The Antidote (Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking) by Oliver Burkeman

On Trying Too Hard to Be Happy. I was learning about happiness from an orange man who was 83 years old. Most people will say the secret is ‘MOTIVATION’ and ‘SUCCESS’. Cut the impossible out of your life. Positivity matters. Think happy thoughts and banish sad ones. Negative thinking is a no-no. Do you preach the gospel of optimism? People usually get hyped up for motivational talks. I was attending the course as an undercover journalist. Some of the people there were forced to attend after being sent by employers. Dr Schuller removed the word ‘impossible’ from this vocabulary. Not long ago, I read that this church filed from bankruptcy. In modern life, nothing seems to make us happy. Increased income, better education, bigger homes etc. Self-help books haven’t proven to be useful. Some of them are not supported by research. Is the concept of happiness flawed? Religion never placed explicit focus on it. Does aiming for it reduce your chance of attaining it? The definition can also be inconsistent. Sometimes, no effort is the best. Do not try to eliminate negative thoughts. Rather, one should learn to embrace uncertainty, get used to failure, value death etc. Philosophy teaches us to imagine the worst case scenario. Mindfulness is certainly beneficial and teaches people to embrace uncertainty. This is a counterweight to all the motivational talks you will attend. ‘Negative’ can also mean ‘not doing’ or ‘not chasing aggressively’. The author has travelled on a meditation retreat, to the slums etc. During the break in the course, I spoke to a teacher who wanted to find a job and come out of retirement. Daniel Wegner is a professor in psychology and specializes in studying why when we suppress certain thoughts, the problem in fact becomes more prevalent. This effect is known as ‘precisely counterintuitive error’. Humans are not good at metacognition. Metacognition occurs when thought takes itself as an object. You can’t use this on everyday objects. These are in a way instructions on object-level thinking. His research support his findings. Excessive self-monitoring might lead to self-sabotage. Affirmations might not be useful if it clashes with people’s poor opinions of themselves and cause it to be rejected. An affirmation could be like ‘Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.’ George Bush was one of the speakers at the motivational conference. Excessive optimism can lead to financial crisis. One should do the illogical thing instead sometimes.

Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute. – Fyodor Dostoevsky

The “negative path” is about rejecting this dichotomy, and seeking instead the happiness that arises through negativity, rather than trying to drown negativity out with relentless good cheer. – Oliver Burkeman

There are lots of ways of being miserable, but there’s only one way of being comfortable, and that is to stop running around after happiness. – Edith Wharton

Bereaved people who make the most effort to avoid feeling grief, research suggests, take the longest to recover from their loss. – Oliver Burkeman

What Would Seneca Do? (The Stoic Art of Confronting the Worst-Case Scenario). The stoics relied on negativity. Humans approach unpleasant experiences very irrationally at times. It involves calm when facing trying circumstances. Things might not be as bad as they seem. Actually no one is listening to you. Some books encourage to perform ‘positive visualization’. This is a form of positive thinking. It helps to go in a job interview with optimism? However, research has shown that why thinking about how well things can do actually reduces people’s motivation. A pure negative visualization isn’t very helpful either. Laertius was one of the first Stoics among the Greeks. The Roman Stoics are Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. They believed that life must be led in accordance to reason. The ideal state of mind is tranquility, and not happiness. It is possible a sense of indifference towards circumstances. Examine negative emotions closely. Why think positively when you know the evidence is against you? The circumstances don’t cause sufferings, it is the beliefs that you hold about them that cause suffering. Even losing a loved one is merely an event. If you are constantly optimistic, you may get shocked when someone bad happens. This might even lead to unhappiness. Understand the hedonic adaption process. When you think about death, you will start appreciating life more. Everything can be taken away from you. Get used to the possibility of bad things happening. Even if you lose a job, it is unlikely that you will starve. Spend a little time imagining how things might go wrong. Try acting like you already for example, lost all your wealth. Pretend to be frugal and see whether you will be as sad as you anticipated. Dr Keith lived in the suburbs and the author visited him. His wife was very ill and Dr Keith had to take care of her. Keith was a tutor of Stoicism in universities. Both Keith and his wife are Stoics. When he was younger, he experienced a strange moment where he thought the Universe connect together somehow. Finally, he embraced Stoicism and found that he liked it. Understand that things are not always in your control. For the stoics, it is important to understand what is in your control and what is not. The only thing we can control are our judgments. Even a verbal insult should do you no harm. If you see a long queue at a supermarket, do not react with frustration. There is nothing you can do about it anyway. Stoicism is useful when you encounter negative feelings or emotions. Start with the small things in life. Things do not have to be awful. Rejection from a girl is far from the absolute disaster that you are fearing. Getting rejection by women is undesirable, but not horrifying or terrible. There is a difference between a terrible outcome and an undesirable one. Even if you were tortured to death slowly, you could always be tortured to death even more slowly. It is important to make the distinction between a terrible outcome and an undesirable one. The author started reciting train stations out loud and realized that no one stared at him.

If you accept that the universe is uncontrollable, you’re going to be a lot less anxious. – Ellis

Do not despise death, but be well content with it, since this too is one of those things which nature wills. – Marcus Aurelius

The Storm Before the Calm (A Buddhist Guide to Not Thinking Positively). In the past, hippies might attempt mediation with LSD. In the past, it was seen as the path to ecstasy. In modern times, it is to achieve a calm like state. Mediation has little to do with the desired state of mind. It has its roots in Buddhism. Humans tend to attach themselves to things. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Buddhists believe in non-attachment. You should approach circumstances in life without clinging or aversion. The key is to be aware and calm. Why would anyone not want to attach to the good things in life? Like friends? Give up trying to replace unpleasant thoughts. Oedipus was an example why it is not smart to pursue happiness. Trying to fight to eliminate unhappiness is a problem. Fleeing is the problem. Mediation was a good way to stop running away from unpleasant thoughts and emotions. The author also meditated in the forest. The key is to non-judging and to focus on your breathing .Learn to embrace your feelings of being lost. For most of the meditation camp, I was not allowed to speak. I initially found it very difficult to get through the entire week just meditating. Your mind is naturally noisy. Let the clamour be there. View passing thoughts as a spectator, not a participants. Once your mind has strayed, return to your breath. Those who are under mediation can actually tolerate more pain. Bring your attention back to the present. To some, non-attachment might seem to be very passive. Acceptance need not mean resignation. To be honest, more anti-procrastination methods do not work. Motivational advice doesn’t work all the time. You don’t need to feel motivated before you can act. Mediation might teach you something like you can work even if you don’t feel like it. These people also have a very fixed schedule of writing. You don’t need to increase your confidence before asking someone asking out on a date. You can take action without changing our feeling-states. After experiencing a few days of meditation, I realized I could see things from a higher vantage point.

One’s brain is constantly chattering, constantly planning, designing: what it will do, what it has done, the past impinging itself on the present. It is everlasting chattering, chattering, chattering. – Jiddu Krishnamurti

The perfect Stoic adapts his or her thinking so as to remain undisturbed by undesirable circumstances; the perfect Buddhist sees thinking itself as just another set of circumstances, to be non-judgmentally observed. – Oliver Burkeman

Prolific authors and artists tend to emphasize the mechanics of the working process, focusing not on generating the right mood, but on accomplishing certain physical actions, regardless of mood. – Oliver Burkeman

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. – Chuck Close

Goal Crazy. Many climbers died near the mountain peak of Mount Everest. They were all worried about what had happened. It was the 1996 disaster and it was inexplicable. What had happened was an outbreak of mass irrationality. There were too many people on the mountain at the time. If you fail to follow the schedule, you need to turn back . The team failed to follow their turnaround times and got into trouble. If you don’t turnaround, your oxygen supply will run out. The climbers were lured in by their passion and were fixated at them. They didn’t want to sacrifice their goals at any cost. They wanted to preserve their sense of identity. The hallmark of a great leader is to set big and ambitious goals. Set clear goals. That’s the problem with business people. Researchers also studied this. The people who climbed were very achievement-oriented. They had little regard for social convention too. To overcome uncertainty, climbers increased emotional investment in their decisions. Goal obsession is not a good thing. Many books tell you it is important to set goals in your life. However, there is no research that shows that goal-setting will lead you to becoming richer. Even if you do not have a goal, you might have specific outcomes about how you want things to be. There is no need to keep planning. Sometimes, you can’t directly control your future. Sometimes, people make decisions just to get rid of the anxiety, despite knowing that it might not be good for you in the long run. Research has also revealed that there are less taxis on the roads when it rains. This was because some drivers had already reached their income goals and stopped driving the taxis in bad weather. Occasionally, clearly define goals will cause others to cheat. When you pursue a goal, it might affect other aspects of your life. When you formulate plans, you exclude some other people from your life. This is the law of unintended consequences. In modern societies, many people are self-deserving and do not care much about others. Shapiro encouraged people to embrace uncertainty and give up goals. Once you achieve your goals, it does not mean that you will be happy. To be successful, you need to improvise and adopt along the way. This is the process known as effectuation. Effectuation means looking at possible ends and use materials at their disposal. Don’t wait for the perfect moment before you act. Rather, start now. Do and then see what happens.

To be a good human is to have a kind of openness to the world. The ethical life is based on a trust in the uncertainty, and on a willingness to be exposed. It’s based on being more like a plant than a jewel: something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility. – Martha Nussbaum

Who’s There? (How to Get Over Your Self) Why are you always unhappy? Tolle used to sit in the park for a grand total of 2 years. He felt contented doing that. Later, he spoke about his experiences. He was lucky enough to be endorsed by Oprah later on. ‘The Power of Now’ turned out to be a best-seller. Tolle was essentially saying nothing new but at least he wrote about his experiences. I met Tolle and interviewed him. The self is supposed to be obvious. ‘I think, therefore I am’. We are generally who we take ourselves to be? Can you feel your body in the first place? Are you truly you? The human mind always has perceptions. Humans all have different perceptions and only you can access it yourself. The self is mysterious and might not seem like what it is like. To Tolle, time was an illusion. Do not identify yourself too close to the mind chatter. Insane people can’t keep the mental chatter inaudible to others. Living for yourself won’t make you happy. Do not imagine that you are your thoughts. Ego thrives on the future. You are not your own mind. Rather, try to imagine yourself looking at yourself from afar. If you don’t identify with who you are, you become who you truly are. Live in the present moment. The moment that counts most is now. Is self-esteem a good thing? High self-esteem might lead to arrogance? Giving back usually provides happiness. The inside and outside must go together. It was indeed a valuable conversation with Tolle.

The Safety Catch (The hidden Benefits of Insecurity). It’s the idea of having sky marshals that make flights safer and sometimes not because they are onboard. Humans always desire a feeling of safety and security. We often struggle for things too strenuously. We like the feeling of security. Security might be an illusion. We live a time of unusual insecurity. Feeling secure doesn’t make you safer. You are more likely to be killed in a car crash than the plane you are in crashing. Modern societies have changed us. The key is to try to tolerate insecurity and vulnerability as well. However, being financially secure might not make you happy too. Security is largely an illusion. Rather, we should be vulnerable so that we can experience the full range of reactions around us. You cannot try to be secure when it comes to negative feelings only. Insecurity should be a necessity. Bad experiences may be a good thing. Kibera was a horrible place and it was extremely unhygienic. Happiness is about taking what you have and then using it best. However, the people there were happy. Why are some poor people so happy? One explanation is that they might have lower expectations. Some of them have the thirst for learning. Vulnerability might be a precondition for success and happiness. Learn to face reality and do not think about material possessions that much. Don’t worry about things you don’t have. According to Helen Keller, security was a superstition. Learn to accept that the only constant is change. Humans, however, like stability. There is no point trying to change a fluid Universe. One should try to separate the change from you. Alan Watts has written good pieces of literature on this.

Happiness is subjective. You can be happy in a slum, unhappy in a city. The things you need for happiness aren’t the things you think you need. – Irene Mueni

The Museum of Failure (The Case for Embracing Your Errors). Learn to accept your mistakes. GfK Custom Research acquired many failed products. It was the graveyard. The staff there get paid to usher designers and other executives to look through the failures. The staff likes the work.Every product has a story. It takes incredible courage to be a product developer. The truth was that most products failed. One shouldn’t laugh at the products on offer. Many product developers fail to consider the failures. People who have failed often do not want to share. Failure is everywhere. However, many people like to deny that they have failed. Learn to experience failure. Even evolution is driven by failure. Everyone will have experienced failure at least once in their lives. Many people overestimate their ability to be successful and tend to be overly confident. In research, failure is extremely common. Based on studies, researchers who have failed tend to abandon their experiments and only focus on the successful experiments. And the thing about failures is that people tend to pump in more money than necessary. Failures usually aren’t featured in the news. This is known as the ‘survivorship bias’. Our conversations are mostly about success. One can’t simply focus on successes. Learn to be aware of the survivorship bias. Failure can help bring people together. There is happiness in embracing failure too. It cuts you down to human size. Being a perfectionist will also lead to disappointment. Fixed vs incremental mindset.

Memento Mori (Death as a Way of Life). Death can be terrifying. We often do not think about it as it causes pain. We don’t believe we can die. It is simply not in our minds. Because it is terrifying, we choose not to think about it. Not many believe in an afterlife. Wars represents an immortality project. Humans want to achieve something that lasts. We often evade thoughts of our death. When forced to think about death, moralistic people become more moralistic because they want to leave a lasting impression behind. This is known as mortality salience. In the past, some radical thinkers have suggested that one should be aware of one’s mortality. Positive thinking doesn’t transcend death. There are practical reasons for thinking about death. To most people, death doesn’t seem like a problem. There is actually no risk of accident to one who’s dead. Therefore, there is nothing to worry. Who says that being dead is the problem? Come to understand that there is nothing to fear. Follow the stoics. In death, everything falls apart, leaving only what’s truly important. Mexico has a tradition called memento mori, which encourages reflection on mortality. There is also a day when people celebrate the dead. In Mexico, people joke about death. I visited Mexico during the festival despite being aware of the dangers. The dead were being worshipped. The last death is when there no one alive left to remember you. Imagine you are 80 and ask yourself questions like ‘I wish I’d spent more time on…’ and ‘I wish I’d spent less time on…’.

The most wondrous thing in the world is that although, every day, innumerable creatures go to the abode of Death, still man thinks that he is immortal. – Yudhisthira

Why do you fear the eternal oblivion of death, if you don’t look back with horror at the eternal oblivion before you were born – which, as far as you were concerned, was just as eternal, and just as much an oblivion? – Epicurus



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