Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking
I had this on my Kindle for a while, but my friend Mark Larson wrote such a good review I had to read it:
What a fine book. If, like me, you have ongoing interest in stoicism, happiness, mindfulness meditation, thinking about death and failure, and tend to be a skeptical of your Rhonda Byrne/Tony Robbins types (but are at the same time, kind of amused by them), you’ll probably like [it.]
Check! Check! Check! On a side note, one of my favorite things about the book is that it riffs on self-help books without totally abandoning the winning structure of many self-help books—in each chapter, there’s usually a story, mentions of a few studies, and a lesson, or extrapolation. (The Malcolm Gladwell-ish “story-study-lesson” formula.) It works.
Some favorite bits, below.
A great description of meditation:
Meditation, the way he described it, was a way to stop running. You sat still, and watched your thoughts and emotions and desires and aversions come and go, and you resisted the urge to try to flee from them, to fix them, or to cling to them. You practised non-attachment, in other words. Whatever came up, negative or positive, you stayed present and observed it. It wasn’t about escaping into ecstasy – or even into calmness, as the word is normally understood; and it certainly wasn’t about positive thinking. It was about the significantly greater challenge of declining to do any of that.
The importance of routine:
[T]he daily rituals and working routines of prolific authors and artists – people who really do get a lot done – very rarely include techniques for ‘getting motivated’ or ‘feeling inspired’. Quite the opposite: they tend to emphasise the mechanics of the working process, focusing not on generating the right mood, but on accomplishing certain physical actions, regardless of mood. Anthony Trollope wrote for three hours each morning before leaving to go to his job as an executive at the post office; if he finished a novel within a three-hour period, he simply moved on to the next. (He wrote forty-seven novels over the course of his life.) The routines of almost all famous writers, from Charles Darwin to John Grisham, similarly emphasise specific starting times, or number of hours worked, or words written. Such rituals provide a structure to work in, whether or not the feeling of motivation or inspiration happens to be present. They let people work alongside negative or positive emotions, instead of getting distracted by the effort of cultivating only positive ones. ‘Inspiration is for amateurs,’ the artist Chuck Close once memorably observed. ‘The rest of us just show up and get to work.’
On the connection between capitalism and our concept of “failure”:
One crucial development, he argues, was the emergence of credit rating agencies, whose role was to sit in judgment upon individuals seeking loans from banks, helping the banks determine the risk they would be taking by making the loan. In a society increasingly dominated by business, a bad credit rating could all too easily come to be seen as a verdict condemning a whole person – and it is from the language of credit rating, Sandage notes, that we take several modern idioms for describing someone’s moral worth, such as ‘good-for-nothing’ and ‘first-rate’. Failure, he writes, became transformed from a bump in the road of life to the place at which ‘the story stops’. From the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, failure started to be thought of ‘not merely [as] a cataclysm that adds to the plot of your life, but [as] something that stops your life cold, because you lose a sense of your future’.
And not fearing death:
Why do you fear the eternal oblivion of death, he wonders, if you don’t look back with horror at the eternal oblivion before you were born – which, as far as you were concerned, was just as eternal, and just as much an oblivion? Vladimir Nabokov famously opens his memoir Speak, Memory with lines that drive this point home: ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with much more calm than the one he is headed for.’ If you weren’t traumatised by not having yet been born, it seems logical not to worry about being traumatised by being dead.
Lots of great stuff here. Recommended.
Filed under: my reading year 2013