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ARMCHAIR BOOK CLUB: Antidote for a happy new year

With the new year just around the corner, people are thinking about making resolutions.

Traditionally, these involve getting motivated, setting new goals and visualizing success. Author and columnist for the Guardian newspaper Oliver Burkeman tells us to scrap all of the above.

In The Antidote: Happiness for People who can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Burkeman theorizes that being positive won’t make you happy.

In fact, he believes that pursuing happiness is bound to leave you anxious and even depressed.

That’s not to say that reading The Antidote gives you licence to be a grump. In his much-heralded new book, Burkeman argues that being truly happy requires staring our own mortality in the face, embracing feelings of insecurity, making our failures public, taking our focus off goals, and visualizing all that could go wrong in our lives.

Burkeman fashions logical arguments and draws on many well-respected thinkers including Seneca, the Stoic philosophers and the Buddha. He also interviews eccentrics, one who lives in wizard cottage and another who sat on a park bench for two years, who I was less interested in emulating. But even these characters had compelling ideas about why following a more negative path is worth considering.

By being relentlessly positive and focusing so narrowly on success, we may be conditioning ourselves to irrationally fear failure. Say, for example, you’re anxious about giving a speech — worried you’ll trip on stage or forget your words.

Visualizing negative outcomes may help you realize that this kind of failure wouldn’t warrant the end of the world anxiety you’re feeling. Not only that, visualization of success has been shown to diminish the desire to actually complete a task.

While pointing out the flaws of positive thinking, Burkeman does on occasion build up a straw man argument, only so he can tear it down.

Although I didn’t read The Secret I don’t imagine most people argue that positive-thinking is anything like the opening scene of the book: an evangelical seminar at a Texan football stadium, where a fervent crowd is being whipped into a frenzy, chanting mantras about the power of positive.

While I might not have agreed with everything in the book, The Antidote is a refreshing read.

It rightfully calls into question ideals such as constantly building self-esteem and focusing on self-achievement. Burkeman theorizes that targeting happiness may be a problem in itself.

He suggests that searching for tranquility and contentment might be a more fulfilling quest.

Sounds like a good goal for the new year.

Heather Allen is a reader and writer living in Penticton.

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