The Antidote (2012) takes a critical look at self-help looking for common advice that is unscientific, wrong, or even plainly harmful.
Burkeman than proposes a different path of self-help and happiness through stoicism, proper psychology, and the acceptance of death.
- 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.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People basically says to decide what matters for you in life and then do it
- How to Win Friends and Influence People tells you to be friendly and to use people’s first names
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
And the central theme of the book, also introduce early on, is this:
- Striving to make yourself happier is exactly what makes you miserable
The author reviews a few more mistaken self-help popular myths, and for a deeper overview I can recommend this article:
#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.
- 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.
#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 but 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 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 of not taking 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 for the best and most enlightening.
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:
- Acts of heroism
- Moralistic punishments
- Less sharing and trusting
- More hoarding
- Support for totalitarian charismatic leaders
This section was enlightening and it opened new doors for better understanding 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 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 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
I really enjoyed The Antidote, and I think it could have even 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, it didn’t add value to the main argument.
Or how about the critic to The Millionaire Next Door, which the author says fell into the trap of correlation is not causation?
He is right, but it felt like it was too big of an off-shoot from the book core “mission”.
- Some of the evidence say 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 that 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 is, which is to put the 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).