You know you are in for something different with a subtitle of Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Actually that’s why I picked up the book, was that subtitle. You see despite all my cheery disposition I’m a cynic at heart. Actually, just like Garfield admitted to Jon he is a cynic wearing a cat suit, I’m one wearing a human suit.
I’ve not embraced my inner cynic much beyond comedic effect I thought but Burkeman taught me what I had labelled as a cynic all these years was really an ancient Stoic. No, not stoic in the modern sense of enduring things without a peep of complaint. (What why are you laughing? I don’t complain THAT much do I?) But rather as the ancient philosophy of accepting the unpleasantness of life as reality that can’t be avoided makes the pleasant things sweeter and frees us to enjoy them more.
Okay, I see you are confused. Let me use the example Burkeman does in the beginning to illustrate this concept. DO NOT THINK OF A WHITE BEAR. What’s the first thing that came to mind reading that? Yep, a white bear. Burkeman explains the psychological reason for that and why the more you try not to think of the bear more bears there are in your thoughts. But the point is the basis of positive thinking is DO NOT THINK NEGATIVE THOUGHTS. So what comes to mind… that’s the point of the book. The more you try not to be negative, the more you check to see if you are happy, the more you notice things that make you unhappy.
Once he’s established that concept Burkeman goes through several ways and philosophies that embrace the negative aspects of life in order to enjoy life. He dedicates a chapter to the ancient Stoics and even visits some jolly modern ones. He explores how Buddhist techniques of watching thoughts go by without engaging them or why not letting what you think define you brings happiness. That the passing thoughts are ‘the noisy breather in the week long silent meditation retreat is out to get me so I’ll get him first’ doesn’t mean you are a bad person or will act on it. Yes Burkeman goes to such a retreat and has similar thoughts.
In the end when the book was over I found out I was happier for having read it. I didn’t feel the need to go DO something that wasn’t me. I’d learned my old technique of cheering myself up with “It could be worse it could be _________” and filling in the blank with the most rotten thing I could think of… was the basis of Stoic philosophy. I learned that in many ways I’m Mexican in my view of death. That the corpse meditation of Buddhism didn’t threaten me as much as other lesser phobias. I am more comfortable with death, the worst case scenario, and facing being uncomfortable than I am with positive thinking. Actually I’m happier among those things than I would be at a motivational seminars. I now know why affirmations make me feel worse not better, at times to the point of evoking anxiety. Sure life sucks sometimes but that makes the times it doesn’t that much more remarkable, sweeter, and for a Stoic (former cynic) like me happier in those moments.
If you are like me and the ‘rah-rah let’s get going to do this thing’ speeches make you roll your eyes and think PUH-leeze! Or if trying to visual success just makes you feel like you have too far to go, or affirmations just reinforce that you aren’t there yet – this book might be for you. We aren’t rainbows, glitter, and unicorn kind of people and that’s okay- we can be happy too. Burkeman just reminds us how to do it our way.