I am a happiness grump.happiness grump

Perhaps I come by it honestly as my parents often referred to me as “Little Chief Thundercloud” when I was a small child.

Nonetheless, I enjoy a bit of happiness as much as the next person. But the aspect of happiness that has me particularly grumpy is the popular social notion that one should always be happy.

You Must Be Happy Now

If you don’t believe me, visit one of the few remaining bookstores in your area and go to the Self-Help section. Your neck will get a kink in it as you keep your head cocked to one side to read the endless list of ways to be happy, stay happy, reasons why you’re not happy, why you suck because you can’t maintain happiness, etc.

Searching for the word “happy” in the book section on Amazon is frightening. (Not to worry, I did it for you.) My search returned 63,499 results.

Of course, we need to take this with a fairly good-sized grain of salt since the top book right now is, Happy, Happy, Happy: My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander, which is an autobiography by someone from the A&E series, Duck Dynasty. Be sure to pick up your copy today.

Still, in the top 25 books are titles such as:

  • Happy This Year! The Secret to Getting Happy Once and For All
  • 10 Things To Do Today To Be Happy Now – 10 Simple Steps For Finding Joy In Your Everyday Life
  • Instant Happy: 10-Second Attitude Makeovers
  • Happy For No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy From the Inside Out
  • Overcoming SAD: The Happy Hippie Yoga Chick’s Guide to Beating Winter Flip-Out.

Actually, that last one might be worth taking a look at . . .

The Antidote

Overall, though, you receive my point: You can and should be happy once and for all, happy now, and instantly happy. As the duck man might say, “Happy, happy, happy. What a quack.”

Imagine my relief, then, when I spied this title: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking
Aha! An author after my own heart. I had to have the book immediately.

Fellow grump Oliver Burkeman has written a holy text for those of us who are fed up with all this happiness business. His opening chapter frames the entire problem of just-think-positively-and-you’ll-be-happy within the context of an enormous seminar called “Get Motivated!” The speaker is Dr. Robert Schuller and he has tempted the gigantic crowd with the secret that will change the listeners’ lives forever.

‘Here it is, then,’ Dr. Schuller declares, stiffly pacing the stage, which is decorated with two enormous banners reading ‘MOTIVATE!’ and ‘SUCCEED!’, seventeen American flags, and a large number of potted plants. ‘Here’s the thing that will change your life forever.’ The he barks a single syllable – ‘Cut!’ – and leaves a dramatic pause before completing his sentence: ‘ . . . the word “impossible” out of your life! Cut it out! Cut it out forever!’

The audience combusts. I can’t help feeling underwhelmed . . .

Burkeman’s understated British humor continues throughout the book, as seen by his concluding statements about Schuller:

It is only months later, back at my home in New York, reading the headlines over morning coffee, that I learn the news that the largest church in the United States constructed entirely from glass has filed for bankruptcy, a word Dr. Schuller had apparently neglected to eliminate from his vocabulary.

Burkeman’s thesis is that the very act of pursuing happiness is precisely the thing that makes us miserable.  He negates the path to happiness being merely about positive thinking and choosing happiness. However, he also takes issue with those who agree with his stance but then choose to “resign themselves to gloom, or a sort of ironic curmudgeonhood.”

The Negative Path

The Antidote, is about a possible third way, one Burkeman calls “the negative path” that is based on the work of psychologists and philosophers who see that our constant battle to eliminate negativity only leads to us feeling that we are woefully inadequate in the happiness department.

The negative path takes a completely different approach to the things that we try so hard to avoid. It involves “learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death.”

After the introductory first chapter, Burkeman takes us along on a wide-ranging journey to investigate each of these tasks. To ancient Greece and the teachings of Zeno about approaching negativity rather than running from it, and then to a modern Stoic named Keith who lives in Watford, a town just outside of London.

Then to Manhattan to talk with an American Buddhist about the fruitlessness of positive thinking and on to Massachusetts for a week-long Buddhist meditation retreat where he eventually found that “It was suddenly apparent to me that I spent my regular life in a state of desperate clinging to thinking, to trying to avoid falling into the void that lay behind thoughts. Except now I was in the void, and it wasn’t terrifying at all.”

And on and on the journey goes including a trip to the Museum of Failures in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and visits with the incorrigible Albert Ellis and ethereal Eckhart Tolle.

Near the end of the book and our journey with Burkeman, he makes an observation that sums up some of the lessons we have learned:

The real revelation of the ‘negative path’ was not so much the path as the destination. Embracing negativity as a technique, in the end really makes sense only if the happiness you’re aiming for is one that can accommodate negative as well as positive emotions.

. . . The ‘negative path’ to happiness, then, is a different kind of path. But it is also a path to a different kind of destination. Or maybe it makes more sense to say that the path is the destination? These things are excruciatingly hard to put into words, and the spirit of negative capability surely dictates that we do not struggle too hard to do so. ‘A good traveller has no fixed plans,’ says the Chinese sage Lao Tzu, ‘and is not intent upon arriving.’ There could be no better way to make the journey.

The Antidote is an easy read and not for happiness grumps only. We can all learn some valuable skills and lessons to make out lives a little easier and inevitable negativity a little more tolerable.

In fact, why not pick up The Antidote yourself? I promise it won’t make  you grumpy.

 

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