23: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking with Oliver Burkeman

“The effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. It is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.”

—Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote

I read Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote a few years after it came out, and it quickly ascended to the top of my all-time favorite books list. At one point during the most intense part of my tumultuous pivot year, I gave up on trying to be happy and focused on equanimity instead. Ah, the sweet relief! I no longer felt the self-imposed pressure to meet some benchmark of bliss every day, and instead surrendered into how I was really feeling: sad, confused, and tired.

This book was one of the first to put words to why the “cult of optimism” can be so counter-productive. Instead, through various wisdom traditions such as Stoicism and Buddhism, Burkeman describes how a “negative path to happiness” can teach us to embrace insecurity and uncertainty as pathways to a more authentic life. I was thrilled to get the chance to interview Oliver in person in his Brooklyn office (pardon the room’s slight humming sound), and I hope you enjoy the conversation too!


Oliver is a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. His book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in This Column Will Change Your Life Oliver writes about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and make unprovoked attacks on The Secret.


  • The trouble with “self-help” and what inspired him to write his book

  • The importance of co-existing with negative feelings and thinking

  • The cult of optimism; why it ends up being self-defeating

  • The negative path to happiness: cultivating a friendlier attitude towards negative emotions

  • The Stoic approach of calm indifference

  • The benefits of worst-case scenario planning

  • Learning to embrace failure as failure—not straw spun into gold.

  • Why focusing on goals may give you tunnel-vision; the anti-goal approach

  • “Feeling motivated” versus doing the work without waiting for inspiration

  • How meditation helps, even without achieving the oft-hyped “trance-like states of calm”


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