Caught up in a fu­tile quest

The An­ti­dote: Hap­pi­ness for Peo­ple Who Can’t Stand Pos­i­tive Think­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - The Midnight Zoo Books Postcard, Outpost - Richard King Robert Adam­son Richard King

By Oliver Burke­man Text Pub­lish­ing, 236pp, $32.99 By Charles Saatchi Abrams, 160pp, $19.95

THE self-help genre has al­ways had its crit­ics. Even in 1983, be­fore the craze for self-im­prove­ment had re­ally got go­ing, Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cos­mos was tak­ing aim at its habits of mind. Then, in 1998, we got Christo­pher Buck­ley’s God is My Bro­ker, which de­lin­eates the ‘‘ 71/ Laws of Spir­i­tual and Fi­nan­cial Growth’’. (Con­clu­sion: ‘‘ The only way to get rich from a get-rich book is to write one.’’)

More re­cently, we’ve had at­tacks on pos­i­tive think­ing from Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich ( Smile or Die), Pas­cal Bruck­ner ( Per­pet­ual Eu­pho­ria) and Su­san Cain ( Quiet), while the 2006 film Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine fea­tures a mo­ti­va­tional speaker whose ex­hor­ta­tions to self-be­lief are spec­tac­u­larly un­der­cut by his own lack of suc­cess.

If the grin­ning guru with the head­set mi­cro­phone is one of the cul­tural em­per­ors of our age, there seems to be no short­age of voices happy to de­clare him in the al­to­gether.

So nu­mer­ous are these voices, in­deed, that one could be for­given for ask­ing whether we need yet an­other tome cock­ing a snook at the hap­pi­ness huck­sters.

But Oliver Burke­man’s The An­ti­dote is some­thing very in­ter­est­ing: a book that ar­gues the self-help in­dus­try is not only in­ef­fec­tive but also coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, and that hap­pi­ness is like­lier to arrive through adopt­ing the very at­ti­tudes on which its pur­vey­ors train their guns. It’s an el­e­gant the­sis, all the more im­pres­sive for the fact it doesn’t es­chew the goal of in­creased well­be­ing so beloved of the self-helpers.

The malaise to which this the­sis is ‘‘ the an­ti­dote’’ is the ‘‘ hap­pi­ness in­dus­try’’ that in the US alone is es­ti­mated to be worth more than $2 bil­lion.

Burke­man, who writes about psy­chol­ogy for The Guardian, ar­gues from sound sci­en­tific prin­ci­ples that the so­lu­tions ped­dled by the ‘‘ evan­ge­lists of op­ti­mism’’ are not just vac­u­ous but self-de­feat­ing, that ‘‘ the ef­fort to try to feel happy is of­ten pre­cisely the thing that makes us mis­er­able’’.

What Burke­man calls ‘‘ the white bear chal­lenge’’ — try not to think of a white bear for a minute (you will think of lit­tle else, of course) — is, in this sense, paradig­matic: re­mark­ably, ex­per­i­men­tal sub­jects who are told of an un­happy event and in­structed not to feel un­happy about it end up feel­ing more un­happy than peo­ple who are told of the same event but given no in­struc­tions on how to feel. Like a Chi­nese fin­ger trap, Burke­man sug­gests, un­hap­pi­ness only tight­ens its grip when we try to pull our­selves out of it.

But his is not a coun­sel of de­spair. In place of what he calls the ‘‘ cult of op­ti­mism’’, Burke­man rec­om­mends the ‘‘ back­wards law’’ or ‘‘ neg­a­tive path to hap­pi­ness’’.

This is a tradition with a re­spectable his­tory: one that goes back to the Stoic philoso­phers, who de­vel­oped ‘‘ a kind of mus­cu­lar calm in the face of try­ing cir­cum­stances’’. Cen­tral to the Sto­ical view of life is what Burke­man calls ‘‘ neg­a­tive vi­su­al­i­sa­tion’’. By dwelling on the things that might go wrong we not only lessen the shock when they do so, we also avoid ‘‘ he­do­nic adaptation’’, the process by which war breaks onto air­waves, it’s Martha Gellhorn, cor­re­spon­dent, at­tack­ing her type­writer. We need a space with­out time. A pel­i­can’s beak clack by a lyre­bird. The kids fall apart. Park­ing me­ters tick away, sil­ver-frosted, tight metal pack­ets get­ting ready to ex­plode. The red glow and blue lights of the City across the har­bour — or the Bridge puls­ing green and solemnly play­ing it­self; seag­ulls break­fast on bo­gong-moths and black com­mas. For­get the warn­ings, though don’t leave your place, this isn’t of­fi­cial his­tory any­more. new sources of plea­sure — whether mi­nor (an iPod, say) or ma­jor (a happy mar­riage) — are rel­e­gated to the back­drop of our lives. In short, by fo­cus­ing on what we stand to lose we come to ap­pre­ci­ate what we have.

The prob­lem with mo­ti­va­tional think­ing, Burke­man sug­gests, is that it isn’t re­ally about get­ting things done; it’s about ‘‘ how to feel in the mood for get­ting things done’’. Draw­ing on some key in­sights from Bud­dhism, he sug­gests that tak­ing a ‘‘ non-at­tached’’ at­ti­tude to (say) work can be far more ef­fec­tive. In sit­u­a­tions where you don’t feel like do­ing some­thing, mo­ti­va­tional think­ing can make mat­ters worse ‘‘ by sur­rep­ti­tiously strength­en­ing your be­lief that you need to feel mo­ti­vated be­fore you can act’’. Bet­ter to dis­re­gard such think­ing, em­brace the neg­a­tive feel­ings and act.

Fun­da­men­tal to The An­ti­dote is a med­i­ta­tion on what Burke­man re­gards as the myth of an au­ton­o­mous self with the power to take con­trol of its own fate. And while many of his ar­gu­ments are grounded in good sense, there are oc­ca­sions on which his in­ves­ti­ga­tions lead him into some ques­tion­able com­pany. (The in­spi­ra­tional mus­ings of Eckhart Tolle are, I think, treated rather too char­i­ta­bly.)

On the whole, how­ever, he is a model of san­ity. Cer­tainly he has an eye for the de­tail that will ap­peal to those who, when they smell in­cense, imag­ine there must be bull­shit nearby. To take one ex­am­ple: If you find the idea that life is not a jour­ney but ‘‘ a dance’’ a lit­tle too airy-fairy, con­sider the For­mula One pit crew that man­aged to im­prove its per­for­mance times by con­cen­trat­ing on style in­stead of speed. Whether Michael Schu­macher won all those races by do­ing the same I very much doubt. But as a metaphor it works for me.

‘‘ My aim in life isn’t so much the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness as the hap­pi­ness of pur­suit,’’ Charles Saatchi writes in Be the Worst You Can Be, thus re­veal­ing a Sto­ical streak of which Burke­man would no doubt ap­prove. Not that Saatchi is seek­ing any­one’s ap­proval. On the con­trary, the ad man turned art col­lec­tor (and Mr Nigella Law­son) comes across as re­mark­ably self-as­sured and even self-sat­is­fied in his lat­est book, which is no­table for its ques­tio­nand-an­swer for­mat, il­lu­mi­nated let­ter­ing, er­satz gold-leaf, dou­ble col­umns and black-and­white pho­to­graphs. Be the Worst You Can Be is not with­out its plea­sures. But don’t ex­pect to be charmed by its au­thor.

The ques­tions are from ‘‘ jour­nal­ists and read­ers’’ and range from the mat­ter-of-fact to the whim­si­cal, the ex­is­ten­tial and the down­right rude. Saatchi’s an­swers are sim­i­larly var­ied, though a num­ber of dis­tinct ‘‘ gen­res’’ emerge. For ex­am­ple, there’s Saatchi the agony aunt (‘‘My ad­vice is to give your [al­co­holic] hus­band a taste of rock bot­tom’’); Saatchi the sage (‘‘A sharp tongue does not mean you have a keen mind’’); and Saatchi the wag (‘‘As you know, 99 per cent of lawyers give the rest a bad name’’).

This last is by far the dom­i­nant mode and is cer­tainly the one most read­ers will warm to, though Saatchi’s hu­mour is closely al­lied to his rather cyn­i­cal view of the world. Some­times, in­deed, the hu­mour goes miss­ing and the cyn­i­cism is re­vealed in all its glory, as when the au­thor haugh­tily dis­misses ‘‘ do-good­ers’’ for want­ing to make the world ‘‘ a bet­ter place’’.

Writ­ten in lieu of the in­ter­views its au­thor de­clines to give, Be the Worst You Can Be is a pe­cu­liar book. Though of­ten amused by Saatchi’s an­swers, I found my­self oc­ca­sion­ally ir­ri­tated, too, and ul­ti­mately un­able to shake the feel­ing that the au­thor’s line in self­dep­re­ca­tion is re­ally a kind of self-re­gard. Some­where here world un­worlds it­self, weirds into desert planet wilds into the home of film star saviour.

Mag­no­lia,

Tom Cruise as a mo­ti­va­tional speaker in

a film about the search for hap­pi­ness

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