How a Book on Negative Thinking Made Me 20% Happier

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There’s one passage from The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman that has been a more potent wake-up call for my happiness than blasting trumpets, buckets of icy water, and a double espresso shot combined. It goes like this:

The startling conclusion at which they [reputable psychologists and philosophers] had all arrived, in different ways, was this: that the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that our constant efforts to eliminate the negative … [cause] us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.

It’s deeply paradoxical. Research consistently finds that happiness doesn’t increase with a country’s growing income. Nor do we become happier by growing our wealth or material possessions. Even self-help books that actively prescribe happiness fail at the task. 

So, if more resources and positive instructions don’t make us happier, what might a more promising path look like? 

In The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman proposes a radically different kind of happiness. “This kind of happiness,” he writes, “has nothing to do with the easy superficialities of positive thinking — with the grinning insistence on optimism at all costs, or the demand that success be guaranteed.”

As we’ll see, genuine happiness demands negative thinking.

0. Stop Trying to Be Happy

For a civilisation so fixated on achieving happiness, we seem remarkably incompetent at the task.

— Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote

In 2020, the “eighteen-month rule” changed my life. But not in the way you might think.

It was the pinnacle of the Covid-19 kerfuffle when, suddenly, it occurred to me that I wasn’t happy enough. I became obsessed with happiness. No technique, hack, or habit would be off-limits. I frenzily ordered all the self-help books I could get my hands on. Soon, I started meditating, manifesting, journaling. I worked out more often. Cooked healthy meals. In short, I had wholeheartedly entered the self-help universe.

There was just one problem: None of it worked.

Trying so hard to become happy made me, paradoxically, less happy. My idea of happiness had become so distorted by self-appointed gurus that there was no wiggle room for genuine contentment.

The “eighteen-month rule,” as you might’ve guessed, isn’t another life hack. Instead, it’s the extensively surveyed observation that the most likely customer for a self-help book is the person who purchased any self-help book in the previous eighteen months. For an industry that promises to solve so many problems, this statistic is pretty problematic.

Clearly, traditional self-help gets something wrong about the mechanisms of happiness — or intentionally exploits them.

The negative alternative

The alternative that Oliver Burkeman offers in The Antidote is what he calls the “negative path” to happiness. It’s the throughline of the book. As he puts it:

… in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions — or, at the very least, to learn to stop running quite so hard from them.

At the root of this approach lies the “backwards law,” as coined by speaker and philosopher Alan Watts. This says that the more we force achieving a goal, the less likely we’ll actually reach it. In other words, when you try too hard to stay above water, you’ll sink.

But to be clear, the negative path to happiness does not entail radical contrarianism (letting yourself intentionally drown). Instead, it’s a way of gently floating above the surface. A counterbalance to elevate genuine happiness.

To walk this negative path, here are three signposts — three techniques — from Oliver Burkeman’s book The Antidote. These techniques have been a more powerful tonic for my well-being than all the traditional self-help junk I used to consume. They made me 20% happier.

1. The Stoic Pause: Scrutinize Your Sorrows

… he sent his clients onto the streets of Manhattan with instructions to approach strangers and to say to them: ‘Excuse me, I just got out of the lunatic asylum — can you tell me what year it is?’ It showed the clients that being thought of as crazy wouldn’t kill them.

— Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote

Stoicism has experienced a significant revival lately, but unfortunately, it’s often framed as yet another path — another hack — to become happier. “Want to be happy?” reads one among many headlines, “Then live like a Stoic for a week.” Another reads: “5 Stoic strategies to create happiness.” My online algorithms have swamped me with these ideas. I got bored of them. Became annoyed…

…until I rediscovered Stoicism in The Antidote.

What I love about Oliver’s approach is that he highlights lesser-known modern Stoics, bringing out more nuanced angles of Stoic philosophy. Angles that slice through mainstream advice. For me, they made Stoicism truly tangible.

Here are two of those angles from The Antidote.

The non-terribleness of outcomes

Think about the last time you experienced a bad outcome. Was that outcome terrible, or was it simply undesirable?

At first, this might seem like fussing over two words with the same meaning. But according to psychologist Albert Ellis, whom Oliver interviewed for The Antidote, there’s a crucial difference between the two stances. The emerging distinction is a Swiss army knife of resilience.

Think about it: When you label something as terrible, you admit that “it” — whatever that might be — is pretty much as bad as it can get. Take the statement, “I had a terrible day.” Is that true? Can you actually have a terrible day? No, argues Ellis. When you rationally think about it, nothing is all-inclusively bad. Even if, on a single day, you stepped in dog poop, had an accident, and got fired from your job, that still wouldn’t be truly terrible.

It might be undesirable, yes. But not terrible.

“If you are tortured to death slowly,” Ellis tells Oliver, “you could always be tortured to death slower.” Again, nothing is as bad as it can get. And yes, this is an extreme example. But the point here is simply that our mind likes to make things more miserable than they actually are — or could get.

Here’s how the Roman Stoic and statesman Seneca puts it in a letter to his friend Lucilius:

There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality… What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers … will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come.

Words to live by.

You’re (not) in control

The second idea is tangential yet equally crucial. In a nutshell, it’s this: We have extremely little individual control over our destiny.

This idea — like so many Stoic maxims — may seem depressing at first glance. Indeed, this superficial gloom might be why some people turn to positive thinking rather than face hard facts. During the pandemic, Google searches for “manifesting” soared by 669%. Wishful thinking gives people a sense of control.

The truth is, though, that we’re never truly in control of the cosmos. Just take a look at the recent news. Climate catastrophes, wars, poverty — these things happen, no matter the positivity of your thoughts. You could carefully place all your ducks in a line, and still, you would tragically miss. At any given moment, the world might hit the skids — whether we like it or not.

Here’s the good news.

As much as we can’t control cosmic mechanisms, there’s one thing we can control, one thing that nobody can take away from us: our judgments. I know, I know. It’s not exactly the sexiest solution. And for the longest time, I pushed it away like smelly spinach. But stepping back from a situation and evaluating our judgments rather than surrendering to our emotions holds tremendous power.

Here’s how Oliver puts it in The Antidote, based on an exercise from Keith Seddon — a Stoic author, teacher, and researcher: 

Try thinking Stoically … for the duration of a single trip to the supermarket. Is something out of stock? Are the queues too long? The Stoic isn’t necessarily obliged to tolerate the situation; … [they] might decide to switch to another store instead. But to become upset would be, in Stoic terms, an error of judgment. You cannot control the situation, so reacting with fury against that reality is irrational.

Ultimately, so many events are out of our control. And yet, we can take back control by scrutinizing our sorrows. Consolation from misfortunes doesn’t come from seeking blame but from taking responsibility.

I find that quite empowering.

Technique #1: The Stoic Pause

These two ideas culminate into a technique that Oliver calls “the Stoic Pause.” That is, zooming out of the current situation to see that (1) the situation might be undesirable rather than terrible; and (2) that not the situation per se causes misery but the reaction to that situation. 

With some practice, the Stoic Pause can be easily applied to long supermarket lines, missed metros, or difficult co-workers. And no, this doesn’t mean that we mustn’t complain, feel miserable, or do something about the situation.

The lesson is simply that in many, many cases, our judgment about a situation is terrible, not the situation itself.

I don’t manage to remember the Stoic Pause in all undesirable situations. But in about one out of five times, I do — and find a form of serenity as a result. This occasional serenity is roughly what I meant when I said that the techniques of The Antidote made me 20% happier.

2. The Sneaky Pitfalls of Goal-Setting

There is a good case to be made that many of us, and many of the organisations for which we work, would do better to spend less time on goalsetting, and, more generally, to focus with less intensity on planning for how we would like the future to turn out.

— Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote

One of the most tragic yet illustrating examples of the pitfalls of goal-setting is the Mount Everest disaster of 1996. Fifteen climbers died that year. Eight of them perished in a twenty-four-hour period. Of course, climbing Mount Everest is always a life-threatening endeavor, even despite modern advances in safety and technology. But the tragedies of 1996 have perpetually puzzled people. The weather wasn’t particularly perilous. No sudden avalanches were reported. The climbers were well-equipped and experienced.

So… what the hell happened? Strangely, studying the mechanisms of goal-setting might offer clues.

Groundless goal-setting

In the shady realms of traditional self-help, many books — such as Goals! by Brian Tracy — quote an immensely powerful study about goals: the Yale Study of Goals.

The study goes like this. Graduates of Yale’s class of 1953 were asked if they had written down concrete goals for their future lives. Only 3% of the graduates had. The remaining 97% hadn’t. Twenty years later, researchers interviewed the graduates again and found that the goal-setting 3% had amassed more financial wealth than the rest combined.

That’s the study. Simple yet powerful. These results almost beg us to believe a cause-effect relationship between goalsetting and (financial) success.

There’s just one problem.

The study is wrong. In fact, we don’t even know if it ever existed. A Fast Company investigation from 1996 found that the study is untrue. In The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman writes that he himself called up the senior Yale archivist, and even she couldn’t find the study. Not even a single trace.

All this is not to say that goal-setting doesn’t work. It can work. The sneaky pitfall of goals is simply that they restrict the future to a highly specific outcome. Goal-setting is much like wearing blinkers, like switching to tunnel vision. It narrows down our sight to a pre-defined path. And sure, if that path is free of obstacles, well-paved, and brings us from our current location to our destination — great! We’ll reach the goal quickly. It’s a done deal. Goal-setting accelerated the journey toward progress.

However.

When something gets in the way, when the circumstances unexpectedly change, or when we need to be spontaneous, the blinkers of goals will massively impede us. It will get difficult to look around, react, let alone turn around.

Turns out, this hyper-fixation on goals can be even more dangerous than sudden avalanches, severe weather conditions, or sickness.

The goal-obsessed mind can become its own biggest enemy.

When goals become deadly

Ironically, what might’ve been the climbers’ downfall wasn’t the mighty mountain or their lack of equipment or experience. It was an over-emphasis on achievement. The sad part of the story is the climbers could’ve turned around. And yet, they didn’t. Why? Well, there’s a good case to be made that the climbers put so much emphasis on achieving their goal — reaching the summit — that they confused the goal with their identity.

The result, as Oliver writes in The Antidote, was that “their uncertainty about the goal no longer merely threatened the plan; it threatened them as individuals.”

This next part from The Antidote flabbergasted me:

[The mountaineers] were so eager to eliminate these feelings of uncertainty that they clung ever harder to a clear, firm and specific plan that provided them with a sense of certainty about the future — even though that plan was looking increasingly reckless. They were firmly in the grip of goalodicy.

When goals impede the mind, the mind impedes its goals.

So, what could a more fruitful alternative to iron-hardened goal-setting look like?

Technique #2: Improvisational flexibility

One alternative could be what Oliver calls “improvisational flexibility.” That is, maintaining an openness throughout the journey toward the goal. Not just in the sense that how we reach the goal can change throughout the process. But also — and this is crucial —that the goal itself can change.

In The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman offers two practical principles that make the frame of “improvisational flexibility” a bit more tangible.

  1. The bird-in-hand principle — Don’t get overly hung up on setting goals. Simply start with what’s available. Begin with who you are, what you have, and who you know.
  2. The principle of affordable loss — Rather than focusing on the glamorous reward goals might offer, direct your attention toward the worst-case scenario. (Notice the link to the Stoic principles we discussed earlier.) Ask yourself, “If this project were to go sideways, how big would the ensuing loss be?” If it’s tolerable, apply the bird-in-hand principle and take the first step.

The great benefit of improvisational flexibility is that it helps us avoid getting overly fixated on goals to begin with. Goals can’t infest the mind when there’s no toxic breeding ground in the first place.

There’s another benefit. Loosening rigid goals through improvisational flexibility curbs a big portion of the deceptive fantasy that goals often create. In other words, when we strip away the expectations around goals, we’re far less likely to feel disappointed.

To me, reaching long-term, fixated goals always felt anti-climatic. When I finished my undergraduate degree in mechatronics, I didn’t feel accomplished at all. It was like, “Okay, I rolled this huge boulder up the hill — now what?” Conversely, whenever I made meaningful progress through improvisation and flexibility, I experienced lasting bursts of fulfillment throughout the entire process. I could better appreciate my milestones.

Ultimately, the goal is not perfection, and perfection is not the goal. It’s all about accepting — and embracing — the natural roadblocks on the journeys toward the vague destinations we may or may not call goals.

3. A Remarkable Remedy to Low-Level Stress

Both ‘selfish’ and ‘selfless’ activities are liable to end up merely feeding the ego, which thrives on dissatisfaction. Loosen your grip on selfhood itself … and you’ll stand a far better chance of cultivating happiness…

— Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote

This next part might sound a little strange and perhaps oversimplified, but stick with me. It’s probably the most life-altering technique I took away from this book.

In one part of The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman goes to visit the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle in his slightly cramped yet welcoming Vancouver apartment. Like the part about Stoicism, I thought it didn’t have much to teach me. I had read A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle many years prior and although I found the book’s ideas intriguing and gripping, I struggled to implement them sustainably into my life.

But once again, The Antidote loosened me up like lumpy soil. There was something about Oliver’s way of speaking about Tolle and the concepts he represents that didn’t just leave a lasting imprint in my life but also gave me practical techniques to apply.

The trespassing concept that can never make us happy

It took me a long time to figure out one of the root problems in my happiness approach: I overly identified myself with thoughts like “I’m still not happy enough.”

Tolle would refer to the trap I stepped into as “compulsive thinking.” It’s when we overly identify ourselves with our inner chatter. And the more we think compulsively, the more we feed our forced sense of identity, our “ego.” For instance, we tend to say, “I am sad” (rather than something like, “I’m experiencing the feeling of sadness right now”). When clinging to our thoughts and emotions like this, we don’t just feel sadness. We become sadness.

But how exactly does the ego cause misery? For one thing, the ego radically resists the present moment. It escapes into compulsive thinking about the past or the future instead. And so, by design, the ego can never make us happy in the present moment. 

This becomes clear through a counterexample. Can you think compulsively about the present, about right now? I sure can’t. The now always changes, and change is always now. Thus, it’s impossible to cling to the now and any negative or positive emotions it might entail.

The solution to compulsive thinking, as Tolle tells Oliver, isn’t to stop thinking entirely. Thinking can be useful. It’s a tool. The key is to disengage from your inner chatter. The key is to realize that you are not your thoughts — rather, you are the instance that witnesses thoughts.

Put differently: Being in the present moment banishes the ego.

But this is easier said than done. As we’ve seen with the pitfalls of goal-setting, the mind loves to project into the future. It gives us a sense of security. “We treat the future as intrinsically more valuable than the present,” writes Oliver in The Antidote, “and yet the future never seems to arrive.” Ironically, this is exactly what happened to me when I used to chase happiness. Being happy was always a distant goal, never a present occurrence.

So, what’s there to do?

Technique #3: The present-moment problem purge

There’s one question that pierces through most problems of our busy daily lives. The question, based on Oliver’s reflections in The Antidote and Tolle’s teachings, goes like this: “Do you have any problems right now?”

This represents the negative path to happiness par excellence. Rather than focusing on how we might become happier, we turn the tables and ask, “What’s there to be unhappy about? What problems do we actually have?”

When I first read this part, I thought, “Well, I have lots of problems! Rent to pay, classes to attend, deadlines to keep, articles to write, winter blues to fight — ”

It took me a while until I caught myself. Then, I read the question again. “Do you have any problems right now?” The crucial part here is right now — not two minutes, two weeks, or two years from now. So, seriously, what’s problematic right here, in this exact moment?

I like to call this question the present-moment problem purge. What makes it so powerful is that problems, by definition, rely on thinking about the past and the future. And so, returning to the now and simply witnessing your thoughts and feelings is a natural repellent for low-level problems, worries, and anxieties.

Conclusion: The Missed Metro of Happiness

Recently, I missed the metro on my way to a seminar. The doors slammed shut just before my eyes, sentencing me to a painfully long wait for the next train.

Frustration spouted within me like a vengeful volcano. “I’m gonna be so late,” I kept thinking. “I’m going to fail this class.” But the most annoying part was that the metro departed one minute before schedule. So, if the metro had arrived on time, I would’ve been punctual, and everything would’ve been fine. Before I knew it, I got angry at the metro conductor — a person I never even met.

Then, randomly, I managed to recall the negative path to happiness. This situation wasn’t terrible, I realized — it was simply undesirable. Instead of dwelling on my inevitable delay, I decided to reflect on the ideas that would be discussed during the seminar. 

“Do I have any problems right now?” I asked myself. Sure, I just missed the metro, and yes, I’m going to be late. But these thoughts were concerned with the past and future. On reflection, the present moment seemed pretty unproblematic. 

Then, unexpectedly, I had a strange metaphorical insight. What if the missed metro resembled how I had thought about happiness all these years — almost there but never quite in reach? And what if, instead, I could simply surrender to my current situation and deal with what I have? What if happiness isn’t something to be found in the future but something to be encountered right here, right now?

As I heard the metro swooshing away through the dark tunnel, I tapped into an inner smile.


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