How to find happiness through failure

January 11, 2013, 5:34 PM UTC

FORTUNE — The introduction to a self-help book is almost always a spoiler: In the chapters that follow, you, the reader, will learn how to get a promotion, make a better first impression, save your marriage, or lower your cholesterol. This will lead to happiness.

The Antidote diverges from this theme. In the first chapter, author Oliver Burkeman explains that after years of reporting on the field of psychology, he has concluded that “the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable.” Armed with this thesis, Burkeman sets out to explore various alternatives to this effort, which he calls the negative paths to happiness.

He asks questions. Are these negative paths too extreme for the average person to implement? Can a successful reorientation to a negative path be achieved gradually (I will try to accept humiliation as inevitable), or does it have to be sudden and drastic (I will actively humiliate myself, over and over, in order to diminish my ego)?

The Antidote has been reviewed several times over the course of the past few months. In an effort to separate my review from the others, I’m tempted to talk about myself. Like many recent college graduates working as underpaid interns, I sometimes feel out-of-sorts. Reading this book on my morning commute convinced me that failure is both inevitable and beneficial. But to dwell on my personal circumstances would be to fall into a trap that this book manages, effortlessly, to avoid.

In a chapter titled “The Hidden Benefits of Insecurity,” Burkeman describes the human tendency to avoid insecurity and uncertainty at all costs. “But in chasing all that,” he adds, “we close down the very faculties that permit the happiness we crave.” Here you might expect Burkeman to discuss the time he took an unfulfilling job that promised economic security, or the time he turned down a trip to Spain because he didn’t speak Spanish. Instead he quotes the 20th century Catholic monk and mystic Thomas Merton, author of The Seven Story Mountain: “The truth that many people never understand, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you.” Burkeman speaks to his audience in a way that establishes trust. He is a dutiful researcher and a listener. He quotes experts.

This is how we get to know Burkeman — as a curious journalist rooting around for an argument, not as a born-again guru who uses his own story of suffering and healing to prove the validity of his personal brand of self-improvement. In each chapter he sits down with someone who has dedicated his or her professional life to exploring a particular negative path to happiness. He punctuates each interview with clear prose about human traits that make a negative path to happiness difficult to adopt. For example, in a chapter on methods for embracing failure, he writes bluntly that “perfectionism, at bottom, is fear-driven striving … [at] its extremes, it is an exhausting and permanently stressful way to live.”

In the chapter on the danger of setting too many goals, Burkeman recounts meeting a man named Steve Shapiro in a bar in the West Village. Shapiro is a consultant who travels around the country hosting self-help seminars for business audiences. Unlike most consultants, Shapiro preaches against goal setting. He found this calling at a time when his obsession with career advancement had ruined his marriage. He argues that once you abandon the five-year-plan approach to life and business, you immediately have more focus and energy for the present moment. Pretty soon you are spending more time with your family and performing better at work.

Like more typical self-help gurus, Shapiro’s method is designed to make your life happier and more productive. Which is why Shapiro is a perfect metaphor for this book. The Antidote argues that pursuing happiness leads to exhaustion and disappointment. Still, just as Shapiro is at home in a success-hungry business environment with his boardroom seminars and PowerPoint presentations, The Antidote is at home in the self-help section at Barnes and Noble. After all, Burkeman is not above making suggestions. In his Epilogue he offers, “You can treat these ideas [presented in the previous chapters] as a toolkit.”

Unlike many self-help authors, however, Burkeman doesn’t offer neat, 12-step prescriptions for health, wealth, or happiness. After painstakingly establishing the various negative paths to happiness — Buddhist meditation, rejection of goals, acceptance of death’s inevitability — he winds up discouraged by his inability to wrap things up neatly. His language becomes clunky: “The negative path to happiness … [is] 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 thinking] surely dictates that we do not struggle too hard to do so.”

If it were up to me, the parting message of this exploration of negativity would be more positive. Specifically, “keep struggling.” After all, in an earlier chapter, Burkeman convinced me that all failures are invigorating. Failure, he writes, “is happening only because you are pushing at the limits of your capabilities.” This is a thrilling statement, because it suggests that in failing, you are being productive.

And that’s what makes The Antidote so refreshing. Rather than offering pat answers up front, Burkeman conducts a serious investigation into the various negative paths to happiness. In admitting that these paths don’t lead to one logical, conclusive method, Burkeman invites us to choose our own.

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