Oliver Burkeman has rubbed elbows with Mexico City’s toughest gangsters, trekked through Africa’s second-largest urban slum of Kimbera, Kenya, and purchased a pubic louse (just one) – all in the search for happiness.
What’s the main takeaway from Burkeman’s adventures? It’s that we need to avoid the trap of positive thinking. Burkeman, a journalist for the Guardian and author of “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” believes it’s not about big dreams and eliminating the word "impossible" from your vocabulary – quite the contrary, in fact. Pessimists rejoice: Burkeman says the key to happiness is to let that dark cloud hang inside your mind, take some cues from the Stoics of Ancient Greece and embrace negative thinking.
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To be clear, negative thinking is not the exact opposite of positive thinking. It doesn’t mean thinking nasty thoughts about every person or situation you encounter. Rather, it’s about accepting reality, good or bad.
"Acceptance to me just means absolutely refusing to deny what reality is," says Burkeman. "It doesn’t mean you have to be OK with being in an abusive relationship, for example. It means that you don’t deny or keep up a veneer of pretending it’s OK and, in fact, your first sense should be to get the hell out."
But is it really useful to accept reality instead of thinking positively and fighting your way out of a slump? Burkeman says yes. Forget the vision boards, the daily affirmations and definitely forget the New Age Law of Attraction. Burkeman points to several studies that show people who think too optimistically tend to shoot themselves in the foot, falsely believing that they’ve already accomplished something they haven’t. One example is when psychologist Gabriele Oettingen asked some dehydrated participants in a study to visualize an icy glass of water – instead of becoming more motivated to hydrate themselves, their bodies relaxed, almost believing they had already had the water.
It might still seem hard to believe that finding silver linings and building positive momentum are counterproductive, but Burkeman implies that positive thinking traps followers into feeling inadequate when they haven’t suddenly achieved a constant, shatterproof level of excitement or happiness.
"You go to these seminars and you get a boost of happiness and a physiological sense of everything’s really great, and then it fades and you realize nothing’s really changed and you go back to another motivational seminar," says Burkeman. He smiles dryly and adds, "It’s a good business model for the seminars."
Burkeman points out that happiness means more than constant excitement.
"A. That’s impossible but B. It’s not desirable, even if you could achieve it," he says.
It’s easy to dismiss Burkeman’s ideas – after all, more Americans probably know who Tony Robbins is than they do Eckhart Tolle. Schools of so-called "negative thinking"(Stoicism, Buddhism, the works of Tolle, etc.) have not received the kind of celebrity fanfare that positive thinking gurus have achieved – George W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani and William Shatner are a few of the fans of "Get Motivated!" seminars – but Burkeman attributes this to a few factors.
"Positive thinking feels like it ought to work. I think you go a long way as a positive thinking guru to say things that are completely contradicted by research," he says. "Negativity is much harder, more daunting to put yourself through and it doesn’t sound like something that’s going to be fun."
But Burkeman says negativity is more productive and less damaging. He says people need to shift their mindsets and understand that misery doesn’t come from external events, but their perception of them.
"When you’re irritated by a colleague at the next desk who won’t stop talking, you naturally assume that the colleague is the source of the irritation," Burkeman writes in "The Antidote." "Look closely at your experience though, say the Stoics, and you will eventually be forced to conclude that [it] is [not] negative in itself. … What actually causes suffering are the beliefs you hold about these things."
Money doesn't buy happiness
Burkeman points to the people of Kibera, Kenya – a Nairobi slum he visited during his research for the book – as evidence that external factors are not all that important when it comes to achieving happiness. Though crime and HIV are rampant in the city, and residents have no running water or electricity and must dodge "flying toilets" (plastic bags filled with feces), Burkeman found that people here are just not as unhappy as you would expect. Many poor countries fare well in international happiness surveys, and an Afrobarometer research project found "unusual levels of optimism among the poorest and most insecure respondents." Burkeman found this to be the case in Kibera.
"It’s not at all OK that there is severe poverty and disease, but you do get one thing from living without the privileges we have: You don’t have the option of mistakenly believing the next car or next apartment is going to bring lasting happiness forever," he says. "You don’t have the luxury of falling into that delusion so you face the world as it is."
To go a step further, Burkeman defies conventional wisdom by extolling the virtues of visualizing worst-case scenarios. Burkeman says it’s important to understand that we live in the present, though we worry so much about the future and the past. Any day could be our last and it’s important to be in tune with death. Burkeman traveled to Tepito, a notoriously dangerous neighborhood in Mexico City, to track the followers of Santa Muerte, a Mexican religion that organizes lives around the omnipresence of death. Mexican essayist Homero Aridjis said the point of visiting the Santa Muerte shrine is to ask, "Protect me tonight because I am going to kidnap or assault somebody." Burkeman states that this awareness of death allows people to "focus on life’s flavors" and engage in fuller and deeper lives.
In a more relatable example, Burkeman says that imagining worst-case scenarios in day-to-day life, such as in the workplace, is extremely beneficial.
"It’s a defensive pessimism – you look at a project and think about all the things that could go wrong and use that information to take precautions to stop them from going wrong, and also to be less anxious because once you’ve worked it out in your head, there are no unknowns anymore," he says. "And that is not the same as someone who thinks everything is going to be a disaster."
Burkeman says he has applied this philosophy to his own life, as well as the idea that suffering is merely a perception. He says it has helped him live a deeper, more fulfilling and yes, happier, life.
"It’s not that I’ve eradicated feeling miserable or annoyed, but I have tools so that it doesn’t last," he says. "I know how to recognize it when it happens and not to sort of sink into it for days and days."
Burkeman admits that his ideas on happiness are still flexible, but they help him stay afloat and lead a more fulfilling, stress-free life. Burkeman’s visits to Kibera and Mexico City show readers that with just a healthy dose of negativity, life’s struggles are much easier to overcome. And the pubic louse? You’ll have to read “The Antidote” to find out.
Learn more about Oliver Burkeman and his work.
Follow Andrea Park on Twitter: @andreapark