Life Sucks, But Maybe That’s a Good Thing? Oliver Burkeman’s New Book Makes a Case for Pessimists

Woo hoo.

I don’t remember when I began saying it, though as a worldview it seems to have always been with me. Whenever things are bad—annoying, unpleasant, dire, morbid, arduous, depressing—and someone offhandedly says, “It could be worse,” I always reply, “And it probably will be.” I certainly never thought of it as a morale booster, more of a sardonic rejoinder to a mindless remark, a platitude in response to a platitude. It turns out, though, that this approach might be a more helpful response to the darker corners of human existence than I thought.

In his new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Faber & Faber, 256 pp., $25), which is to say, intelligent people, Oliver Burkeman recalls finding himself chatting with the pre-eminent behavioral psychologist Albert Ellis, then in his nineties. One of the main methods Ellis advocates for modulating one’s view of life is realizing “the difference between a terrible outcome and a merely undesirable one.” Many of the events that cause us anxiety and unhappiness are in fact not nearly as bad as the level of emotional fervor we cover ourselves in while fearing them. Taking this thinking to its extreme, to prove the point, Ellis pointed out, “If you are slowly tortured to death, you could always be tortured to death slower.” In other words, it could be worse. (And it probably will. Ellis died shortly after Mr. Burkeman met with him.)

Mr. Burkeman begins his study of the power of negative thinking with a foil. He finds himself in a basketball stadium outside San Antonio at a mass meeting of Get Motivated!, an organization run by Dr. Robert H. Schuller, the happy huckster responsible for Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral and the nationally televised Hour of Power. Get Motivated!, however, is a secular organization devoted to pushing the positive, and its meetings often boast noteworthy keynote speakers, like George W. Bush (who addressed the gathering Mr. Burkeman attended), Rudy Giuliani, Colin Powell and Mikhail Gorbachev.

The group’s approach consists mostly of telling yourself good things—whether true or not—and allowing the uplifting power of positivity to do its work. “The doctrine of positive thinking at its most distilled, isn’t exactly complex,” Mr. Burkeman writes, “decide to think happy and successful thoughts—banish the specters of sadness and failure—and happiness and success follow.” This is the method of the grand tradition of sanguine self-delusion stretching from Tony Robbins back to Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale (a copy of whose pamphlet “How to Handle Tough Times” has a place of honor next to the bar in my apartment).

Oliver Burkeman. (Photo: Jeff Mikkelson)

Mr. Burkeman rightly sees this as a mostly moronic approach and quickly pinpoints its inefficacy. If intelligence is the greatest barrier to happiness, the gullible and the simple too have the capacity for misery: “The person most likely to purchase any given self-help book is someone who, within the previous eighteen months, purchased a self-help book”—a fact that aptly demonstrates that the self-help industry is mostly just helping itself.

Moreover, the happiness industry is based on a tautology that prevents any real inquiry and inures it to the questioning bound to arise in the mind of any mildly reasonable individual. “If you voiced [an] objection to Dr. Schuller, he would probably dismiss it as ‘negative thinking.’ To criticize the power of positivity is to demonstrate that you haven’t really grasped it at all. If you had, you would stop grumbling about such things, and indeed about anything else.” That is, I’m okay, you’re okay. Now shut up and get happy.

Not only does this mind-set not lead to happiness, it can actually exacerbate the gloom of being alive. “Again and again, we have seen how merely not wanting to think certain thoughts or to feel certain emotions isn’t sufficient to eliminate them,” Mr. Burkeman writes. “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.”

He cites a study in which every time a bell rang, subjects were to say to themselves ‘I am a loveable person.’ Those with low self-esteem “didn’t feel particularly loveable to begin with—and trying to convince themselves otherwise merely solidified their negativity. ‘Positive thinking’ had made them feel worse.” Indeed, the whole scenario is a bummer just to imagine.

This is an example of “ironic process theory,” which explores the ways in which our efforts to suppress certain thoughts or behaviors result, ironically, in their becoming more prevalent. The idea, as outlined to Mr. Burkeman by Harvard professor Daniel Wegner, is as familiar as the parlor game in which someone is told not to think about a white bear. Of course, thereafter, she can think of nothing else.

What, then, is someone to do when the idea of bucking up is just not enough? To use the parlance of the season, go negative. “Many of the proponents of the ‘negative path’ to happiness take things further still, arguing—paradoxically, but persuasively—that deliberately plunging more deeply into what we think of as negative may be a true condition of true happiness.” That is exactly what Mr. Burkeman does. Over the course of Antidote, he seeks out thinkers who illustrate the way in which things traditionally thought of as antithetical to happiness—failure, embarrassment, death, etc.—can actually be a way toward a more gratifying life.

As is generally the case with books of this sort, Mr. Burkeman makes himself both narrator of and the test case for this approach. Along the way, he attends a week-long, silent Vipassana meditation retreat, visits the museum of failed products in Ann Arbor, Mich. (A Touch of Yogurt shampoo, Pepsi AM Breakfast Cola, etc.), and travels to a Kenya ghetto. He also speaks with experts on various versions of the “negative path,” including one of the world’s foremost Stoics (his name is Keith, and he lives in Watford, U.K.) and Oprah-approved spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle.

Naturally, any discussion of the negative soon arrives at the greatest white bear of them all: death. Here, positive thinking is laughably moot, since the circumstance of death is incontrovertible and universal. Instead of trying to deny death, or think their way around it, as the positivos do with other “negative” experiences, they simply ignore it, or mask it with notions of purpose and solidarity.

“Society itself is essentially a ‘codified hero system’—a structure of customs, traditions and laws that we have designed to help us feel part of something bigger, and longer lasting, than a mere human life,” Mr. Burkeman writes. The existential prank being played on us all is that this is manifestly not the case—that while we may be loved by those close to us and accomplished in whatever endeavors we pursue, even on a grand scale, one day it’s going to be over, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

The philosopher Epictetus, as quoted by Mr. Burkeman, pointed out that fearing death is illogical. “Death is nothing to us,” he wrote, “since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.” An elegantly morbid chiasmus of the subjectivity of mortality, nevertheless easier said than done, on the not-fearing-death front. But in fact Mr. Burkeman asserts that an increased familiarity with death, a more constant reminder of its imminence—can actually lead to an increased appreciation for life and less anxiety about our own expiration dates. The memento mori, an either literal or mental reminder on a regular basis may not only help to ease the fear but also to give vigor to one’s appreciation for being alive at that moment.

“Since the time of the ancient Greeks,” Mr. Burkeman puts it, “certain radical thinkers have taken the position that a life suffused with an awareness of one’s own mortality—as a matter of everyday habit, not just when direct encounters with death force our hand—might be a far richer kind of existence.” All aboard the winged chariot!

The real point here is that a relentless positivity is a dishonest way to live, and it attempts to deny not only reality but also vital aspects of human experience.

Toward the end of the book, Mr. Burkeman quotes a 22-year-old Keats on what he called, in a letter to his brother, “Negative Capability”—“that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason …”

Mr. Burkeman adds:

Sometimes the most valuable of all talents is to be able not to seek resolution; to notice the craving for completeness or certainty or comfort, and not feel compelled to follow where it leads … Ultimately, what defines the ‘cult of optimism’ and the culture of positive thinking—even in its most mystically tinged New Age forms—is that it abhors a mystery … The greatest benefit of negative capability—the true power of negative thinking—is that it lets the mystery back in.

However, he is quick to say, “This ‘negative path,’ it should be emphasized, isn’t one single comprehensive, neatly packaged philosophy; the antidote is not a panacea.” No doubt, since the condition is terminal. Best to accept the diagnosis and act accordingly. Life Sucks, But Maybe That’s a Good Thing? Oliver Burkeman’s New Book Makes a Case for Pessimists