No more positive slog

Oliver Burkeman made a career skewering the self-help industry. He tells Sally Pryor why being relentlessly upbeat is doomed to fail.

Are you a positive thinker, or a glass-half-empty kind of person? Do you dwell on worst-case scenarios, or avoid failure at all costs? Do you crave security and shy away from thoughts of death? Is there even a definitive answer to any of these questions?

For some people, choosing a path, attitude or goal and sticking to it seems to be only trajectory to happiness, if only they could just keep an eye on the prize and eschew negative thoughts altogether.

It's that "if only" clause that has caught the eye of British journalist Oliver Burkeman, over and over again in his writings on social psychology and self-help culture, so much so that he has written an entire book on why positive thinking isn't always the answer. And why "happiness", as a science, isn't as definable as people might want it to be, despite an entire industry that preaches the gospel of ''positive thinking'' above all else.

That said, pigeonholing does have its place. For instance, when setting out to interview a particular author for the first time, it helps to be able to place his or her work in at least some kind of category.

Burkeman is one such author. As a writer for The Guardian, he has a long-running weekly column, This Column Will Change Your Life, in which he gently skewers the self-help industry, muses on those puzzling aspects of the human psyche that sometimes demand a 500-word look and urges readers to, if not examine, then at least glance sidelong at their own thought processes. But conventional, commercial "self-help" is his special target, placing him in the sort "anti-self-help self-help" category.

So, then, how does the local bookshop define Burkeman's latest book, The Antidote - Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking? A quick call confirms that this particular book can be found in the, er, self-help section.


When I finally get on to Burkeman over the phone in New York, where he currently resides, it's the first thing I tell him, hoping he'll find it funny.

He does.

"It's not the first time I've heard of it!" he says.

"I think people think that I'm going to object violently because I'm sort of criticising or mocking quite a lot of self-help. I'm sort of reconciled to it, because I don't think self-help per se is an inherently bad thing and I certainly don't think that the desire to seek out self-help, the urge on the part of the reader, is a bad thing at all."

The Antidote is, in fact, an alternative to one of the most prevalent, and arguably pernicious, approaches to self-help - the power of positive thinking. In fact, says Burkeman, too much focus on being relentlessly upbeat can be incredibly counter-productive and can in fact make you less happy. The alternative, then, is negative thinking, and all the forms this can take, whether that be embracing uncertainty and insecurity, confronting one's own mortality, or keeping worst-case scenarios front and centre.

"This is the key paradox or logic to what I'm talking about - not just that trying really hard to be happy doesn't work but that the reason that it doesn't work is the trying," he says.

The book begins at a massive "Get Motivated!" lecture given by an American self-help guru in a Texas baseball stadium and takes him to a Buddhist retreat in Massachusetts, a slum in Nairobi and a cemetery in rural Mexico. He tries his hand at Stoicism - saying aloud the names of stations while sitting in a crowded London Tube carriage, as a way of confronting his worst fear, that of being seen as a fool. It's not nearly as bad as he thought it would be, which is the very point of Stoicism. He visits the Museum of Failed Products in Michigan, a "poignant memorial to humanity's shattered dreams" in the form of shelves and shelves of products that have been withdrawn from sale because nobody wanted to buy them.

Some of the realisations he comes to are profound. Perhaps the most important is that all these different approaches to happiness are less about the techniques used and more about the definition of happiness itself. The point is not to try so hard to define anything at all but rather to accept that a meaningful life must consist of contrasts.

Regular readers of the column have probably marvelled at the amount of dross Burkeman seems to have consumed to reach his conclusion - the kinds of unreadable tracts with minimalist covers and exclamation-laden titles that scream of deep-seated, but self-denying, low self-esteem.

"I very much take issue with certain prevalent approaches, [but] there are definitely people who are more cynical than me in terms of saying the whole idea of a self-help book is disastrous," he says. "One of the effects of writing the column actually has been to realise that actually sometimes there's bits of amazing wisdom hiding in really quite cheesy-looking books."

And why wouldn't there be? After all, seeking to take control of one's life and hopefully, finally, reach happiness, is pretty much a universal desire, and no one should be embarrassed about it.

It's just that too many people see happiness as something in the future, rather than embracing the present, with all its imperfections and insecurities and harsh realities of the tapestry of life.

Over the years, he says, he had become pretty practiced at sorting the wheat from the chaff when it came to pop psychology, and in the process started noticing a recurring theme.

"You start looking in terms of what works and what doesn't, what you like and don't like, and it was then that I began to perceive that there was a sort of fairly deep principle at work here, which seems to be whether a certain philosophy of happiness is focused on stamping out negative emotions and negative experiences, or whether it's more sort of accepting or welcoming towards them," he says.

Unlike his columns, the book is not primarily about self-help, nor is it in any way prescriptive.

"I begin by exploring what's wrong with positive thinking but then I really didn't want to make it just an attack," he says.

"So really, the vast majority of the book is exploring an alternative to what doesn't work, rather than going on about how it doesn't work."

It's this tone that sets him apart from much of the self-help industry.

"The thing where I definitely think of myself as not writing self-help is the kind of basic register of the writing," he says.

"I think that's the part that is quite tricky. Everyone's got some useful advice, and maybe I have to, but the default position of self-help - 'If you can just assume that my life is perfect, now I'm going to give you lucky reader here a way to be like me' - I think is very problematic. You just assume that a lot of those authors are actually very, very sad." But what about the people who consume what these writers have to say? Are they sad as well? Burkeman doesn't like to think of people in that way.

"In a sense, I think all of us at some levels would rather like someone to tell us what we should and shouldn't do," he says. "I'm very wary of mocking people who are in that position as readers. It's really a question of what you then get from that urge, is it useful or exploitative or just plain wrong. But it certainly helps if you can approach this type of book thinking to yourself, 'I'm going to be critical … I'll adopt the parts that make sense to me', rather than 'I'm going to sign up to this guru's entire program and do exactly what they say.' "

And, self-deprecating as always, he'd hate to imagine himself adopting any kind of prescriptive tone.

"You can disagree with half of what I've written if you want, as well, it's that crucial part of the start [of the book] - I went off to investigate this stuff, this is the effect it had on me, this is how I suggest how it could have that effect on you, but above all, don't take my word for it!"

So, did his journey change him? "I didn't undergo some sort of single massive transformation. And I'm sort of quite glad that I didn't because I feel like that would have undermined the thesis of a having this imperfect, gradual mixed-bag approach," he says.

"But in a large number of small ways it has made me happier. And not necessarily more happy but more easily and quickly able to respond in the right way. It's not like I never get irritated or procrastinate or feel sad, but I'm less likely to fall into counterproductive ways of dealing with that and I hope that I'm less likely to issue terrible, counterproductive advice when I encounter bad things."

He admits that some people - probably quite a few, actually - might not find his book, or at least its message, all that appealing. But he's not entirely convinced that he's just preaching to the converted, either. Rather, he thinks there's a large subset of people who have either exhausted the possibilities of positive thinking - of "staying motivated" - or who have always had a negative bent anyway.

"I think this has been really the most heartening part of the feedback I've got - there are people who feel this way and have this hunch about their outlook on life," he says. "I hope that I can then say this is actually a long, noble built-up position that is useful and interesting and it's not something you feel bad about. I think that's really the mission.''

The Antidote - Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman is published by Text Publishing.

Oliver Burkeman will speak at a Canberra Times/ANU Meet the Author event on February 27 at Manning Clark Theatre at 6pm. Phone: 6125 4144.