Author explores power of unpositive thinking in Berkeley appearances
By Lou Fancher, Correspondent Contra Costa Times
BERKELEY -- "The Antidote" (2012, Faber and Faber Inc.), a new book by Britain's Oliver Burkeman, does exactly what its name implies, delivering a hefty alternative to an epidemic of sunny, self-help books advocating positivity as the key to happiness.
Two book tour stops bring the author and his message "for people who can't stand positive thinking" to Berkeley.
Burkeman will be at Books, Inc., 1760 Fourth St., at 7 p.m. Jan. 22; and at Mrs. Dalloway's, 2904 College Ave., at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 24.
As a journalist with the popular and well-regarded British culture and news media outlet The Guardian, Burkeman is best known for his weekly "This Column Will Change Your Life."
"I've always seen reporting as a good cover story," he confides, in a phone interview from London. "It's a good excuse to not specialize; to follow curiosity into things you might be intimidated by."
Psychology interests him most and his columns often revolve around the subject.
He notes that, "At talks I give, someone will catch me out and say, 'I think you have hang ups and are just trying to sort them out.' I say that's true of any journalist and yes, it's almost therapeutic for me."
"The Antidote" grew out of his effort to "sort the wheat from the chaff" while reading and writing about happiness. Over time, he began to see patterns and set off to explore the essence of problematic, escapist solutions and what distinguishes them from beneficial approaches.
Offering an assortment of perspectives gained from delightful, deliberate excursions to such wide-ranging places as park benches, Michigan's Museum of Failure, and a Massachusetts meditation retreat center, "The Antidote" splits in two directions.
One course of investigation peddles backward in time to the origins of Buddhism, Stoicism and ancient philosophers. The other barrels full-tilt into present-day business leaders, new age spiritual gurus and the latest results from contemporary psychology and social science.
At age 37, Burkeman displays a similar, internal, dual blend. He's old enough to offer wisdom, gleaned from researching his subject deeply, and young enough to provide youthful exuberance. It's easy to imagine him walking through a mythical forest, lifting up a philosophical rock and declaring, "Well, lookie here at what I found."
"These ideas are forgotten ideas," he says. "I hope we're coming to the end of a long reign of the pursuit of happiness through optimism."
After Burkeman convinced his publisher ("The Antidote" was first published by Great Britain's Canongate Books) that a book embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity and uncertainty was a sure win, traveling, composing and writing the book took him two years to complete.
"I tried hard not to be deliberatively counterintuitive," he says, adding that he was lucky to find a publisher interested in "juicy, risky, not-mainstream ideas."
Burkeman says the British press is varied and it's possible to be freewheeling, humorous and simultaneously serious. In America, he suggests, writers are restricted to one groove or the other, allowing less crossover.
Reaction to his book in various countries is something he is tracking. As a Brit living in Brooklyn, N.Y., he notices Americans have "powerful threads rechanneling religious ideas into worldly success" and display an ingrained "duty to be upbeat." Still, he has found an eager audience both here and in Australia.
"Australia has been surprising. I thought of it as a mystic, happy, simple-way place," he says. "When you get good feedback, it's because you've struck a chord with what people think, or you're delivering a message that counters one they often hear. The scale of interest might be that it's not their national philosophy of happiness."
Although he didn't set out to surprise himself, Burkeman sounds delighted to have made discoveries.
"I wasn't expecting Buddhist meditation to be what it was," he says. "It's tough going, rather than boring. At the end, I had a feeling of manageability, rather than blissed-out."
Readers who find solace in negativity have shown him that sending a book into the world results in "a chemistry" he never anticipated.
"Doing the book was a journey," he says. "I may have begun thinking we need to chuck out positivity. By the end, what I hope appears, is that we transcend that and we see that the distinction should be thrown out. One could think this is a castle of stepping back. It's more about being present, but not in a way that is desperately positive."
And did writing the book make him happier?
Burkeman says yes, with a qualification. He still becomes irritated, but with self-reminders to stay humble, he's able to call on a more complete emotional repertoire to experience deep happiness.