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The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman - 3 Big Ideas

Is the pursuit of happiness the obstacle to happiness? Has anyone figured out happiness yet? Is there even such a thing? Is negativity an actual path to happiness? Find out right now.


Welcome to the 3 Things Show, where Maddi and I analyze the world of lifestyle and entrepreneurship through books, three things at a time. This week's book is The Antidote, by Oliver Burkeman.

This book is 256 pages paperback and 6 hours 17 minutes audible.

It is described on Amazon as follows,

"The Antidote is a series of journeys among people who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. What they have in common is a hunch about human psychology: that it's our constant effort to eliminate the negative that causes us to feel so anxious, insecure, and unhappy. And that there is an alternative "negative path" to happiness and success that involves embracing the things we spend our lives trying to avoid. It is a subversive, galvanizing message, which turns out to have a long and distinguished philosophical lineage ranging from ancient Roman Stoic philosophers to Buddhists.

Oliver Burkeman talks to life coaches paid to make their clients' lives a living hell, and to maverick security experts such as Bruce Schneier, who contends that the changes we've made to airport and aircraft security since the 9/11 attacks have actually made us less safe. And then there are the "backwards" business gurus, who suggest not having any goals at all and not planning for a company's future.

Burkeman's new audiobook is a witty, fascinating, and counterintuitive listen that turns decades of self-help advice on its head and forces us to rethink completely our attitudes toward failure, uncertainty, and death."

So... What are three things we can use from this book?

3 Things You Can Use

1. Fear Fighting

So here Oliver Burkeman is, riding on the train. Sweating, nervous and regretting his decision.

At the next station, he plans to announce the name of the station to everybody -- for no other reason than to embarrass himself.

But this is not because he is crazy. He's doing this with a seemingly intelligent intention.

One of the stoic teachings from earlier times was something called, the premeditation of evils. What you do, instead of visualizing good things that will happen to you, you visualize bad things -- setting yourself up to only be happily surprised when nothing bad happens. But as the idea progressed, they took it further than visualization and into the actual doing of things that brought on negative sensations and feelings.

Long story short, the more negativity you experience, the more you adapt and naturally, the happier you can become. Your baseline for misery drops, and the everyday things in life suddenly gleam with wonder.

The stoics used to fast for long periods of time. By the end of their fast, all food was amazing to them. The pleasure of eating jumped an order of magnitude.

And so, as Oliver Burkeman realized after calling out a few stations, the embarrassment was very easy to "endure" -- and the fear of the "embarrassment" disappeared.

Fear being one of the biggest obstacles to happiness, potentially inducing anxiety and depression, can be overcome by practice. Experience the things that you fear, first by visualizing them and questioning their potency and then by experiencing them in the first person. You will almost certainly come away with less fear for the thing itself and most of the time even, no fear at all.

2. Security

Sick and tired of the escalating security measures that made his life harder and harder as each week went by, the pilot Elwood Menear, while being verbally probed by security guards about some tweezers jokingly said, "Why are you worried about tweezers when I could just crash the plane?''

It was a while before he could fly again but that's not the point. The point is that he had a great point. That some of the ridiculous security measures that we take to make us feel safer, are doing nothing to actually assist our security.

Burkeman points out that terrorists will always have the upper hand when it comes to this stuff.

He brings up an idea called "security theater." And that is that we just fool ourselves into thinking that we are secure.

He points out, after interviewing an expert, that "there is no security. We are not unhappy because of this. We are unhappy because we fight it."

That to be happier, we must embrace the insecurity. That "life is a dance. And when you're dancing, you're not intent on getting somewhere." To put it another way, it's a waste of time to keep building the wall higher and higher when what you are afraid of has planes. Forget the wall and roam around. If the planes come, they come, but do your thing in the meantime.

3. Non-Attachment

Have you ever heard the phrase, "respond rather than react"?

This phrase is referring to the notion of letting your emotions determine your actions vs. letting you determine your actions.

To live with rationality is not just a fad -- but the smartest and most sustainable way to live. Responding as opposed to reacting is rationality vs. ego. The difference between, "I'm sorry you feel that way" and "Okay it's fighting time!" And thus the difference between you happily enjoying your peanut butter and jelly sandwich and you spending the night in jail with a black eye.

The buddhists were some of the first to discover the secret to optimum rationality: Non-attachment.

Separating your identity from your emotions. Using your mind and body as tools while you consciously observe and decide in the control tower.

The best way to explore and practice non-attachment is mindfulness meditation. Sit in silence and focus on your breath. Notice how often thoughts pop up in your mind. Notice the thought and return to the breath. Do this for five minutes and you will have a new perspective on your brain. How often it's wheels are turning, trying to come up with goings-on that make little to no difference in your life.

The more you practice this observing and self-control, the better you will be at recognizing the influences in your mind and body that usually take over -- and throw rationality out the window. Practice mindfulness and become the one in charge of the chessboard, not one of the pons.


Beat fear itself by practicing the premeditation of evils and by going out and challenging your fears first hand.

Throw the false notion of security to the wind and go dancing.

Become the omnipotent observer and stay rational by practicing mindfulness.

I really liked this one. Oliver Burkeman really did his research, I think he's a journalist actually so that makes sense. In each chapter he has a different story about him interviewing someone or going on a trek of discovery. He goes from a meditation retreat to sitting in silence with a guy, both staring at each other and both just fine doing it.

The book is framed by the concept of positive thinking being the enemy and solving no one's problems. But he seems to really just have a problem with The Law of Attraction, made popular by the book, The Secret.

In the epilogue he agrees that there are uses for optimism and positivity, that are actually helpful. And that's a good thing because this was a great book  and I wouldn't want to see that it was sensationalized.

But, go out and get this one, it's good! It's a wise and philosophical book about the hard questions in life and it has some great answers and some actionable techniques. He even includes a chapter on death that lightens the anxiety towards everyone's ultimate end...

Thank's for watching, and we'll see you next week!

Want to Read it?

Audible Free Trial (get this book for free!)

The Antidote (Audible Version)

The Antidote  (Physical Copy)

(disclosure: ^^^ these links give me a commission -- at no extra cost to you! They just give me a little bump if you decide to use them. Thank you!)


Punching Sounds (in video) by: Mike Koenig

Reading Photo at end of video by: Marketa

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