Embracing uncertainty as the path to happiness

If you don’t yet read Brain Pickings, the smartly wonderful guide to things you should check out online, here’s yet another endorsement to check it out.

I spend a lot of time reading and blogging about happiness, but recently Maria Popova, the curator of Brain Pickings, turned me on to a happiness book I hadn’t heard of: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

Popova wrote:

Having studied under Positive Psychology pioneer Dr. Martin Seligman, and having read a great deal on the art-science of happiness and the role of optimism in well-being, I was at first incredulous of a book with the no doubt intentionally semi-scandalous title of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (public library). But, as it often turns out, author Oliver Burkeman argues for a much more sensible proposition — namely, that we’ve created a culture crippled by the fear of failure, and that the most important thing we can do to enhance our psychoemotional wellbeing is to embrace uncertainty.

Once Brain Pickings turned me on to Burkeman’s work, I realized plenty of other people knew about him. I’d just missed it.

For example, back in November, NPR’s Audie Cornish interviewed Burkeman. Among the highlights:

On how we are going about happiness in all the wrong ways

“I think the premise from which I start is this idea that … relentless positivity and optimism is exactly the same thing as happiness; that the only way to achieve anything worthy of the name of happiness is to try to make all our thoughts and feelings as positive as possible, to set incredibly ambitious goals, to visualize success, which you get in a million different self-help books. Whereas, actually, there’s a lot of research now to suggest that many of these techniques are counterproductive, that saying positive affirmations to yourself in the mirror can make you feel worse and that visualizing the future can make you less likely to achieve it. And so what I wanted to do in this book was to explore what I ended up calling ‘the negative path to happiness,’ which involves instead turning toward uncertainty and insecurity, even pessimism, to try to find a different way that might be more durable and successful.”

On why fighting negative thoughts doesn’t work

“I think that what is counterproductive about all these efforts that involve struggling very, very hard to achieve a specific emotional state is that by doing that, you often achieve the opposite. It’s a version of the old sort of parlor game that if you try really hard not to think about a polar bear, that the only thing that you can think about in that context is polar bears. And if you go back through the history of philosophy, spirituality, the stoics of ancient Greece and Rome, the Buddhists, and then also linking up with contemporary approaches to psychology, you find something else, which is actually that trying to let those feelings be and not always struggling to stamp them out is a more fruitful alternative.”

The Guardian, where Burkeman has a long-running column, wrote about his book:

Burkeman noticed that “something united all those psychologists and philosophers – and even the odd self-help guru – whose ideas seemed actually to hold water”. This Burkeman calls the “negative path”: the idea that the more we strive for happiness, and other psychological goods like security and confidence, the less we achieve them. And so, paradoxically, it is by thinking more about the downers in life, such as the inevitability of death, the inescapability of suffering or the impossibility of security, that we achieve something like happiness.

What do you think? Do you cultivate a positive view, envisioning success and banishing negative talk, or do you embrace death, suffering and uncertainty as fuel for your happiness?



Categories: health and well being, lifestyle

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. If you are in the pits…there is only one way to go and that is up. So pessimism is the default setting that continues to surprise us with pleasant outcomes that are pure serendipity in action. Optimism on the contrary leads to utter disappointment.


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