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Book: Hardcover | 235 x 159mm | 288 pages | ISBN 9780670064687 | 13 Nov 2012 | Allen Lane Canada
Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman is a feature writer for The Guardian. He is a winner of the Foreign Press Association’s Young Journalist of the Year award, and has been shortlisted for the Orwell Prize and the What the Papers Say Feature Writer of the Year award. He writes a popular weekly column on psychology, “This Column Will Change Your Life,” and has reported from London, Washington, and New York, where he currently lives.

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THE ANTIDOTE

HAPPINESS FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN'T STAND POSITIVE THINKING

Oliver Burkeman

The Antidote is a wry, witty travelogue that turns decades of self-help advice on its head. In it, Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman chronicles a series of journeys by people who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. Whether philosophers, experimental psychologists, New Age dreamers or hard-headed business consultants, they have in common a hunch about human psychology. They believe that in our personal lives and in the world at large, our constant fixation on eliminating or avoiding the negative—uncertainty, unhappiness, failure—is what causes us to feel so anxious, insecure, and unhappy.

He argues there is an alternative "negative path" to happiness and success that involves coming face to face with the things we spend our lives trying to avoid, to even embrace them. This is the "backwards law": The more we're willing to embrace what we think of as negative, the happier and more successful we'll become. We may need to completely rethink our attitudes toward such things as failure, uncertainty, disorder, insecurity, and death.

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1

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On Trying Too Hard to Be Happy
Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.

— Fyodor Dostoevsky,
Winter Notes on Summer Impressions

The man who claims that he is about to tell me the secret of human happiness is eighty-three years old, with an alarming orange tan that does nothing to enhance his credibility. It is just after eight o’clock on a December morning, in a darkened basketball stadium on the outskirts of San Antonio in Texas, and – according to the orange man – I am about to learn ‘the one thing that will change your life forever’. I’m sceptical, but not as much as I might normally be, because I am only one of more than fifteen thousand people at Get Motivated!, America’s ‘most popular business motivational seminar’, and the enthusiasm of my fellow audience members is starting to become infectious.

‘So you wanna know?’, asks the octogenarian, who is Dr Robert H. Schuller, veteran self-help guru, author of more than thirty—five books on the power of positive thinking, and, in his other job, the founding pastor of the largest church in the United States constructed entirely out of glass. The crowd roars its assent. Easily embarrassed British people like me do not, generally speaking, roar our assent at motivational seminars in Texan basketball stadiums, but the atmosphere partially overpowers my reticence. I roar quietly.

‘Here it is, then,’ Dr Schuller declares, stiffly pacing the stage, which is decorated with two enormous banners reading ‘MOTIVATE!’ and ‘SUCCEED!’, seventeen American flags, and a large number of potted plants. ‘Here’s the thing that will change your life forever.’ Then he barks a single syllable – ‘Cut!’ – and leaves a dramatic pause before completing his sentence: ‘. . . the word “impossible” out of your life! Cut it out! Cut it out forever!’

The audience combusts. I can’t help feeling underwhelmed, but then I probably shouldn’t have expected anything different from Get Motivated!, an event at which the sheer power of positivity counts for everything. ‘You are the master of your destiny!’ Schuller goes on. ‘Think big, and dream bigger! Resurrect your abandoned hope! . . . Positive thinking works in every area of life!’

The logic of Schuller’s philosophy, which is the doctrine of positive thinking at its most distilled, isn’t exactly complex: decide to think happy and successful thoughts – banish the spectres of sadness and failure – and happiness and success will follow. It could be argued that not every speaker listed in the glossy brochure for today’s seminar provides uncontroversial evidence in support of this outlook: the keynote speech is to be delivered, in a few hours’ time, by George W. Bush...

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The Antidote is a gem. Countering a self-help tradition in which “positive thinking” too often takes the place of actual thinking, Oliver Burkeman returns our attention to several of philosophy’s deeper traditions and does so with a light hand and a wry sense of humor. You’ll come away from this book enriched—and yes, even a little happier.”
—Daniel Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind

“Does the pursuit of happiness make us miserable? In this elegant and erudite book, Oliver Burkeman explores the riddle of joy in the 21st Century. This book doesn’t set out to make you happy, but that may just be why it works.”
—Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works

Oliver Burkeman is a feature writer for The Guardian. He is a winner of the Foreign Press Association’s Young Journalist of the Year award, and has been shortlisted for the Orwell Prize and the What the Papers Say Feature Writer of the Year award. He writes a popular weekly column on psychology, “This Column Will Change Your Life,” and has reported from London, Washington, and New York, where he currently lives.

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About the BookAdditional FormatsOliver Burkeman
Praise

The Antidote is a gem. Countering a self-help tradition in which “positive thinking” too often takes the place of actual thinking, Oliver Burkeman returns our attention to several of philosophy’s deeper traditions and does so with a light hand and a wry sense of humor. You’ll come away from this book enriched—and yes, even a little happier.”
—Daniel Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind

“Does the pursuit of happiness make us miserable? In this elegant and erudite book, Oliver Burkeman ...

Read more »