Minnesota Public Radio must be held responsible for its behavior. How dare it encourage me to read interesting books?
I just finished reading Oliver Burkeman’s “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” having heard of the book on MPR. A number of other people put a hold on the book at the library before I did so I had to wait for it to be available. The same has happened to another book I heard about on MPR. (Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, in case you’re curious.) According to the librarian, this often occurs with books that are discussed on the station. MPR: It’s how Minnesotans stay cultured.
Anyway, the subject of Burkeman’s book sounded intriguing to me. He mentioned during the radio program that this was his answer to all the self-help books out there that make a person feel worse instead of better and I could totally relate. I went through a period of years in my 20s reading every self-help book I could find and felt I could never measure up. The relentless positivity was maddening and unachievable. Wishing one’s way to success and happiness was impossible. (If you can believe it, you can achieve it! Rah, rah, yay! Gag.)
In his book, Burkeman explores a number of philosophical traditions that deal in the negative, and if not the outright negative, at least the more neutral, like Buddhism, which focuses on losing an attachment to either the positive or negative.
The one tradition I was completely unfamiliar with was Stoicism, which encourages people to purposely dwell on the negative. In so doing, one diminishes the control the negative has on one’s life because it is typically the fear of the negative that causes one so much grief. The example Burkeman gives is his fear of embarrassment in social situations. In order to overcome this, a Stoic suggests that he ride a train and announce every stop out loud as the train comes to it. By putting himself in a situation that purposely causes embarrassment, he can see that what really happens isn’t nearly as dreadful as he imagined. Most of life is like this. Our imaginations outstrip reality on a regular basis.
Toward the end of my self-help period, I stumbled upon this dwell-on-the-negative technique on my own. Rather than try to avoid negative thoughts, I would examine them thoroughly. Typically, as soon as I did this, the negative thoughts would go away or transform into something more positive without my forcing them to. I am an accidental Stoic.
I wish I had discovered Burkeman’s book during my self-help period. It would have saved me from beating myself up over not being positive enough. But, then, I likely wouldn’t have appreciated this book as much as I do because I wouldn’t have had that experience to draw from while reading it. (Ah, yes, the positive thinking still creeps in. It’s a hard habit to break.)