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Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

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Elizabeth Bastos

Staff Writer

Elizabeth Bastos has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and writes at her blog 19th-Century Lady Naturalist. Follow her on Twitter: @elizabethbastos

antidote oliver burkemanHappiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is the subtitle of Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote which I picked up on the advice of a dear friend who shares with me what my mother despairingly calls “gallows humor.” Cheer up, she always says. Look on the bride side. Emphasize the positive, eliminate the negative. Tra la la. Keep a skip in your step. Walk on the sunny side of the street. But I’ve been like the kids in the Peanuts cartoons who hear their parents advice as the drone of a record being played at super-slow speed. Mwah mwhah.

Positive psychology is enduring a backlash. (Imagine my glee; I teepee my fingers like a Bond anti-hero and smile a blank-eyed lizardish smile.) See? I don’t have to try to be happy, employing a complicated system of ropes and pulleys to pull my lips into a smile. It turns out some scientists are saying it isn’t as good for you as they thought.

Positive psychology, goal setting, affirmations, posters with eagles soaring effortlessly over canyons with the word “Succeed” are not a sure thing, a guarantee to improve your pep like a Scooby snack, or a Flintstone vitamin.


But this is where it gets interesting. In the murky gray area between elation and despair, panic and peace, where most of us live anyway, if we’re being honest as we hail cabs and fail to get one, or worse, or better circumstances befall us. Burkeman makes the case for the best life as detachment from any desired state, citing examples from the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers to the modern much studied “grounded-groundedlessness” of Tibetan monks and cognitive behavioral psychology, which draws a straight line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

The real work is not in striving to Have A Great Day but in being able to dance even clumsily with uncertainty. He quotes Lao-Tzu, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent upon arriving.”


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