As a student, I once babysat for a local couple. I recall the experience as bemusing, for almost every available surface in the small house was covered with sticky notes on which were written rousing motivational slogans. It felt rather spooky walking about the house, and encountering endless exhortations. I still recall the one on the bathroom mirror that read ‘You WILL become a millionaire, within the next THREE years!’
That slogan captures a movement of striving for success and happiness that Oliver Burkeman wants to challenge, in his 2012 book ‘The Antidote’. His central argument is that the self-help movement, busy promoting pathways towards happiness, success and inner peace, is deeply flawed. The messages from these seminars and books, he points out, tend to be remarkably banal and have been shown to be ineffective at increasing our sense of wellbeing.
Indeed, it is this constant striving towards happiness, Burkeman argues, that is a source of deep distress in society. In place of this anxious striving, Burkeman suggests, we should be doing just the opposite. We should be giving up on the goal of setting goals in pursuit of success and happiness.
For Burkeman, in order to live a satisfyingly full life, we need a more complete palette of experiences and feelings: the good and the bad, the ugly, the happy and the sad. “The problem is” writes Burkeman, “we have developed the habit of chronically overvaluing positivity, and of the skills of ‘doing’, in how we think about happiness, and that we chronically undervalue negativity, and the ‘not doing’ skills, such as resting in uncertainty or getting friendly towards failure’ (p. 207).
In his search for people and practices where this ‘negative capability’ is embraced, Burkeman reviews Stoic philosophies, Buddhist meditational practices, and critiques the current mania on goal setting, and reducing risks and uncertainty. He also devotes a chapter, ‘Memento Mori’, to outlining the life-enhancing benefits of being in touch with our mortality.
Each chapter in the book can be read as a stand-alone text. They are both thought provoking, and in places very funny. Burkeman’s account of announcing tube stations on the Central line in London after being challenged to face his fear of public embarrassment by American psychotherapist Albert Ellis is a good example of how he draws together ideas, interviews, and his own experiences in writing. His recount of attending a 6-day silent meditation retreat in Massachusetts is both fascinating, and (somewhat ironically), a description that could motivate readers to take up meditation.
Living a life according to the ‘backwards law’ or ‘negative capability’ is not about giving up on good feelings, optimism, or striving to achieve things. Rather, it is more about relaxing our white-knuckle control upon determined ends, and being more attuned to the journey we are on, complete with ups and downs. If Burkeman had been in that house where I babysat all those years ago, I imagine he might have pulled out a pen, and rewritten the motivational slogan on the bathroom mirror to read “I don’t quite know where I will be in three years’ time, but wherever I end up, I am damn well going to enjoy the journey”.