On Being Happy and the Antidote

The concept behind Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote is fairly simple: Stop trying too hard. After all, doing the opposite hasn’t quite worked for us so well thus far. What is he talking about? The never-ending pursuit of happiness. 

Burkeman reflects on the fact that we as a society are overly saturated with therapists, lifestyle coaches, inspirational and motivational speakers, and all-around gurus. And we’re also obsessed with self-help books, which can be quite banal and often unhelpful. The self-help industry is booming precisely because it doesn’t quite work, forcing many of its willing participants to turn to the latest books, podcasts, or trends time and time again after previous techniques have failed.

While Burkeman doesn’t deny the existence of a happy state, the way we’ve been getting there may not be quite the way it should be. According to studies he mentions, aphorisms and vision boards do little to stir us toward this evasive state of being and serenity. Instead, rather than trying to blindly eliminate the layered complexities and obstacles of life (he uses an example: “Eliminate the word ‘impossible’ from your vocabulary!”), we should be more accepting of failures and negativity. He doesn’t advocate wallowing in one’s misery; rather, stop rushing after the concept of happiness. The more you ask yourself if you’re happy or satisfied, the more your brain resists and tries to counter this idea, frequently falling short if the reality doesn’t quite meet the imagined perception.

Burkeman interviews and highlights the experiences of other people — touching on a bit of philosophy and history that shaped our minds and molded our expectations, social interactions, and more. And ultimately, he urges us to find positivity not through the fervent elimination of the negative, but by learning to be more balanced, and perhaps ultimately happier on a different plane, in spite of challenges and difficulties in the long run. Because, instead of focusing on reinventing ourselves from scratch and adhering to one trend or another, we’re ultimately better off growing through the negatives we encounter daily, and raising our awareness of ourselves in a more complete way.