Last night I attended a great event organised by Action for Happiness who had invited Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman to talk about his new book “The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking”.
Oliver gave us a brief introduction to some of the research he had undertaken when writing his latest book, having consulted the teachings of psychologists, Buddhists, business consultants and philosphophers who are all of the opinion that “if only we stopped trying so hard to be happy we could have a pretty good time”. (A quote which according to Burkeman has been wrongly attributed to Edith Wharton)
These great teachers argue that an alternative to the pressure to be eternally optimistic and to always look on the bright side of life is to follow a more negative route to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, allowing ourselves to be pessimistic and to feeling insecure and uncertain – the very things which we traditionally spend our lives trying to avoid.
He quoted American psychologist Albert Ellis who stated that “the worst thing about any future event is your exaggerated belief in its horror”. Ellis apparently advised Oliver Burkeman to try out this theory by travelling on the London underground and shouting out the name of every stop to the other passengers as the train arrived in each new station. Oliver did, in fact, try out this theory and although it was a horribly embarrassing thing to do it wasn’t nearly as bad as he imagined it would be and he didn’t die or get locked up!
Oliver mentioned the Stoic phiolsophers, Seneca and Epetitus who advocated ‘negative visualisations’ and ‘defensive pessimism’ as coping mechanisms. He also advocated experimenting with the Buddhist concept of “non-attachment” so that we learn to see our emotions as being no more significant than the weather.
He recommended building examples of our own mortality in to our life and looked at the practice of celebrating the Day of the Dead in Mexico (Día de los Muertos) which helps people to cope with the passing of loved ones as well as celebrate their lives. This point was illustrated with a well-know quote from Steve Jobs:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” Steve Jobs
The journalist also argued that our constant striving towards a permanent state of happiness and perfection results in us perpetually beating ourselves up about our own inevitable inadequacies and failures. A quote from Anne Lamott’s book “Bird by Bird: instructions on Writing and Life” illustrated this point very well:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
It was a very interesting evening and I look forward to reading Oliver Burkeman’s new book with just enough negative anticipation to guarantee that I will find the reading of it a pleasurable and enlightening experience.
I must be turning in to a bit of an Oliver Burkeman groupie at the moment as I am currently reading his previous book Help: How to become slightly happier and get a bit more done
Until the Action for Happiness video of last night’s event goes live you could do much worse than watch this RSA talk which Oliver Burkeman gave about this previous book. I could be wildly enthusiastic and tell you that it is a very amusing, uplifting and informative talk which you are guaranteed to enjoy but then Oliver Burkeman probably wouldn’t approve of such unbridled positivity. All I will say is please watch the video and if you are feeling really enthusiastic you can also read his books and decide for yourself armed of course with just enough Buddhist ‘non-attachment’ to ensure that your judgement is not impaired.
Posted by Shona Lockhart on 15th June 2012