Schopenhauer: On Reading and Books

One of the most timeless and beautiful meditations on reading comes from the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer: On Reading and Books

Finding time to read has never been an issue for me. I read different books at different levels — you don’t put the same effort into Harry Potter as you do Seneca.  Reading is the best way to get smarter. And while I’ve always taken notes while reading to improve my ability to remember what I’ve read, I’ve had a nagging feeling that I was missing part of the work.

Perhaps, I’ve been reading too much and reflecting too little.

As I reflect more on the relationship between reading and acquiring wisdom, I discovered Schopenhauer’s classic On Reading and Books.

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Munger Master the best

For me, reading has always been about this website’s tagline: Mastering the best of what other people have already figured out.

In The Prince, Machiavelli offered the following advice:  “A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it.”

Seneca, writing on the same subject, said, “Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides.”

So it makes sense to start with the people that came before us. No matter what problem we face, odds are someone has faced it before and written about it. No need to start from scratch right?

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We return to the fundamental questions. What does it mean to read? Is reading the path to acquiring wisdom? If not why?

These are the questions that Schopenhauer attempts to address in On Reading and Books.

When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process..

Mortimer Adler believed that reading is a conversation between you and the author. On this Schopenhauer comments:

When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. It is the same as the pupil, in learning to write, following with his pen the lines that have been pencilled by the teacher. Accordingly, in reading, the work of thinking is, for the greater part, done for us. This is why we are consciously relieved when we turn to reading after being occupied with our own thoughts. But, in reading, our head is, however, really only the arena of some one else’s thoughts. And so it happens that the person who reads a great deal — that is to say, almost the whole day, and recreates himself by spending the intervals in thoughtless diversion, gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk.

Such, however, is the case with many men of learning: they have read themselves stupid. For to read in every spare moment, and to read constantly, is more paralyzing to the mind than constant manual work, which, at any rate, allows one to follow one’s own thoughts.

Just as a spring, through the continual pressure of a foreign body, at last loses its elasticity, so does the mind if it has another person’s thoughts continually forced upon it. And just as one spoils the stomach by overfeeding and thereby impairs the whole body, so can one overload and choke the mind by giving it too much nourishment. For the more one reads the fewer are the traces left of what one has read; the mind is like a tablet that has been written over and over. Hence it is impossible to reflect; and it is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read if one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what has been read does not take root, but is for the most part lost. Indeed, it is the same with mental as with bodily food: scarcely the fifth part of what a man takes is assimilated; the remainder passes off in evaporation, respiration, and the like.

From all this it may be concluded that thoughts put down on paper are nothing more than footprints in the sand: one sees the road the man has taken, but in order to know what he saw on the way, one requires his eyes.

It’s important to take time to think about what we’re reading and not merely assume the thoughts of the author. We need to digest, synthesize, and organize the thoughts of others if we are to understand. This is the grunt work of thinking. It’s how we acquire wisdom.

This is how we acquire foundational knowledge. The knowledge that allows us to pull forth relevance when reading and bring it to consciousness. Without this foundational knowledge, we are unable to separate the signal from the noise.

No literary quality can be attained by reading writers who possess it: be it, for example, persuasiveness, imagination, the gift of drawing comparisons, boldness or bitterness, brevity or grace, facility of expression or wit, unexpected contrasts, a laconic manner, naïveté, and the like. But if we are already gifted with these qualities — that is to say, if we possess them potentia — we can call them forth and bring them to consciousness; we can discern to what uses they are to be put; we can be strengthened in our inclination, nay, may have courage, to use them; we can judge by examples the effect of their application and so learn the correct use of them; and it is only after we have accomplished all this that we actu possess these qualities.

Reading consumes time. And if we equate time with money, it should not be wasted on bad books. In an argument that pulls to mind two filters for what to read, Schopenhauer writes:

It is the same in literature as in life. Wherever one goes one immediately comes upon the incorrigible mob of humanity. It exists everywhere in legions; crowding, soiling everything, like flies in summer. Hence the numberless bad books, those rank weeds of literature which extract nourishment from the corn and choke it.

They monopolise the time, money, and attention which really belong to good books and their noble aims; they are written merely with a view to making money or procuring places. They are not only useless, but they do positive harm. Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature aims solely at taking a few shillings out of the public’s pocket, and to accomplish this, author, publisher, and reviewer have joined forces.

There is a more cunning and worse trick, albeit a profitable one. Littérateurs, hack-writers, and productive authors have succeeded, contrary to good taste and the true culture of the age, in bringing the world elegante into leading-strings, so that they have been taught to read a tempo and all the same thing — namely, the newest books order that they may have material for conversation in their social circles. … But what can be more miserable than the fate of a reading public of this kind, that feels always impelled to read the latest writings of extremely commonplace authors who write for money only, and therefore exist in numbers? And for the sake of this they merely know by name the works of the rare and superior writers, of all ages and countries.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Knowing what to read is important but so is its inversion— knowing what not to read.

This consists in not taking a book into one’s hand merely because it is interesting the great public at the time — such as political or religious pamphlets, novels, poetry, and the like, which make a noise and reach perhaps several editions in their first and last years of existence. Remember rather that the man who writes for fools always finds a large public: and only read for a limited and definite time exclusively the works of great minds, those who surpass other men of all times and countries, and whom the voice of fame points to as such. These alone really educate and instruct.

One can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.

In Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami makes the argument that “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” On this Schopenhauer said:

Oh, how like one commonplace mind is to another! How they are all fashioned in one form! How they all think alike under similar circumstances, and never differ! This is why their views are so personal and petty.

On the two types of literature, Schopenhauer comments:

There are at all times two literatures which, although scarcely known to each other, progress side by side — the one real, the other merely apparent. The former grows into literature that lasts. Pursued by people who live for science or poetry, it goes its way earnestly and quietly, but extremely slowly; and it produces in Europe scarcely a dozen works in a century, which, however, are permanent. The other literature is pursued by people who live on science or poetry; it goes at a gallop amid a great noise and shouting of those taking part, and brings yearly many thousand works into the market. But after a few years one asks, Where are they? where is their fame, which was so great formerly? This class of literature may be distinguished as fleeting, the other as permanent.

Arthur Schopenhauer Books

Commenting on why we learn little from what we read, he writes:

It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them; but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents. To desire that a man should retain everything he has ever read, is the same as wishing him to retain in his stomach all that he has ever eaten. He has been bodily nourished on what he has eaten, and mentally on what he has read, and through them become what he is. As the body assimilates what is homogeneous to it, so will a man retain what interests him; in other words, what coincides with his system of thought or suits his ends. Every one has aims, but very few have anything approaching a system of thought. This is why such people do not take an objective interest in anything, and why they learn nothing from what they read: they remember nothing about it.

But reading good works is not enough. We must re-read important works immediately because it aids our understanding, a concept that Mortimer Adler echoes.

Any kind of important book should immediately be read twice, partly because one grasps the matter in its entirety the second time, and only really understands the beginning when the end is known; and partly because in reading it the second time one’s temper and mood are different, so that one gets another impression; it may be that one sees the matter in another light.

And the final part of the essay I want to draw your attention to speaks to how advancement happens in a flurry of false starts, and answers the age-old question of why so many luminaries — whether scientific or even artistic — fail to be recognized in their present age as they will later come to be seen by the world.

… imagine the progress of knowledge among mankind in the form of a planet’s course. The false paths the human race soon follows after any important progress has been made represent the epicycles in the Ptolemaic system; after passing through any one of them the planet is just where it was before it entered it. The great minds, however, which really bring the race further on its course, do not accompany it on the epicycles which it makes every time. This explains why posthumous fame is got at the expense of contemporary fame, and vice versâ.

If you think Schopenhauer is for you, pick up a copy of The Essential Schopenhauer: Key Selections from The World As Will and Representation and Other Writings.

The Wisdom of Seneca: A Lawyer’s Advice For Life In The Fast Lane

Marble Head of a Philosopher
Marble Head of a Philosopher

Seneca is best known for his pithy wisdom that helps us rethink our own perspectives on life. Lucius Annaeus Seneca (around 4 B.C.—A.D. 65) was an insightful lawyer, senator, philosopher, and playwright.

“Philosophy,” writes Tom Morris in The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results, “in the hands of a thinker like Seneca, is an eminently practical enterprise.”

It has theoretical underpinnings, to be sure, but its ultimate goal is to inspire us to proper achievement and good living. The philosopher is a physician of the soul, whose advice aims at spiritual health and happiness. Like physics, philosophy seeks to understand the most ultimate realities with which we have to do. Yet, unlike physics, the philosophy most true to human nature gives us not technical terminology and news of marvels outside the ken of our normal experience, but rather reminders of what lies right in front of our eyes, or, if we are perceptive, inside our own hearts.

Philosophy has been called “common sense in dress clothes.” It can show us something we had already suspected or known. Many people, however, question the point of telling us things that we already know.

Seneca, in The Epistles provides a great answer:

People say: “What good does it do to point out the obvious?” A great deal of good, since we sometimes know facts without paying attention to them. Advice is not the same thing as teaching. It just gets our attention and wakes us up, and concentrates our memory and keeps it from losing its grip. We otherwise miss a lot that’s right in front of our eyes. Advice is, in fact, a sort of exhortation.

Phil Jackson, the championship basketball coach, draws on insights from philosophy and the importance of what commands our attention in his two books Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior and Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success.

Tom Morris sums up Seneca’s view that philosophy, at its best, “focuses our attention on things that might have eluded us because of their very familiarity, reminds us of important truths that we need to act on, and then goads us into action as well.”

InThe Epistles Seneca writes:

Whatever is good for us should be discussed often and frequently brought to mind, so that it may be not Just familiar to us, but also ready for use. Remember also that in this way what is clear often, becomes clearer.

In The Stoic Art of Living, Morris writes:

Seneca developed wisdom about prosperity and successful living that resonates with some of the best contemporary thought concerning happiness and the good life. His nuggets of advice often help us to understand more thoroughly any insights we might already have managed to grasp about true success in life. What is clear becomes clearer, and deep realizations that might have remained unarticulated are suddenly sparked into consciousness as we read his words. He provides us with elements of a life guidance toolkit that display a logical unity, a form of inner coherence, and a tremendous usefulness for anyone living in tumultuous times.

Seneca, himself, reflects on the role of good advice in The Epistles:

The soul carries within itself the seed of everything that is honorable, and this seed is stirred to growth by advice, as a spark fanned by a gentle breeze develops its natural fire. Virtue is aroused by a touch, or a shock. In addition, there are certain things that, although they are already in our minds, are not all ready for use, but begin to function easily as soon as they’re put into words. Some tilings lie scattered around in various places, and it is impossible for the tin practiced mind to arrange them in a proper order. We need to bring them, into unity and Join them, so that they can be more powerful and more of an uplift to the soul.

The human mind is often like a cluttered attic. There is a lot of good stuff in there but it’s organized poorly so we can’t find or use much of anything. And because we pack so much in there our understanding gets confused. Organizing this mess is too much. Part of Seneca’s wisdom is he pulls away the clutter and throws it out, revealing the knowledge that we already have.

Morris writes:

The power of Seneca’s advice lies not just in its universality of application, but in its ability to spark us and fan us into flaming action, guiding that action from within our own hearts, and moving us out into the world. It can help bring into powerful unity the various insights and habits for successful living that we already have picked up along the way, and it can give us fresh perspectives on what it takes for satisfying, sustainable achievement in our world. Seneca himself would certainly remind us that it is not just the nuggets of wisdom themselves, but how we apply them, that is the ultimate aim of philosophy.

An insight, however, needs to be applied in the context of life.

Seneca maintains: “It is not enough, when a man is arranging his existence as a whole, just to give him advice on the details.” And he later reminds us of the symbiotic relationship between learning and living.

Virtue depends partly on training and partly on practice. You must learn first, and then strengthen what you’ve learned by practice.

This is important because sometimes things get difficult. In Moral Essays, Seneca insists

I need to remind you, over and over, that I am not speaking about an ideal wise man to whom every duty is a pleasure, and who rules over his own spirit, imposing on himself any law he pleases, while always obeying what he has imposed, but I am talking about anyone who, with all his imperfections, desires to follow the perfect path, and yet has passions that often are reluctant to obey.

In The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results, Morris sums this up best:

If we truly desire to live good and happy lives, we qualify as fit pupils for this philosopher. And with all the troubles we inevitably face in the world, we need this lawyer of life to help defend us against the many forces that would imprison us. If we listen well, and put into practice the best of his counsel, we can liberate our selves to be our best and feel our best in all that we do.

Still curious? Check out Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero.

Attentional Blink

Despite my experiments with meditation, I have difficulty focusing on my breath if I take a few days off meditating or yoga. The world is distracting, there are texts coming in, fire trucks going by, an ache in my back, and an itch on my nose.

This, however, is the way we move forward. After a few days of regular meditation, I’m back. My ability to concentrate and focus becomes so much higher. I read with greater ease and retain more information.

This passage by Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, talking about attentional blink, is worth flagging.

… different types of attentional training affect the brain and behavior in different ways. Practices that feature neutral, single-pointed concentration, such as mindfulness meditation, particularly improve your ability to focus as you go about your daily life. ‘Attentional blink’ experiments suggest why. If you’re shown two letters flashed a half-second apart in a series of twenty numbers, for example, you’ll almost certainly see the first letter but miss the second one. The glitch is caused by ‘sticky’ attention, which keeps you glued to the first cue, preventing your from catching it the next time. After three months of breath-centered meditation, however, you’re able to ‘let go’ of the first letter quickly and be ready to focus on the second.

No mere psych-lab curiosity, the blink research, which offers yet more proof that the world you experience is much more subjective than you assume, has important real-life implications. Even when you think you’re focused on what’s going on, these data show, you miss things that occur in quick succession, including fleeting facial and vocal cues. … ‘Sensitive attention is a key substrate of successful social interactions, and the consequences of missing that kind of information can be quite significant.’ Indeed, research done by Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, shows that slight, rapid changes in a person’s expression are highly meaningful, if unspoken, indications of what’s really on his or her mind. Most people don’t read these cues well, he finds, but attentional training can greatly improve this interpretive ability.

Because the blink phenomenon has long been regarded as relatively fixed, the fact that it can be modified helps prove that attention is indeed a trainable skill.

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life is filled with tips and strategies on how to improve your ability to concentrate and pay attention.

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership: Classical Wisdom for Modern Leaders

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership

How many of today’s problems are the result of leadership?

What’s lacking, the author of The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership argue, is the lack of real leadership.

Here the problem may lie with a lack of deeper, broader insights, the kind of insights that technical skill alone does not confer— the ability to see the big picture, to connect with members of the organization, to foster a meaningful and productive work environment, and to steer the corporate ship through the challenges of highly competitive markets and new technologies.

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What is leadership?

The authors define the term “leadership” in a way that that differentiates their “interpretation from the offhanded views that too often distort the word’s meaning.”

It is the assumption of the authors that leadership is an uncommon composite of skill, experience, and ripened personal perspectives. It is, of course, the last of those elements that sets the real leader apart from those who simply “run” organizations. Ripened personal perspectives are an essential ingredient in a leader’s efforts to develop and articulate a sound corporate vision. Real leaders, people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, see things more rapidly than does the typical executive. At least in part, their insights are a reflection of an “inner” clarity that allows for fuller concentration on the challenges at hand.

This is why leadership cannot be “done by the numbers,” why those who have failed to comprehend the motivating subtleties in their own lives are unlikely to achieve the status of “leader.” Simply put, only those men and women who have cultivated a care fully conceived philosophy of life are ready and able to exhibit the kind of workplace mastery suggested by the term “leader.” Now for some, invoking the term “philosophy” in this context may seem strangely out of place. To one degree or another, we all have been conditioned to believe that philosophy is at best a kind of noble laziness, a speculative exercise devoid of concrete benefit. Yet it may be that many of the inefficiencies and failures that plague our managerial environments are ultimately related to an inadequate consideration of what philosophy has to offer.

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The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership

1. Know thyself. Understand your inner world, your bright and dark sides, your personal strengths and weakness. Self-comprehension is a fundamental precondition necessary for real leadership.

2. Office shows the person. The assumption of authority brings out the leader’s inner world. It reveals whether the leader has undergone a process of honest self-discovery that allows for the productive application of power.

3. Nurture community in the workplace. Community development and positive sentiment are virtues leaders must nurture by providing the right support, guidance, and incentives.

4. Do not waste energy on things you cannot change. Do not waste resources and energies on things you cannot control, and therefore, cannot change.

5. Always embrace the truth. Effective leaders should always embrace the truth, always encourage candid criticism throughout the organization, be skeptical of flattering appraisals, and never let authority place a wedge between them and the truth.

6. Let competition reveal talent. Nurture an environment that can use the forces of competition constructively, create a platform that releases the ingenuity and creativity of your employees in pursuing corporate goals and objectives, identify subordinates who use competition as a constructive force, steer away from subordinates who use competition as a destructive force.

7. Live life by a higher code. Dedicate yourself to a higher standard of personal conduct; don’t harbor ill-will toward those who offend; be ready to assist those who are in need without asking something in return; remain calm in the face of crisis; dedicate yourself to principle without compromise; earn the trust, respect, and admiration of your subordinates through your character, not the authority conferred upon you by the corporate chart; turn authority into power.

8. Always evaluate information with a critical eye. Don’t rely upon old premises, assertions, and theories. Develop a critical mindset that accepts nothing at face value, certify the credibility and usefulness of critical information, analyze the con text that produces critical information and the messengers who convey it, and never rush to judgments.

9. Never underestimate the power of personal integrity. Personal integrity is a critical asset for real leadership. Always set an honorable agenda, adhere to a code of professional conduct, never try to justify dishonesty and deceit, rather “fail with honor than win by cheating.”

10. Character is destiny. True leadership is ultimately traceable to factors of character and personal integrity; much of what is called “destiny” lies in our hands, not in mysterious forces beyond our control.

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership: Classical Wisdom for Modern Leaders is a worthy read for anyone looking to embark on a journey of critical self-examination. You’ll learn form the revered anctiel thinkers like Aristotle, Hesiod, Sophocles, Heraclitus, and Antisthenes.

The Difference Between Prodigals and Misers

Gustave Flaubert, the keen observer of human nature, looked at the hidden motives that lead people to act in accordance with their nature.

This passage from The Letters of Gustave Flaubert is worth reflecting on.

From the idiot who wouldn’t give a sou to redeem the human race, to the man who dives beneath the ice to rescue a stranger, do we not all seek, according to our various instincts, to satisfy our natures? Saint Vincent de Paul obeyed an appetite for charity, Caligula an appetite for cruelty. Everyone takes his enjoyment in his own way and for himself alone. Some direct all activity toward themselves, making themselves the cause, the center, the end of everything; others invite the whole world to the banquet of their souls. That is the difference between prodigals and misers: the first take their pleasure in giving, the second in keeping.

Commenting on this passage in Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide, Frederic Lenoir believes it “describes the core of egotism that underlies the pursuit of our aspirations and the realization of our actions.”

Turning Towards Failure

Turning toward failure

Our resistance to thinking about failure is especially curious in light of the fact that failure is so ubiquitous. ‘Failure is the distinguishing feature of corporate life,’ writes the economist Paul Ormerod, at the start of his book Why Most Things Fail, but in this sense corporate life is merely a microcosm of the whole of life. Evolution itself is driven by failure; we think of it as a matter of survival and adaptation, but it makes equal sense to think of it as a matter of not surviving and not adapting. Or perhaps more sense: of all the species that have ever existed, after all, fewer than 1 per cent of them survive today. The others failed. On an individual level, too, no matter how much success you may experience in life, your eventual story – no offence intended – will be one of failure. You bodily organs will fail, and you’ll die. (Source: The Antidote.)

If failure is so ubiquitous you would think that it would be treated as a more natural phenomenon; not exactly something to celebrate but not something that should be hidden away either. In the book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman visits a ‘Museum of Failed Products’ and comes away with quite a few insights into our reluctance to accept, or even acknowledge, our less successful ventures.

By far the most striking thing about the museum of failed products, though, has to do with the fact that it exists as a viable, profit-making business in the first place. You might have assumed that any consumer product manufacturer worthy of the name would have its own such collection, a carefully stewarded resource to help it avoid repeating errors its rivals had already made. Yet the executives arriving every week … are evidence of how rarely this happens. Product developers are so focused on their next hoped-for-success – and so unwilling to invest time or energy in thinking about their industry’s past failures – that they only belatedly realize how much they need, and are willing to pay, to access (the museum of failed products). Most surprising of all is the fact that many of the designers who have found their way to the museum of failed products, over the years, have come there in order to examine – or, alternatively, have been surprised to discover – products that their own companies had created and then abandoned. These firms were apparently so averse to thinking about the unpleasant business of failure that they had neglected even to keep samples of their own disasters.

I’ve spoken about Burkeman’s book before. There is a great chapter on the flaws related to goal setting and another on the Stoic technique of negative visualisation but they all come back to the concept of turning towards the possibility of failure.

The Stoic technique of negative visualisation is, precisely, about turning towards the possibility of failure. The critics of goal setting are effectively proposing a new attitude towards failure, too, since an improvisational, trial-and-error approach necessarily entails being frequently willing to fail.

So what does it all mean? If avoiding failure is as natural as failure itself, why should you embrace it (or even attempt an Antifragile way of life).

… it is also worth considering the subject of failure directly, in order to see how the desperate efforts of the ‘cult of optimism’ to avoid it are so often counterproductive, and how we might be better off learning to embrace it. The first reason to turn towards failure is that our efforts not to think about failure leave us with a severely distorted understanding of what it takes to be successful. The second is that an openness to the emotional experience of failure can be a stepping-stone to a much richer kind of happiness than can be achieved by focusing only on success.

It’s almost jarring how simple and sensical that is, considering our aversion to failure.

Accepting failure is becoming more conversational, even if we’re a ways from embracing it. ‘Learning from our mistakes’ has become the new business mantra, replacing ‘being innovative.’ Although, I can see this quickly losing its shine when the mistake is idiotic.

Burkeman notes, it’s just too easy to imagine how the Museum of Failed Products gets populated (it is also worth noting that successful products have a lot to do with luck.)

Back in Ann Arbor, at the museum of failed products, it wasn’t hard to imagine how a similar aversion to confronting failure might have been responsible for the very existence of many of the products lining its shelves. Each one must have made it through a series of meetings at which nobody realised that the product was doomed. Perhaps nobody wanted to contemplate the prospect of failure; perhaps someone did, but didn’t want to bring it up for discussion. Even if the product’s likely failure was recognised … those responsible for marketing it might well have responded by ploughing more money into it. This is a common reaction when a product looks like it’s going to be a lemon, since with a big enough marketing spend, a marketing manager can at least guarantee a few sales, sparing the company total humiliation. By the time reality sets in, (Robert) McMath notes in What Were They Thinking?, it is quite possible that ‘the executives will have been promoted to another brand, or recruited by another company.’ Thanks to a collective unwillingness to face up to failure, more money will have been invested in the doomed product, and little energy will have been dedicated to examining what went wrong. Everyone involved will have conspired – perhaps without realising what they’re doing – never to think or speak of it again.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is an eye-opening look at how the pursuit of happiness is causing us to be more unhappy than ever.