Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking: An Interview with Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman is a writer for The Guardian based in New York. He’s also helped bring stoicism to a mass audience with his popular book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. The book, which has a chapter based on Seneca, explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. In other words, instead of gushy, hazy-headed “Fake it ‘till you make it” thinking, Burkeman looks at the real psychological and therapeutic effects of realism, of unflinching self-honesty and resilience.  

We interviewed him over email to find out what drew him to Stoicism and how it can help people.


What was it that motivated you to write The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking? Were you frustrated with the plethora of self­-help literature that focused uniquely on positivity? Was it a personal exploration you felt you needed to do?

antidote

I’d been writing my Guardian column on psychology for a while when began to see a pattern emerging. Most of the self-help approaches that seemed to actually work had something in common: they weren’t about trying to eradicate negative emotions through willpower, or steamrolling them with upbeat thoughts. Instead they were about taking a stance of interest, or even acceptance, toward negative states like insecurity, uncertainty, sadness, failure and so on. I didn’t know at the beginning that this was an old, old idea – much older than positive thinking.

Your book is well known in the Stoic community for its chapter on Seneca. What drew you to that? Why did you decide to write about such an ancient topic alongside modern ideas from people like Eckhart Tolle?

Well, to be clear, I’m a totally half-assed Stoic (though I try to be Stoic about that). I simply plundered a handful of ideas from Stoicism – mainly the ones that echoed other insights I encountered on what I came to call the “negative path to happiness”. Though there are countless areas of difference, the commonalities between Stoicism, Buddhism, “non-dual” ideas like Tolle’s, and some therapeutic techniques – like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – are downright spooky. If deeply thoughtful people are reaching the same conclusions even when separated by thousands of miles or thousands of years, it’s probably time to conclude that they’re the truth.

Was there a particular Stoic idea or exercise that you think people would benefit most from? Is there one that has stuck with you?

By far the one that stuck with me the most was the “premeditation of evils” or negative visualization – thinking soberly about worst-case scenarios, asking yourself how badly a given choice or event could work out, rather than trying to persuade yourself everything will go fine. This is immensely reassuring, in almost every case, firstly because you discover you were fearing a scenario many times worse than any that could actually occur; and secondly because, even if things do go badly, you’ll feel more prepared and resilient. There might still be fear, but there’ll be no fear of fear on top of that. I ask myself “what’s the worst case scenario here?” multiple times a day. (Sometimes I ask other people, too, to try to be helpful, but it generally annoys them.)

Do you have a favorite stoic quote?

If I’m allowed a paraphrasing of Eckhart Tolle, who of course wouldn’t call himself a Stoic… “Do you have a problem now?” This is a tremendously powerful question, I think, and insofar as it draws attention to the role of thoughts in causing distress, I think it counts.

You’ve talked in the book about how striving with all our might to be happy essentially eliminates the possibility. This sounds very counterintuitive to most people. Can you tell us why that is so?

The most down-to-earth way to explain this is just as a matter of how we’re designed, in a cognitive sense. Trying really hard to directly alter your emotions or thoughts is bound to backfire. Tell yourself you’re only going to think positively, and you end up scanning your mind for traces of negativity, which isn’t a positive way to live. Trying to make yourself calm down makes you stressed instead. Bereaved people who try not to feel grief end up having more problems with grief, and so on. (When you think about it, if we could switch off emotions like fear through the power of thought, we wouldn’t have survived for long, in evolutionary terms.) A more “spiritual” answer would probably bring in Buddhist ideas about the self: our efforts to make everything “go our way” inadvertently reinforce the very ego that is the source of suffering.

Do you have a daily routine that incorporates any of what you studied in the book? Any chance it is something you picked up from Seneca? Tell us about your daily practices and what benefits you see from them.

My daily routine is a real mashup: meditation (Buddhism); morning pages (which comes from Julia Cameron, and probably counts as “new age”); and working in 90-minute focus blocks whenever possible (from Tony Schwartz). I think the Stoicism part is more of a flavor that suffuses all of them. So in meditation I’ll seek to be accepting of negative circumstances, like tiredness or anxiety or whatever; in morning pages I’ll often find myself exploring worst-case scenarios, or gratitude in the Senecan sense (understand the fragility and contingency of the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy, and you’ll value them more).

And as a final question, what is next for you?
I’m writing a book about time. (Although I’d probably back away in alarm from anyone who said those words to me at a party.) Ultimately it’s about the shortness of life, and what psychology can tell us about using our brief time well. So that’s Stoicism again, really: Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life is still one of the most penetrating examinations of the matter. Life’s not really short, he insists; it’s that we go systematically wrong in how we use it.