6:27:13 The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, a book review

Oliver Burkeman's The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking would vanquish upbeat self-help books. Given life has its trials, he asks us to lower our expectations and follow "the negative path." To illustrate, The Antidote essays his personal appreciation of Stoicism, Buddhism, memento mori and the like.

Burkeman gets things underway by attending a televangelist Robert H. Schuller event. What he writes, though, is a bit of a cheap takedown , ad hominen arguments against Schuller, who, for Burkeman, must stand for all amiss with positive thinking.

That done, Burkeman introduces the negative path by considering the Stoics and their commitment to rationally endure anything, knowing it could be worse. He relates not only what these past philosphers wrote and lived, but also interviews a modern Stoic in the person of Albert Ellis at age 93, in the final months of his life.

[book cover]

Next Burkeman examines Buddhism, a psychology that posits attachment as the source of suffering. Positive thinking certainly is a form of attachment and desire. So Buddhism must inherently be non-attached and included on the negative path.

But when Burkeman took on psychology pioneer Shoma Morita and his Buddhist-derived therapy, I saw journalistic superficiality shining through. I know Morita fairly well. His psychology is much more than transcending fickle emotions as in "feel the fear and do it anyway."

And when he goes to that contemporary popularizer of Buddhism (or the dumbed-down version), Eckhardt Tolle, we get little more than hotel journalism: Fly to Vancouver, take an afternoon visit with Mr. Tolle in his apartment, describe the man in person, fold in some key concepts (there is no self), then leave.

Burkeman concludes his odyssey seeking out first-hand experience on the Day of the Dead in Mexico in situ. At first, repulsed as intrusive by participants, his effort was partly successful, as the "negative path" winds up in a graveyard.

I'm unconvinced of Burkeman's organizing thesis. To wit, a case can be made for positive thinking as an antidote to the ruminative negative thinking that attracts more negative thoughts, often spiralling downward to depression.

While, I credit Burkeman for surveying a number of philosophical approaches I find of interest, this journalistic outing didn't satisfy. I'd suggest the earned wisdom of Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaningis far more an antidote for life's trials than what Mr. Burkeman offers.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman, Faber and Faber, 2012, 236 pp. ISBN: 978-0-86547-941-8.

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The Cat at Light's End

Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

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