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The Power Of Negative Thinking: Happiness Expert Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman, author of the book "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking," has spent years studying what makes people happy. It's not what you think. He's answering all your happiness-related questions live this Friday, November 8th at 12 p.m. E.T.


by Anjali Mullany

Oliver Burkeman wants us all to be happier. Or at least less unhappy. Or perhaps just happy-ish should be good enough.

In any case, he's most certainly a journalist and author, based in Brooklyn, NY. Oliver's column for The Guardian, This Column Will Change Your Life, examines ideas around social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness. He has also written for Fast Company about how goal-setting can wreck your life and about the myths of happiness.

He's been known, at times, to make fun of The Secret, entirely unprovoked. 

Oliver's book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, is out this week in paperback from Faber & Faber. 

To submit your questions for the happiness guru, use the "Make A Comment" box below. Oliver will join us live at 12 p.

m. E.T. on Friday, November 8th. See you then!


  • Hi everyone! We're looking forward to our happy(ness) discussion tomorrow -- be sure to submit your questions ahead of time using the "Make a comment" box on this page!
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  • How do I access the discussion at noon?
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  • Hi Dee -- just tune in here at noon (Eastern Time)!
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  • Oliver Burkeman discusses his book, "The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking". He'll be joining us here at Fast Company HQ in just a few minutes! You can use the "Make a comment" box on this page to submit your questions now.

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  • Olive Burkeman is with us and ready to take your questions!

    by Oliver Burkeman edited by Anjali Mullany 11/8/2013 4:55:08 PM
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  • Hi everyone, thanks for joining our live interview with journalist and author Oliver Burkeman, whose book, "The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking" came out in paperback this week. We're very happy to have him here with us today to talk about what he's discovered about the pursuit of happiness-- thanks for joining us, Oliver!
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  • So Oliver, the older I get, the more I find myself telling myself to be positive. "Don't be so negative, Anjali!" I tell myself. However, your book challenged this approach, or perhaps tick, of mine -- what's so misguided about telling ourselves to stay positive, to avoid negative thinking? I meet a lot of people through Fast Company -- leadership gurus, ambitious entrepreneurs -- who vehemently espouse the power of positive thinking...
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  • The problem is that trying really hard to be happy backfires incredibly easily. There's a character in an Edith Wharton novel who says (I'm paraphrasing): "If only we'd stop trying so hard to be happy, we'd have a pretty good time." One problem is that focusing really hard on eliminating negative thoughts means you have to constantly monitor your mind for negative thoughts – which is pretty stressful, and besides, you actually just end up focusing more on negative thoughts. It's like challenging someone *not* to think about a polar bear: as soon as you try, you inevitably fail. There are a ton of other problems with too much positivity, though, which I'm sure we'll discuss…
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  • On the topic of our thoughts, and our ability to control our thinking...in the book, there's a section in which you journey to a remote part of Massachusetts for a forced-silence, hardcore meditation retreat. You quickly became very aware of all the noise in your head -- the songs looping in your mind (hilariously, for you it was the annoying 90s hit "Barbie Girl"), the things you hadn't gotten done before you left for the trip...you say in the book that the silence around you amplified the noise in your head. So what does that mean for the rest of us? How does the noise in our head -- which, without committing ourselves to silence in the woods, we may not even be truly aware of -- affect our happiness, our well being?
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  • Ugh, yes, Barbie Girl. There should be a law against that song. After that, because there was nothing to get legitimately annoyed about in that beautiful setting with all my meals provided and my time scheduled for me, I found myself starting to find things to get annoyed about, like how someone near me was breathing too loudly, etc. What you eventually realize, though, is that it's not about "trying to silence your mind", which is a form of positive thinking in itself, I'd argue. It's a matter not of replacing negatives with positives/calm, but relating differently to thoughts and emotions, negative or positive. It's not the mental chatter that's the problem, but "attaching" to the chatter, automatically believing that it's true or important. Although once you do begin to attach less, the chatter does also die down…
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  • Doesn't negative thinking makes you paranoid?
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  • Here's Oliver in Fast Company's offices!

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  • Rodrigo – 

    Ha! This is a fair point. In the book I use the phrase "negative thinking" primarily to mean easing up on trying to eliminate negative feelings and experiences – learning to tolerate or even maybe enjoy uncertainty, insecurity, the possibility of failure, etcetera. But there are some contexts in which deliberately "thinking negative" is helpful, I think. Certain forms of pessimism and dwelling on the worst-case scenario can be really helpful for eliminating anxiety about the future, preparing yourself for inevitable setbacks, and the like. I'm certainly not out to tell natural optimists that they should work on being gloomier – just that gloominess per se is a) not always so terrible and b) not solved by positive thinking.
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  • That's an interesting point -- in the book, you talk at length about Stoicism, and how confronting the things in the future that may go badly, rather that attempting to only take a positive and optimistic view of the future, can actually help minimize shock when things do, at times in our life, do go badly -- and even bring us a sense of tranquility...
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  • The Stoics called this "the premeditation of evils" – deliberately thinking in calm sober detail about what it would be like if things went really wrong. It's a great antidote to anxiety: we usually try to respond to anxiety with reassurance, attempting to convince ourselves or others that everything will turn out fine... but that has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the idea that it would be *terrible* if they didn't. The Stoics figured out that calmly confronting the possibility of things not turning out fine tended to assuage anxiety much more effectively – and when you've got more peace of mind because you're prepared, you've surely got more chance of things going right, anyhow. Oh, and an extra bonus benefit about worst-case scenario thinking! If you remember that you might lose the good things you already have, you'll take more pleasure in them now…
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  • What do you see as the most valuable aspects of "positive psychology" (Seligman, et al.) as opposed to "positive thinking" (Schuller, et al.)? Thanks!
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  • (While Oliver is responding to Doug, be sure to read Oliver's piece in Fast Company this week, in which he attempts do debunk 5 big "happiness myths".
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  • Good question. In my understanding, these are completely different at a fundamental level: positive psychology just refers to psychology that probes the causes of happiness, as well as the causes of disorders. It needn't involve positive thinking – attempting to control emotions or outcomes in the external world by the sheer force of will, etc – at all. (That said, there is quite a bit of positive thinking in some strains of positive psychology.) So "defensive pessimism" and similar approaches totally have their place in positive psychology, because for many they're a cause of happiness. Are there other problems with pos. psychology? Definitely – a fixation on quantification for example...
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  • There is an amusing section of the book in which you describe riding the London Tube, shouting out loud the names of each station you rode through -- you did it because it was something that you feared--you feared embarrassment. Might you talk a bit more about the origins of that exercise, and what you learned from it?
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  • This comes from Albert Ellis, the great Stoic-influenced psychotherapist who died a few years ago but who I got the opportunity to interview. (Favorite quote: "As the Buddha said 2500 years ago, we're all out of our fucking minds.") His idea was that if you're afraid of embarrassing yourself, deliberately embarrass yourself: don't just think about the worst case scenario, actually bring it about. And actually I didn't even shout the station names – just saying them out loud was terrifying enough, in prospect. But when you do it, you bring your anxious beliefs into a direct encounter with reality, which is that nobody much cares what you do on the London Underground. (*Major* psychological insight I gained: most people are thinking about themselves most of the time, not you, so you can stop being so self-conscious.) The result is that the anxiety dissipates and you're left much better equipped for future potentially embarrassing situations. And I only got there by experiencing the bad situation, not by trying to convince myself it would be fun...
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  • Did exploring this issue and writing this book actually make you happier?
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  • (As Oliver responds to Michele -- you might also be interested in this piece Oliver wrote for us last year: "Why Setting Goals Could Wreck Your LIfe").
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  • Michele – 

    Yes. Not in some sudden-transformation way where I was suddenly annoyingly upbeat about everything all the time. Which I'm glad about, because it would have undermined my thesis a bit… the change I experienced, instead, was in having a broader range of tools to reach for when things weren't going well, and just holding a bit more loosely and gently onto goals or worries about the future etc. I'm not sure I get irritated or cross etc much less frequently than I did, but it definitely lasts a lot less longer when I do…
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  • What are your thoughts on the practice of visualization?
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  • Alexiswsm – The research on this is complex and I don't want to imply that it's all completely useless. But there is definitely some good evidence that visualizing successful outcomes in some contexts can sap your energy levels: that's what happened in this study when thirsty people visualized drinking a refreshing glass of water. Visualizing *process* goals (like imagining the perfect golf swing, rather than imagining the jubilation of winning the game) may be a lot more useful. And don't get me started on the Law of Attraction...
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  • In The Antidote, after your sojourn to the world of silent meditation, you bring up the idea that "non-attachment", in the Buddhist sense, can help us overcome procrastination. How do we get ourselves to do things we don't *feel* like doing?
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  • I write about this in the book, you're right, but if I'm honest it was also a major part of how I got the damn book written at all. The big insight for me was that you don't have to feel like doing something in order to do it. The culture of motivational coaches et al holds that if you're procrastinating, or otherwise don't feel like doing something, you first have to work on your mindset, until you're REALLY EAGER! to get going. But to me, that just adds another hurdle: now you've not only got to do the task, you've got to "feel like" doing it too. It's vastly more liberating to realize that you can feel the negativity, allow it to be there, and at the same time open up the file or direct your fingers to the keyboard or whatever. (Motivation often follows afterwards anyway.) Plus, even if you do manage to "get motivated!", the effect only lasts briefly and you have to return for more, which I guess is how motivational seminars make their money.
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  • While Oliver's approach is interesting, it seems starkly incomplete. It seems focused on avoiding disappointment, rather than reaching happiness. There's nothing about zest, passion or joy--emotions seemingly play little or no role in the Burkemanverse. The points Oliver makes are valid, but only when they're valid. There's a whole world he doesn't touch on, choosing instead to take pot-shots at strawmen like Robert Schuller. In all, it seems a very English approach, indeed.
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  • (When he's not attempting to change your life by writing books, Oliver writes the "This Column Will Change Your Life" series for The Guardian).
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  • Hello Doug –
    I suspect it IS a rather English approach... but I would definitely disagree that zest/passion/joy don't play a role (and I hope the book taken as a whole reflects that). I think this especially comes into focus on the subject of uncertainty, which is something that positive thinking seeks to shut down. It's only in learning to cultivate a tolerance for uncertainty, I think, that the really big, creative, awe-inspiring things can happen at all. I love Paul Pearsall's concept of "openture", as an opposite of "closure", with a bit of Keats' "negative capability" thrown in there too: a radical openness to both sides of human emotional repertoire, not a constant effort to shut down one of them. All that said: the book's definitely an effort to restore some balance and make the case for one too-often-neglected side of things. We need both.
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  • What are your thoughts on the culture of "enforced happiness"
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  • Oliver is hard at work answering your questions.

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  • John –

    I think everything I've said about the trouble with positive thinking goes double when it's not just you trying to "think yourself happy" but someone in a position of workplace authority trying to make *other* people happy. I was very interested in a recent study suggesting that fairness may be one of the things people value most at work; in my personal experience, it's autonomy – the freedom to choose when and where I do things even if I often haven't been able to choose *what* I do. Plus, enforced happiness is "emotional labor" – it takes real effort and cognitive resources to maintain a sunny facade. I don't think that's nearly well enough recognized in "public-facing" jobs especially.
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  • What does the word "happiness" mean to you? Is "happiness" an achievable goal?
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  • Ha, the big question. I spent a futile few months at the start of my work on this book trying to come up with a working definition, before concluding that if philosophers hadn't figured it out over millennia I probably wasn't going to do any better. It's a placeholder word, but I really think that's fine: the problems I'm outlining (about "trying too hard", focusing too narrowly, refusing to countenance the negative, etc) get in the way of happiness *however* you define it.

    Simpler answer: I think happiness for me anyway involves a little more tranquility, and a little less ceaseless excitement, than is portrayed in the self-help industry and the culture at large. Of course, if you're truly happy doing something you'll be so absorbed in the moment that these questions won't arise…
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  • From when we are children and throughout our lives, we are taught that finding security in ourselves and in our lives is of the utmost importance. But in the book, you argue that it's not really possible to ever be truly "secure" in this world. How does the way we deal with insecurity contribute to our feelings of unhappiness, distress?
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  • It was the great counterculture philosopher Alan Watts who argued that the main reason we feel so insecure *is* our constant effort to feel secure – that the quest for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. I think that's a really profound point: that shoring up our egos with things we imagine will make us finally secure just expose us to more opportunities for insecurity, and that "jumping in" to the inevitability of change instead of trying to arrest it is actually much more liberating. Some caveats are necessary: certain kinds of secure psychological attachments are essential in healthy development, for example. But there is a deep truth here, which I probably can't eloquently express in a quick paragraph. To fortify the ego with all these defenses is to separate yourself from life, and thus to bring about the isolation and defensiveness you thought you were escaping…
    by Oliver Burkeman edited by Anjali Mullany 11/8/2013 6:03:18 PM
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  • For this book, you perform a number of immersive experiments on yourself as you explore this idea of the "negative path" toward happiness...but for the rest of us, day-to-day, how can we begin to shift our thinking and attempt to journey down this "negative path", ourselves?
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  • Well, even I'm not doing that subway experiment or going on residential meditation retreats on a day-to-day basis… On the one hand, this is a perspective shift, so it's less a question of specific tips-and-tricks than it is of gradually coming to perceive "negative" emotions and experiences in a different way. But there are tips and tricks too! Even five minutes' meditation a day is *vastly* better than nothing. That Stoic question – "what's the worst that could actually happen here?" – is one I ask all the time, as a great path to peace of mind. Or Eckhart Tolle's question: "do you have a problem *right now*?" (You very often don't.) You can set more process goals than outcome goals; you can make a point of discussing failures instead of trying to pretend they didn't happen; you can download one of those rather alarming iPad apps that guesstimates when you're going to die and then shows a countdown clock, because "memento mori" is a classic example of the negative path to happiness…

    I've really enjoyed this past hour and answering some excellent questions – thank you!
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  • Thank you, Oliver, this has been fascinating. Your book, and this conversation, have given us a lot to think about...I'm sorry we didn't have time to get to everyone's questions in this hour, but do head over to Twitter and ask Oliver your questions there -- his Twitter handle is @oliverburkeman.
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