The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman: Book Overview & Takeaways

Does it feel like happiness is always a step ahead of you? Have you ever tried to think positively and still felt unhappy?

You’re not alone. Many people find it difficult to feel happy no matter how many positive thoughts they force themselves to think. Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking sheds light on this conundrum.

Continue reading for an overview of this book that might lead you to take a new approach to happiness.

Overview of The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking suggests that relentlessly trying to be positive can, ironically, make you unhappy. Burkeman draws on a variety of philosophies—including Stoicism, Buddhism, and the spiritual teachings of Eckhart Tolle—to argue that accepting and even embracing negative emotions, uncertainties, and failures may be the key to feeling happier.

We’ll cover Burkeman’s ideas in two parts:

  • Part 1 explains the potential downsides of typical self-help advice, covering how positive thinking can exacerbate negative emotions, pursuing success goals can lead to failure, and micromanaging your life can heighten anxiety and frustration.
  • Part 2 explores approaches designed to help you accept and navigate life as it unfolds, allowing you to experience contentment even amid seemingly negative experiences.

(Shortform note: To clarify, Burkeman isn’t criticizing all positive thinking advice. He’s specifically targeting what’s known as toxic positivity: the belief that you should be optimistic no matter what.)

Part 1: Downsides of Believing Positivity Is the Only Key to Happiness

If you’ve explored self-help advice, you’ve likely come across the belief that thinking positively is the only way to achieve true happiness and success. According to Burkeman, this widely accepted belief has three downsides that impede happiness:

  1. Forcing positive thoughts exacerbates negative feelings.
  2. Pursuing success goals leads to failure and dissatisfaction.
  3. Grasping for control fosters anxiety and disillusionment.

Let’s explore each of these downsides in detail.

Downside #1: Forcing Positive Thoughts Exacerbates Negative Feelings

Burkeman notes that attempting to think only positive thoughts can, ironically, cause you to experience more negative emotions. He explains that trying to focus only on positive thoughts—for example, by using positive affirmations or visualizations—requires you to suppress and ignore, rather than address, negative thoughts and feelings. 

However, ignoring negative thoughts doesn’t eradicate them. Instead, these thoughts simmer and grow in the shadows of your mind, creating internal conflict between what you really feel and what you think you should feel. And the moment you feel too stressed out or tired to maintain your positive state of mind, these negative thoughts resurface with more intensity, creating more distress than you felt before you attempted to suppress them.

You Blame Yourself for Your Negative Feelings

Burkeman states that when negative thoughts and feelings inevitably surface, you assume that your emotional distress is your fault—if only you could maintain a positive mindset, you wouldn’t feel this way. This self-judgment creates two effects: First, it adds a layer of guilt and inadequacy to your already negative state of mind. Second, it perpetuates a destructive cycle where guilt for not maintaining constant positivity pushes you to strive even harder for it, often exacerbating the very thoughts and feelings you’re trying to avoid.

For example, you feel anxious about a work presentation because you doubt your competence. To quell your anxiety, you force yourself to think positively about your capabilities. However, this only deepens the rift between your genuine feelings of inadequacy and the positive front you’re putting on. This, in turn, amplifies your initial anxiety and adds negative self-judgment for not being positive enough.

Downside #2: Pursuing Success Goals Leads to Failure and Dissatisfaction

Common self-help advice encourages you to set and relentlessly pursue goals designed to realize your ideal version of yourself. Burkeman notes that striving to achieve such goals creates five adverse effects that prevent you from attaining happiness and success

1) You Become So Fixated on Your Goals That You Overlook Better Opportunities

Burkeman argues that the unwavering pursuit of specific goals can make you lose sight of whether your goals serve your true needs, leading you to ignore opportunities that might offer a deeper sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Example: You’re so focused on achieving a promotion that you overlook lateral moves within your company that could offer valuable experience, greater long-term advantages, and ultimately more job satisfaction.

2) You Feel So Inspired by Success Stories That You Fail to Adequately Prepare

Success stories, a staple of self-help content, aim to inspire and motivate you by showcasing those who, despite overwhelming obstacles, maintained a positive state of mind and achieved massive success. Burkeman cautions that such narratives can foster a false sense of assurance and distort your understanding of what’s truly necessary to achieve success.

He points out that these stories present a biased view that omits the stories of the many who maintained positivity but didn’t achieve their goals. In this biased representation of reality, maintaining a positive mindset directly correlates with achieving success. Immersing yourself in these stories can lead you to overlook success’s complexity and adopt ineffective positive mindset strategies, leaving you ill-prepared to overcome challenges on your path toward your goals.

Example: You read inspirational accounts of entrepreneurs who, despite taking significant financial risks, achieved monumental feats thanks to their unwavering positivity. You assume your positivity will carry you to equal success and invest all of your savings into your company. However, what many of these accounts left out was that these entrepreneurs didn’t stake all their money in their dreams—they kept a safety net to rely on in case of failure. Because you invested everything you had, your company is left unable to weather hard times.

3) Your Premature Sense of Accomplishment Undermines Your Motivation

One widely encouraged mindset strategy for achieving goals is positive visualization: Imagining the joy and satisfaction you’ll feel once you’ve achieved your goal. This strategy is meant to motivate you to take action toward your goals by giving you a taste of success. However, Burkeman warns, imagining future success often backfires, fostering complacency.

Each time you imagine your future success, you trick your mind into believing you’ve already achieved your goals. This creates a premature sense of victory that feels so tangible and gratifying that it saps your drive to take the necessary actions to make your goals a reality.

Example: The elation and satisfaction you feel after imagining yourself receiving a prestigious award feels so rewarding and tangible that you start slacking at work because you believe you’ve “earned” the right to relax.

4) Your Unrealistic Expectations Lead to Disappointment

The strategies we’ve mentioned so far—setting goals, reading success stories, and practicing positive visualizations—all encourage you to continually expect the best. Burkeman suggests that this leads to disappointment and disillusionment each time life fails to conform to your expectations.

As touched on previously, he explains that, to maintain a persistently positive outlook, you often need to deny anything that makes you think or feel negatively. This denial causes you to disconnect from reality and cultivate a fragile sense of happiness that’s shattered by any deviation from your positive outlook. For example, when you receive praise, you feel happy because this feedback aligns with your positive expectations. However, when you receive even minor criticisms, you feel demoralized because you only expected praise.

5) Your Pursuit of Perfection Breeds Discontent

Self-help materials often depict people living perfect lives. Burkeman argues that such portrayals encourage you to pursue superficial achievements over genuine happiness and to view any deviation from this ideal as a failure. As a result, you waste your energy masking your “imperfections,” leaving little energy to discover what truly brings you happiness.

Example: Your attempt to curate a picture-perfect existence on Facebook traps you in a cycle of comparison and self-critique that makes you more conscious, and less accepting, of your “imperfections.” So you focus on hiding your so-called flaws rather than on making the best out of them.

Downside #3: Grasping for Control Fosters Anxiety and Frustration

Burkeman discusses the potential downsides of forcing positive thoughts and chasing success goals. While these strategies impede happiness and success in various ways, Burkeman suggests they predominantly fail to make you happy by perpetuating a harmful ideology: To be happy, you must take control of your life and actively avoid discomfort and uncertainty. However, because life’s inherent unpredictability makes total control impossible, attempts to avoid pain are futile, serving only to heighten anxiety and frustration.

Since total control is impossible, you cling to an illusion of control. And the only way you can maintain this illusion is by always being watchful for anything that might disrupt your plans. This vigilance traps you in a cycle of worry and unease, hindering your ability to enjoy the moment. It also leads to risk aversion, preventing you from trying new things and leading to stagnation and regret. Inevitably, when problems do occur, your false sense of control shatters, causing disillusionment and unhappiness.

Example: You obsessively control your child’s study habits to help both of you avoid the pain of failure. When, despite meticulous planning and effort, she receives subpar grades, the painful realization that extensive efforts don’t guarantee success or happiness leaves both of you defeated and frustrated.

Part 2: Alternative Approaches to Achieving Happiness

Now that we’ve covered the ways trying to be positive and goal-oriented can hinder happiness, let’s explore alternative approaches to well-being and contentment. Burkeman draws on a variety of philosophies and ideas—including Stoicism, Buddhism, and the spiritual teachings of Eckhart Tolle—to argue that happiness doesn’t come from striving for constant positivity and control but from embracing life’s uncertainty and imperfections. 

He suggests that recognizing that life can’t be controlled frees you from the limitations of pursuing constant positivity while enriching your life and revealing joy in unexpected places.

Burkeman emphasizes that there’s no universal blueprint for happiness, and his suggestions aren’t formulas for a happy, ideal life. Rather, they’re flexible tools to help you accept and navigate life as it unfolds, allowing you to find lasting joy, even amid imperfection. 

He suggests three approaches:

  1. Accept all your thoughts and feelings.
  2. Adopt a flexible attitude toward goals.
  3. Get comfortable with change and uncertainty.

Let’s explore these three approaches in detail.

Approach #1: Accept All Your Thoughts and Feelings

Burkeman explains that happiness doesn’t come from experiencing only positive emotions but from accepting all your thoughts and feelings, even the seemingly negative ones. This approach helps you avoid the unproductive cycles of forced positivity and self-blame.

Burkeman suggests three methods to help you accept your thoughts and feelings.

Practice mindful observation: Observe your thoughts and emotions impartially, without judgment or attachment. Noticing your thoughts without becoming entangled in them cultivates acceptance. For example, if the thought “I am not good enough” surfaces, simply acknowledge it and let the thought drift away.

Examine your judgments: Burkeman says you should acknowledge that experiences aren’t inherently positive or negative; it’s your judgments that shape your emotional response. This realization fosters acceptance by helping you perceive experiences more neutrally. For example, seeing a traffic jam as an occurrence rather than an inconvenience eliminates the negative connotation and reduces frustration.

Shift to preference-based thinking: Burkeman recommends reframing wants and wishes from being absolute needs to preferences to reduce the stress and disappointment you feel when things don’t go as planned. For example, reframe “I must always have a clean home” to “I prefer a clean home but it’s OK if it’s not always organized” to alleviate distress over occasional disorder.

Approach #2: Adopt a Flexible Attitude Toward Goals

Burkeman suggests that you’re more likely to feel happy and accomplished if you shift from pursuing rigid goals to adopting a more flexible attitude, allowing your goals to evolve with your changing desires and circumstances. This approach redefines your relationship to success by making setbacks seem less like failures and more like learning curves that keep your goals in tune with what matters to you.

He recommends three methods for cultivating a flexible attitude toward goals.

Set adaptable goals: Make your goals flexible from the outset and consistently reevaluate them to ensure they align with your evolving needs, circumstances, and aspirations. For example, instead of focusing on one predefined career path, explore diverse roles to enhance your chances of getting a rewarding job.

Learn from failure: Burkeman says you should analyze setbacks and apply your insights to future efforts. This strategy transforms disappointments into actions you can take to improve, helping you sustain momentum toward your goals. For example, if a promotion eludes you, identify and hone the necessary skills to prepare yourself for future opportunities.

Establish action-based routines: Burkeman says to prioritize completing specific tasks regardless of your motivation levels. This approach emphasizes doing over feeling, fostering a commitment to take action that ensures continual progress toward your goals. For example, dedicate the first hour of your day to crucial tasks to guarantee daily advancement regardless of your motivational state.

Approach #3: Get Comfortable With Impermanence and Uncertainty

Burkeman asserts that getting comfortable with uncertainty can diminish fear and anxiety, leading to deeper, more genuine happiness. This approach encourages you to find joy amidst the unpredictability of life, rather than striving for control.

He suggests three methods for feeling more comfortable with impermanence and uncertainty.

Embrace life’s transience: Acknowledge the fleeting nature of thoughts, emotions, and life itself to deepen your engagement and appreciation for each passing moment. For example, while washing dishes, observing the swift dissipation of soap bubbles can serve as a reflection on impermanence and your inevitable death.

Acknowledge discomfort in uncertainty: Burkeman advises embracing unease when confronting the unknown, rather than rushing to resolve it. Accepting discomfort curbs impulsive, ill-considered decisions by providing mental space to consider alternatives. For example, if you lose your job, instead of rushing to grab the first available job, take time to reflect on your next move.

Confront your fears: Burkeman writes that you should identify and face your fears head-on to differentiate between actual and perceived threats. This discernment diminishes their hold over you, enabling you to act with less anxiety. For example, deliberately confronting your fear of public speaking can reveal it’s more manageable than you imagined.

The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman: Book Overview & Takeaways

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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