The Antidote: Summary & Review

the antidote book cover

The Antidote (2012) takes a critical look at self-help looking for common advice that is unscientific, wrong, or even plainly harmful.
Burkeman then proposes a different path of self-help and happiness through stoicism, proper psychology, and the acceptance of death.

Bullet Summary

  • The popular self-help advice of focusing on the positives does not help
  • It’s by accepting the very same things we want to avoid that we can transcend them

The Antidote Summary

About the Author: Oliver Burkeman is a journalist writing a psychology column for the newspaper The Guardian. He has been covering topics of self-help before.

#1. Best-Selling Self-Help Is Banal

I agree with Burkeman when he says that when you strip away the fluff and marketing from even the most famous self-help books, the messages are rather banal.

For example:

And when the messages get more specific, says the author, another problem arises:

#2. Wrong Messages From Self-Help

When self-help gurus give more specific suggestions, their suggestions are often not supported by scientific research.

Two examples the author introduces right away:

  • Venting your anger makes you angrier, not less
  • Visualizing your goals doesn’t make it any more likely you will achieve them
  • Focusing on how well things will go reduces people’s motivation to achieve them

The central theme of the book, also introduced early on, is this:

  • Striving to make yourself happier is exactly what makes you miserable

This is a theme that has also been embraced by self-help skeptic author Mark Manson in The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck and Everything Is Fucked.

The author reviews a few more mistaken self-help popular myths, and for a deeper overview I can recommend this article:

And if you want more also check pop-psychology myths and the replication crisis.

a chart showing the difference between pop psychology and science-based psychology

#3. A Negative Approach to Self-Help

The other central tenet of The Antidote is that the best way of reaching contentedness and developing ourselves is to embrace the exact same things we are trying to forget.

For example:

  • Embrace uncertainty
  • Accept insecurity
  • Value death instead of pretending it’ll never happen

People who don’t accept insecurity are the ones who try to build big walls and protect themselves from any possible event. 
But that’s not possible, and only heightens the feeling of insecurity and increases stress and anxiety.

We build castle walls sto keep out the enemy. But it’s the building of the walls that causes the enemies to spring into existence in the first place.
-Oliver Burkeman

#4. Prefer to Have VS Must Have

We tend to think that we merely want or we want merely prefer must occur at all costs.

And if it doesn’t, it’s a tragedy. 
Not meeting our goals goes from “bad” to terrible or even a personal catastrophe.

Instead, we could all learn that if we don’t reach our goals probably little is going to change in our lives.
And the things we must absolutely have are, most likely, none.

#5. Do You Need Self-Esteem At All?

Burkeman challenges the idea that high self-esteem is anything to strive for.

Assigning yourself a high rating also means that tomorrow you could assign yourself a negative one.

And, furthermore, should you even recognize yourself as a separate entity from the rest of the world?
Is that good for you?

It could be much better to rate your performance without referring that performance back to you.
Bad performance or good performance should have nothing to do with your self-esteem.

A Case For Not Having A Self At All

The author here introduces Eckardt Tolle, author of “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth“.

The main idea here is that we all think of “I” as our thinking brain. But we are not out thoughts.
And when we can step back we can become one with the universe and, as Tolle says, using our brain (instead of being used and controlled by it).

Removing your ego from the equation eventually leads to the ability to not take things personally and, as Ray Dalio advises in Principles, the ability to look at yourself from above, as a machine.

#6. The Emptiness of Our Immortality Projects

This section of The Antidote was the best and most instructive.

The author says that all religions, political projects, and wars are our attempts at immortality.

Whenever mortality was made salient, people would agree more with Bush’s Iraq invasion and were more likely to vote for Bush (Ogilvie et al, 2005).

When reminded of death people become more supportive of immortality projects such as:

  • Wars
  • Acts of heroism
  • Moralistic punishments
  • Less sharing and trusting
  • More hoarding
  • Support for totalitarian charismatic leaders

My Note:
This section was really good and I learned something new on social psychology and people.

#7. Don’t Throw The Baby With The Bath Water

The author says that a path from negativity is not always the best and optimism is wonderful.

Goal-setting and visualization are also helpful. But we shouldn’t overvalue the power of positivity and undervalue the power of acceptance.

More Golden Nuggets

  • Everyone loves to say that “there is a lot of insecurity in the world”, except that everyone said that in every era
  • We exaggerate the threats to our lives: staying home and sitting on the couch might be more dangerous than traveling for our long-term health
  • When you have no options to achieve anything you’re also not misled by the idea that only by achieving them you’ll be happy
  • Setting goals can be harmful if we become fixated on them
the antidote book cover

CONS

I really enjoyed The Antidote, and I think it could have been even better if it were not for:

  • Disjointed & off-topic stories

Some of the topics felt like they didn’t belong to the narrative of the book. The airport security checks, for example, felt like it didn’t belong and, albeit interesting, didn’t add value to the main argument.

  • Some of the evidence says little

The author implies that self-help helps little because the countries where self-help sells the most are not the happiest countries.
But that says little and is no proof of anything.

  • Vulnerability & happiness, I missed the connection

The author introduces Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, and her concept of vulnerability.
But I missed the connection between vulnerability and happiness, especially in the example of the inhabitants of poor slums (Kibera in the book).

The author seems to suggest that people in Kibera are happier because they are vulnerable.
But that didn’t make sense to me.

The Antidote Review

I like the main idea behind The Antidote, which is to put self-help under much-needed scientific scrutiny.

I like it so much indeed that I have done so myself and you can check my article self-help myths for the most updated wrong claims from self-help.

Ultimately, I can highly recommend “The Antidote” to anyone who’s into self-help and to anyone who appreciates a more scientific, well-researched approach to self-help (which should be anyone).

Check the:

Or get the book on Amazon

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