“What’s the worst that could happen?”: Oliver Burkeman on Embracing Negativity and Uncertainty

by Sarah Scire

Oliver Burkeman wants you to stop trying to be happy. In his wry, wide-ranging book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Burkeman challenges the “cult of optimism” and writes that “it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative—insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness—that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.” To celebrate the book’s stateside publication, the award-winning journalist agreed to answer a few questions about his thought-provoking, often counterintuitive approach to achieving happiness.

Sarah Scire: One of the book’s first chapters begins with you conducting an experiment in confronting the worst-case scenario. What did you learn—and when else have you used this method? (I’m thinking here of your tweet about preparing for the All Things Considered interview.)

Oliver Burkeman: The book combines reporting and what I suppose you’d call first-person psychological experimentation. You’re referring to an example of the latter—an agonizing undertaking in which I spoke the names of stations out loud on the London Underground, in what the psychologist Albert Ellis, who came up with the idea, used to refer to as a “shame-attacking exercise.” (Since I’m easily embarrassed, it was fairly horrible—but the point of the exercise is to realize that it’s not that horrible: our anxiety about future events is almost always out of proportion to the reality.) I use a related technique that I encountered in reporting this book—“negative visualization,” derived from the Stoics—all the time, in daily life. Positive thinking asks us to convince ourselves that everything will turn out fine. But it’s often much more powerful to realize that you’d be OK if they didn’t turn out fine. Doing broadcast interviews to promote this book has called for plenty of negative visualization: asking “what’s the worst that’s likely to happen?” and really specifically figuring out the answer—national humiliation, yes, but not physical torture or losing a limb—works pretty much every time.