Book Review: The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

Last Week was the first "International Day of Happiness". Generally, the American secret to happiness is practicing positive thinking. It's the notion that "I think positively therefore I am happy." Indeed, every working mom that I know believes that thinking positively is what helps her mother and work with a smile. However, what if that theory wasn't true? What if positive thinking was part of the problem???

The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

Some time ago I was asked to review The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. When I first got the book I was skeptical.  For one, I am not one of those people who can’t stand positive thinking.  Rather, I am one of those people who believes in positive thinking with every fabric of my being. I think that positive thinking has the power to inspire, uplift and transform lives.  I do not, like Oliver Burkeman, believe that people who subscribe to positive thinking are part of a “cult of optimism”.  Instead, I believe that those who actually practice positive thinking and don’t just pay it lip service are enormously blessed.

With that said, you would think that I hated this book.  But, I didn’t.  Instead, I found it to be incredibly thought provoking. Although, I did think that it read a little slow. Mr. Burkeman outlines a very interesting approach to living—instead of becoming an eternal optimist become a stoic. Instead of believing that the best is yet to come stoics believe that life is simply life and the best may be behind us. They also encourage people to envision the worst that could happen. They argue that this “negative visualization” will be an antidote to anxiety.  It’s an interesting approach and one that does not come naturally.

While I was not converted to Mr. Burkeman's philosophy, the book did make me think.

There are some other interesting theories espoused in the book. One is stop being “goal crazy”. The idea is that blindly pursuing goals leads to unhealthy obsession. As someone who’s built her life on pursuing goals it’s a confounding idea. However, it does make sense. When I studied for the bar exam I focused so hard that I forgot to eat and was in the bed for a week after the exam suffering from extreme exhaustion. Another friend studying for the exam got a kidney stone. Another was hospitalized and was unable to sit for the exam. While training for a marathon in 2009 I wound up in the ICU. Somehow I developed a septic infection during my training, which almost went undetected. I could have died. In hindsight, I could have benefited from Mr. Burkeman’s theory…


Despite the good lessons that I have listed above I could not finish the book, and I wanted to. I am the kind of girl who will read a book I like in twenty-four hours.  Reading good books is one of my favorite pastimes.


Unfortunately, The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking was too dense to be easily digested. Reading it required the same focus that one devotes to reading the bible, but it was even slower because I was unfamiliar with it. Finally, after months of trying to complete it, I gave up. Perhaps I took his lesson about getting delivered from chasing to goals too much to heart…


My failure to complete the book, notwithstanding, Mr. Burkeman devoted a great deal of time, effort and analysis to the book. He is clearly intelligent and passionate about his subject matter. If you enjoy really dense, thought-provoking books that make you question your approach to life, I encourage you to get a copy of this book.  However, if you’re looking for some light reading to make you smile, you’d be better off buying something by Joel Osteen…

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