In his long-running Guardian column , Burkeman has proven himself to be a very rare beast indeed. He is never sneering or snooty about the self-help world he explores, and is always willing to grant to whoever he is examining whatever truth might lie behind their claims. At the same time, he has not allowed his brain to turn to mush. Those same qualities are on display in The Antidote, which also allows him to go beyond the limits of the column and get almost as close as you can to a recipe for contentment while rejecting the whole idea of a wellbeing formula. Burkeman noticed that "something united all those psychologists and philosophers — and even the odd self-help guru — whose ideas seemed actually to hold water".
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I read it at a gallop. I found it wonderfully provocative. I could have filled its margins with comments, heavily pressed into the paper, and accompanied by lots of exclamation marks. The general drift of the book is that the roaring ra-ra-ra of positive thinking does not work. Day by day, in every way, we are NOT getting better and better. The author, Oliver Burkeman, a Guardian journalist covering psychology, says that instead we need to Curmudgeonly Brit that I am, I enjoyed this book a lot.
The author, Oliver Burkeman, a Guardian journalist covering psychology, says that instead we need to cultivate an attitude of reasonable pessimism. We need to distance ourselves from the ructions of our emotions and embrace the essence of the human condition - uncertainty and death. Surprisingly, he feels, therein lies the path to happiness - or at least the path to detachment, acceptance and contentment.
He discusses the Stoics, Buddhist philosophies and practices, and societies which embrace uncertainty rather than avoiding it. He talks of the merits of meditation, and of our current misplaced obsession with setting ourselves goals.
He also interestingly talks a lot about how most self-help books try and change our mindset. If we procrastinate That is the essence of how they work. He cites Anthony Trollope, who unfailingly used to write for 3 hours each morning, before going off to his day job. He wrote 47 novels during his lifetime. He also quotes the artist Chuck Close: "Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.
I think this approach to life is only feasible if you are naturally a disciplined person. My father was. He was a Trollope through and through. I on the other hand am a jelly person. I need gentle encouragement and lots of treats in order to do anything.
I also find meditation awfully difficult. I have tried it on and off for about 40 years, and always get fed up with it after just a short time. For me that is the missing chapter in this book. Whilst I greatly admire a lot of what the author said, his ideas and suggestions are very much geared up to a certain sort of personality - and I am not that personality.
The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman - review