Runner-up, Non-Fiction. The Antidote: happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking by Oliver Burkeman. Boy, is this a hard book to explain, but fascinating nonetheless to read. For those seeking the state of happiness promised in the sub-title, it fails to provide any clear path or even a clear definition of such a state. Moreover, the author doesn’t even attempt to show how one achieves happiness by following the book’s tenets until the final two pages and then seems to admit defeat at the idea: “The negative path to happiness, then, is a different kind of path. But it is also a path to a different kind of destination. Or maybe it makes more sense to say that the path is the destination? These things are excruciatingly hard to put into words, and the spirit of negative capability sure dictates that we do not struggle too hard to do so.”
However, the book fully succeeds is in its penetrating critique of the cult of optimism and the culture of positive thinking that makes up so much of today’s self-help literature. It sharply attacks motivational speakers, ambitious goal-seeking, and the constant efforts to be happy as being too focused on an uncertain future, which is always just over the time horizon, rather than concentrating on the reality of the present. Burkeman skillfully weaves together counterintuitive thinking and historical and scholarly references with personal accounts of philosophical exploration. He brings together many different ideas: such as the Stoic concept of examining the worst-case scenario and accepting its possible occurrence as a way of relieving anxiety; the Buddhist idea of non-attachment to inner thoughts and outer events, the benefits of examining failure and “being willing to face, and to tolerate, insecurity and vulnerability” and even death.
This is not a book to be read on the subway or on an airplane with lots of distractions, but if you can find a tranquil location to contemplate its ideas, it’s well worth the effort. Really, what’s the worst that could happen?
Honorable Mention: The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny by Peter McGraw. An academic and a journalist travel the world examining why people laugh in different cultures. This could have been a great book, but gets bogged down sometimes in academic references.
For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.