“What’s the worst that could happen?”: Oliver Burkeman on Embracing Negativity and Uncertainty

by Sarah Scire

Oliver Burkeman wants you to stop trying to be happy. In his wry, wide-ranging book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Burkeman challenges the “cult of optimism” and writes that “it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative—insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness—that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.” To celebrate the book’s stateside publication, the award-winning journalist agreed to answer a few questions about his thought-provoking, often counterintuitive approach to achieving happiness.

Sarah Scire: One of the book’s first chapters begins with you conducting an experiment in confronting the worst-case scenario. What did you learn—and when else have you used this method? (I’m thinking here of your tweet about preparing for the All Things Considered interview.)

Oliver Burkeman: The book combines reporting and what I suppose you’d call first-person psychological experimentation. You’re referring to an example of the latter—an agonizing undertaking in which I spoke the names of stations out loud on the London Underground, in what the psychologist Albert Ellis, who came up with the idea, used to refer to as a “shame-attacking exercise.” (Since I’m easily embarrassed, it was fairly horrible—but the point of the exercise is to realize that it’s not that horrible: our anxiety about future events is almost always out of proportion to the reality.) I use a related technique that I encountered in reporting this book—“negative visualization,” derived from the Stoics—all the time, in daily life. Positive thinking asks us to convince ourselves that everything will turn out fine. But it’s often much more powerful to realize that you’d be OK if they didn’t turn out fine. Doing broadcast interviews to promote this book has called for plenty of negative visualization: asking “what’s the worst that’s likely to happen?” and really specifically figuring out the answer—national humiliation, yes, but not physical torture or losing a limb—works pretty much every time.

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SS: You’re a Brooklyn-dwelling Brit writing a weekly column for The Guardian. The Antidote published in the UK first and I know you’re just getting started with your American press and book tour but have you noticed any ideas or anecdotes that resonated more with one audience over the other?

OB: It’s interesting: some of my British friends assumed it would be harder to sell “negative thinking” to the Americans, who in the British imagination remain ceaselessly upbeat and grinning, and who of course largely invented positive thinking. But to a certain extent I’m finding the opposite: presumably because the “cult of optimism” is so entrenched here, the idea that we might be able to talk about (and achieve) happiness without relentless positivity seems to strike many people as refreshing, even liberating. Although if there are positive thinkers who really hate it, I doubt I’m going to hear from them, because that would involve their being negative. Surprisingly, perhaps, Americans seem more enthusiastic to talk about death than do the Brits. I’m not sure how to explain that.

SS: There are plenty of situations where it could be considered impolite (or even rude) to be less than “relentlessly cheerful” or to embrace negativity and uncertainty. (I’m thinking here of when a friend announces his or her engagement or when a coworker is presenting a new project). When and how can someone weigh in without alienating or offending?

OB: Much of what I cover in this book—“negative” philosophical approaches to happiness, and anti-positive-thinking approaches to self-help and therapy—is focused on managing one’s own thoughts and emotions. When it comes to imposing these messages on your friends and family, I think the same don’t-be-a-jerk rules apply as they do with any other message. There are ways you can be very encouraging towards friends without being a positive thinker, though: you can congratulate them without the undertone of insistence that their project or their marriage will and must work out perfectly, which seems to me an omnipresent emphasis in how we talk about such things most of them time. (And your best friends, surely, are the ones whose friendship isn’t conditional on your success. I like it when my friends read my writing, but I don’t want them to care too much about it.)

SS: The “Goal Crazy” chapter of the book was particularly fascinating because there’s a lot of motivational literature out there based on the idea that success means ignoring the naysayers and charging full steam ahead. When does “fatal magnetism” to a goal evolve from dedication to doomed delusion? Doesn’t wanting to be a writer or artist or tech entrepreneur involve a certain amount of self-deception and positive thinking?

OB: The Antidote is definitely all about restoring a balance between positive and negative, not eliminating every trace of positivity—if that were my argument, I’d just be committing the reverse fallacy. But I think we’re generally very imbalanced towards positive thinking, and goals are a great example of that: the idea of “holding your goals loosely” seems completely alien in many quarters, especially American and British corporate culture. The “fatal magnetism” idea—I’m borrowing here from a management scholar called Chris Kayes, who has used this to explain the Mount Everest disaster of 1996—is that once a goal becomes part of your identity, many dangers arise. You start interpreting negative information, about why you should call off the plan, as a positive reason to commit even harder to it. You can be ambitious as a writer or an entrepreneur, I think, without being rigidly committed to particular outcomes, or deluded about your chances of success. Indeed, the less rigidly committed you are, the more you’re likely to perceive unexpected opportunities or fruitful lines of inquiry when they arise.

SS: You draw on a startlingly diverse group of thinkers, writers and philosophers in the book, quoting everyone from Buddhists and anti-terrorism experts to Keats and C.S. Lewis. How did you go about pulling all of these lessons and ideas together?

OB: First, I spent several months trying to come up with a working definition of happiness, which was a ridiculous waste of time. (Surprise! A problem that had eluded philosophers for millennia eluded me, too.) Then I figured out that the way to structure this book was to match each theme (“failure,” “learning not to think positively”) to a specific journalistic reporting expedition (in those cases, my visit to the “museum of failed products” in Michigan, and the Buddhist meditation retreat). Thereafter, the vast quantities of notes I’d already assembled based on reading and interviews fell quite swiftly into place, grouped around each theme. The completely practical, non-abstract answer to your question, though, is Evernote for Mac, a note-taking application that saved my skin.

SS: A bit of a wild card here at the end! What do you think about the proliferation of “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters (and mugs and iPhone cases and hoodies for dogs and …)? The saying could seem somewhat Stoic or be an admonishment to stay positive under all circumstances.

OB: I see what you mean about how this could be read as positive thinking. But I like to think of it as an eminently Stoic observation—not least because the Stoics saw “tranquility,” which is close enough to “calm” as the truest emotional goal, as opposed to the constant excitement of positive thinking. It focuses on action—just do what you need to do—where positive thinking fixates on feeling “motivated” and positive about doing it. I also have a lot of affection for it because the propaganda poster it’s based on was rediscovered in a second-hand bookshop in Northumberland, not far from where I grew up in the north of England. But even the best fridge-magnet mottos can be overused. I’d be fine with “Keep Calm and Carry On” entering graceful retirement right around now.

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 short-listed for the Orwell Prize. He writes a popular weekly column on psychology, “This Column Will Change Your Life,” and has reported from New York, London, and Washington. He lives in New York City. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is now available.

Sarah Scire works at FSG. You can find her online @Skeery.

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