Why Be Happy?

Winter 2013

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Instead of attaching smiley emoticons to every moment of our lives, Oliver Burkeman suggests, we should welcome more negativity.

By Vadim Liberman

Vadim Liberman is the pessimistic senior editor of TCB Review.

happy3Sometimes, the glass is mostly empty, so stop pretending otherwise. Stop attempting to maintain a sunny outlook on things. In other words, quit trying to be so optimistic.

Those are recommendations you’ll rarely hear from self-help gurus, but then, Oliver Burkeman, 37, is no Tony Robbins. In The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Faber & Faber), Burkeman rails against the persistent belief that we should purge negative thoughts from our minds. Instead, he recommends accepting life’s uncertainties, “the kinds of situations and emotions that we spend all our lives running away from.” More broadly, Burkeman argues that we ought to drop the idea that relentless optimism and positivity is the exclusive path to happiness and success. He also points out that The Antidote isn’t just a guide for people who can’t stand positive thinking—it’s also for people who love positive thinking but shouldn’t.

Burkeman, who writes regularly for The Guardian, does not shy away from offering contrarian opinions and advice. He spoke by phone from his Brooklyn home about the problems with setting goals, failure, and, of course happiness—all of which just might bring a smile to your face.

Let me start with an obvious question: Should companies want happy employees?

Companies should be concerned about happiness, but they should understand that it’s something that emerges from the right kind of environment. A crucial part of it comes from employees having a certain degree of autonomy and ability to pursue projects in the way they want to. It’s about creating a climate in which people have meaning in their work rather than one in which they are relentlessly assaulted with targets to meet and all sorts of oppressive things—but once every month we’re going to have a fun prize and everyone will get pizza. When companies relentlessly try to make things fun in the workplace and compel employees to really enjoy themselves, their attempts to impose an emotional state so directly are doomed to fail.

I ask about happiness because you cite research that shows that healthy and happy people have a less accurate and less optimistic grasp of their true ability to influence events.

There's quite a bit of evidence showing that people do better when told to do their best in certain contexts than when told to meet
target X.

The most immediate conclusion to draw from this research is that it’s good to be deluded because if you’re not deluded, you’re depressed, but I think there’s maybe a third option: finding a way of really understanding reality in a way that transcends those two oppositions to something where people are happy and see things accurately.

Why, as you argue, do people tend to overvalue the willingness to fail?

We have a very warped sense of business success because of survivor bias. We only ever hear from the people who ended up successful, so the fact that they have a specific personality trait—a willingness to fail—does not tell you very much, because there might be thousands of people with that personality type who have failed. The willingness to take risks is something that any celebrity businessperson writing a biography boasts about—but most people fail, and they don’t become celebrity businesspeople, so you never hear from them. This means you can’t take the lessons of a Jack Welch. Successful executives don’t know necessarily why they succeeded because they don’t know all the other people who did the same things and failed. Any particular trait that you look for in someone you admire and want to emulate is vulnerable to the survivor bias, so it may not always be right to emulate others.

Can you ever look to examples to help you succeed?

I don’t think that by getting to know people who have succeeded or failed, you can learn general causal things, but you might be able to isolate specific things that had specific effects in specific contexts.

The survivor bias doesn’t mean all knowledge is impossible, but it’s a really strong reason to disregard on a general level lessons that get learned in a corporate culture and books that are based on interviewing a hundred millionaires to find out what it takes to become a millionaire. It’s also a really good argument for a certain kind of humility among people who are successful. Are they sure that they can explain why they are successful and that luck didn’t play a really big part in their success? It’s about understanding the conditions of success and not having massively deluded beliefs about your talents.

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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.