Like the polar ice caps, my hairline has been in retreat for as long as I can remember. At this rate I predict it will rendezvous with the back of my neck sometime around the next Olympics. It's for the sake of my thinning hair that I tend to avoid "self-help"books, as reading them makes me want to tear what's left of it out, and then start in on my eyeballs.
But this year I read a book that, while fitting comfortably on the self-help shelf, is worth your time. In fact it's probably the first book of its type to have had a profound effect on me. The book is The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman and I urge you to buy it.
The book concerns itself with happiness and success. If you've read any self-help, you'll immediately envision goal-setting techniques, positive affirmations and visualisations. These methods are the sacred cows of the happiness industry, and over the course of this book each one of them is butchered.
One of my favourite sections deals with what the author calls "the cult of positivity". Burkeman presents examples of businesses run into the ground by a leadership drunk on positive thinking. Their relentless focus on their goals prevented them from recognising that their environment had changed and their goals were no longer useful (or were bad goals to begin with).
We meet rock climbers who press on up mountains under deadly conditions, so focused on their goal that they ignored the warning signs and ultimately lost their lives. On a more every day level; constantly living in some far off date where all your goals are attained, you're happy, wealthy, slim and successful, is a sure way to be unhappy in the present.
We arrive at a counterintuitive conclusion; relentlessly trying to focus on the positive is more likely to make you miserable. Even more blasphemous, that goals aren't all their cracked up to be.
If all this sounds terribly depressing, it's really not. The book is full of practical advice and tools derived from Buddhism and stoic philosophy to help you manage anxiety and live a little more in the here and now.
The point is not to be constantly happy but to achieve a state of stoic tranquility, to see situations as, rather than good or bad, a sort of emotional weather , something that comes and goes rather than something you are. Ultimately, to detach yourself from them. Practising this detachment has, in a round about way, ended up making me happier.
So, perhaps I still have the "goal" of happiness, but by letting go of that goal I've cheated my way there.