Maybe you’re worried that you’ve lost the sheen of youthful optimism that once propelled you forward, back when you fearlessly pursued that too-cool-for-you person you actually married, or that job that you captured despite a resume far behind the curve. After all, that optimism convinced you of things: You knew you could give a great interview; you believed everyone liked you and listened to your ideas; you were certain no job was too big or challenging.
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But inevitably, your own private Arc de Triomphe started to erode from the setbacks we all experience over time.
Want to rebuild the Arc, but you’re not moved by the happiness books that inspire other people? British journalist Oliver Burkeman says you don’t have to sulk away like a lonesome Eeyore. In fact, he challenges the very notion that you just need to be more positive and good things will happen. Burkeman’s book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, has become best-seller as a thinking person’s guide to motivation—a mix of journalism, philosophy and polemic that offers a cerebral, nuanced strategy based on the counter-intuitive idea that striving for happiness can keep you from getting what you want out of life.
Burkeman takes us on his own exploration of happiness—to football stadiums, motivational events, academia, the quiet world of Zen Buddhists, and an English cottage where he meets a gentle Stoic who says the ancient Greek philosophy has much to offer to moderns juggling life goals and contentment. This is the message Burkeman finds most appealing.
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Burkeman and I met at a Starbucks in New York’s Soho on a rainy Monday in May that seemed to suit the English-born, Cambridge-educated journalist. He is ascetic-thin and balding, which seems appropriate for a Stoic, and reservedly relaxed. But his mirthful smile and puckish humor suggest he is not a stiff-upper-lipped Englishman like Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey, whose emotions are as tamped-down as the estate’s trim hedges. Burkeman was chatty and affable, more like the Abbey’s downstairs staff whose banter provides most of the fun on the PBS series.
Can pursuing happiness too ambitiously make you depressed?
Burkeman: I don't know about depression per se, but it's certainly the case that in numerous contexts, trying too hard to be happy can make you unhappy. It's been shown, for example, that repeating self-help affirmations to yourself can make people with low self-esteem feel worse. More generally, a relentless focus on happiness simply brings all the ways you aren't happy to the forefront of attention. By definition, when you're trying to think positive, you have to be constantly monitoring your mind for the presence of negative thoughts.
In your book, you don't talk as much about success as you do about failure. Why is that?
Burkeman: My hope is that the book will help, in whatever tiny way, to restore a balance that I think we've lost, as a culture: we're already quite sufficiently focused on success, and I think we need to focus on the flipside too. More specifically, there are plenty of ways in which a willingness to focus on failure can enhance the potential for success. There's generally more to be learned about the causes of success or failure by looking at how we or others fail, than by looking at how we succeed.
Your book has garnered good reviews and sales. Is that a sign that people are looking for fresh answers?
Burkeman: I hope so! My theory is that positive thinking, and other kinds of relentlessly optimistic philosophies of happiness, lose a lot of their power once we're in an era of economic, political and environmental uncertainties, as we are now. It becomes overwhelmingly clear to most people that everything doesn't always work out for the best, and so an approach that insists that it does begins to look rather pathetic. But I don't think this means we need to give up on happiness; I think it means we need a philosophy of happiness suited to the reality of our times.
As we get older we lose that bouncy optimism we had as 20-somethings ready to conquer the world. Are we gaining wisdom or sliding toward self-defeat?
Burkeman: I suspect it could mean either of these things, for different kinds of people. But there is certainly much to be said for a calmer, wiser kind of happiness focused on peace of mind and tranquility, rather than the kind focused on constant excitement. There is some good evidence that lifetime happiness, on average, follows a kind of U-shape: we start out happy, become more miserable in middle age, then get happy again. It isn't hard to guess why; life tends to be good when you have few responsibilities, and also good later on when you're sufficiently experienced in handling those responsibilities that nothing too much can throw you off balance!
Okay, happiness is not as simple as hitting the on/off switch on your laptop. But say you've grown discouraged and are in a rut. Where do you find the Restart button? Is it time to turn the machine off for a few days?
Burkeman: There's certainly nothing wrong with taking a break, giving yourself a rest, breaking your routine with a vacation or some time out and then starting again. But on a slightly deeper level I do think there is something pernicious about the idea of the fresh start; people expect far too much of it and then land in a place of worse disappointment when a perfect fresh start isn't achieved.
There's a lot to be said for accepting the truth that you already are who you are, with all your messy faults and failures, and that by far the most fruitful way forward is to accept all that and nonetheless take one small action in the direction of wherever you want to be. And do the same again tomorrow, and the day after that. You'll probably fall off the wagon again, and again—which is fine too.
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Are you happy?
Burkeman: To the extent that this question is even answerable: yes, most of the time. The experience of writing this book and exploring this subject matter certainly haven't made me into a serene, unflappable Zen master. But it has meant that when I get irritated, stressed, anxious or angry, I'm much more likely to reach for certain mental tools or perspectives that mean the feeling passes away much sooner than it would otherwise have done.
Photographs by David Butow/Redux