tones from a Brooklyn apartment because it's 11pm and its other residents are sleeping. Based in New York's most populous borough, the English journalist whose regular ruminations appear in the UK Guardian's jocular This Column Will Change Your Life says his latest book - an exploration into how to achieve happiness - took him three years and to some unexpected places.
Cutting to the chase, Burkeman discovered human beings cannot feel happy via the modern cult of positive thinking - more likely the opposite. The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can't Stand Positive Thinking is a pithy, gently humorous and intelligently elucidated piece of modern philosophy. Burkeman pulls together strands of Stoicism, other ancient philosophers, Buddhism and contemporary thinkers to put forward a persuasive argument: positive thinking is self-defeating.
Not convinced? Right: do this exercise. Do not think of a polar bear for the next 10 minutes. Remember, no picturing big white bears on icebergs or mint adverts, or anything. None. Still not thinking polar bears? The point is, it is absolutely guaranteed at least one bear will swim unbidden into your mind when it is told not to. By the same token, if you're told not to think negative thoughts, in amongst the forced optimism, dark ideas will aggressively elbow their way into your head. That's when our most complex organ, the mind, goes: "Damn, I've failed to banish negativity. I'm a failure. I'm never going to be a success. I can't even be positive for 10 minutes." The result is you feel worse than when you started. The above is called the Backwards Law and demonstrates how our minds judge our thoughts. Given that, it's a miracle any of us manage to crack a smile. "Well yes, there is a deeply ironic principle at the heart of how the human mind works, that in trying so hard to focus on good things brings about the reverse, opposite effect," Burkeman observes cheerfully.
But, says the 37-year-old writer, you can blame the 21st century's happy brigade. The cult of success and positive thinking at all costs are products of today's get-ahead, consumer society. "I think it is a modern phenomenon - certainly the degree of focus and attention given to changing our inner experience to be one that is purely positive. Venturing a guess, we are designed to do more than that. People and philosophers in the millennia beforehand were far more open to considering all life's necessities, meaning, our ethics, and which might be the right way to behave - these were all ancient quests of philosophy. This idea of how can we can make ourselves feel happy all the time is very new."
Well, it's not working. Contemporary thinker Alan Watts assures: "Insecurity is the result of trying to be secure," and Daniel Wegner cites the "precisely counter-intuitive error" we make as we shuffle around the happy-clappy motivational circuit.
The answer? Take the negative path to happiness. "What made more sense to me was the Buddhist idea that clinging to that which we desire while making great efforts to stay away from that which we don't constitutes attachment," Burkeman says. "In Buddhism it is non-attachment which makes the outcome of a situation indifferent to our feelings of well-being. It's like pain is inevitable but suffering is an optional extra."
Psychoanalyst and Zen teacher Barry Magid puts it this way: struggling to escape your demons only gives them power. Similarly Freud reasoned that the unconscious mind is the repository of all unwanted thought - repudiated by the conscious mind - but suppressing the unconscious conversely puts it in control of your life. Therefore you're far better off embracing the mind's terrors in order to be rid of them. It's a paradox.
"I also think that there is something very protective and safe about the cult of positivity and optimism, Burkeman says. "I have to agree with Barbara Ehrenreich who says that, for example, cancer sufferers are so often relentlessly made to feel optimistic because it makes it a lot easier for those around them. It's a lot easier for others if you've got a great grin on your face as you wrestle mortality because it makes social relations go more smoothly and saves us from asking tough questions."
Like an alchemist magically distilling and transforming crude elucidations into thought-gold, Burkeman says, "I'd bring it down to this: Stop thinking there's one secret. There isn't. If I were less evasive I would say, try to cultivate the ability to think in the present and act in uncertainty, moving forward without needing to know, or be fixed to a single, positive outcome." Perhaps the modern antidote is old-fashioned faith.
'Therefore you're far better off embracing the mind's terrors in order to be rid of them. It's a paradox.' Oliver Burkeman
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