Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Five notable books on happiness through negative thinking

Oliver Burkeman is a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. His new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in "This Column Will Change Your Life" he writes about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and makes unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

With Jane Rudloff at The Browser, Burkeman discussed five top books on happiness through negative thinking, including:
The Wisdom of Insecurity
by Alan Watts

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts also feeds into this idea [that we "should try to rest in uncertainties and doubts, accepting that they’re a part of us, rather than trying to stamp them out so as not to have to think about them"].

This is a very thin book but a mind-blowing one. In many ways it was part of my motivation to write my book. Alan Watts was a philosophical populariser. He called himself a “spiritual entertainer”, and went around the world giving lectures and writing popular books about Eastern philosophies such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism. This book is about non-dualism – the theory that in some sense, everything is one. It’s the principle encapsulated in the symbols of yin and yang. These days it is often seen as cheesy and New Age. But there’s vastly more to it than that.

In this book Watts argues that the reason why we feel so insecure is because of all our struggles to feel secure. He was writing in the 1950s, but we surely feel just as insecure, indeed more so, today. He calls this “the law of reversed effort”. Our security-seeking efforts, like many other techniques of positivity, are all about trying to shore up our own egos – to make ourselves into well-defended, separate units. Watts argues that this is based on a fundamental failure to understand how life works.

What does he suggest we do instead?

What he is pointing to is that the concepts of positive and negative are entwined, and must ultimately be transcended. Focusing on only one side of the human emotional repertoire doesn’t work. It denies life, and it denies reality. Trying to live a life that is only positive, Watts would argue, is like trying to imagine a wave that only has a crest and not a trough. Well, that’s not a wave.
Read about another book Burkeman tagged at The Browser.

Visit Oliver Burkeman's website.

The Page 99 Test:  The Antidote.

--Marshal Zeringue