Awe, "opensure" and happiness: Five Questions with Oliver Burkeman

If someone handed you a piece of paper tomorrow that told you exactly how the rest of your live would unfold in every detail, you would hate it, even if what was on that sheet of paper was all good.

Covering a rather large plot of psychological terrain, journalist and author of "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking," Oliver Burkeman talks with the IdeaFestival for our Five Questions series. Similar interviews have been done in the past three weeks with Maria Konnikova, Jason Pontin and Ariel Waldman.

Each of these terrific people will speak at IdeaFestival 2013.

Calling awe a mixture of wonder and fear, and the most "undervalued emotion," Burkeman describes the sensation as "not entirely pleasant." He offers attending the birth of a child as one example.

Burkeman also uses a term new to me, "opensure," or a fundamental openness toward the unknown, which contrasts neatly with what I judged in my question to him to be a widespread longing for certainty. And: "an ability to rest in mystery is a crucial 'negative' skill."

As for creativity and innovation in the business world, Burkeman argues that systems designed to avoid failure will inevitably fail. And breakthroughs that find cultural homes or financial success, are, like our happiness seeker, governed by paradox: it is often when "you are not focused on one specific endpoint, of knowing that things have to turn out one specific way, that you can hear opportunity knocking from other directions." 


Don't miss Oliver at IdeaFestival 2013! In the meantime, please enjoy an all-too-brief encounter in the video here. Have a great, great weekend.

Stay curious.


  1. Let's start with the obvious question: why would positive thinking be counterproductive?
  2. The prolific blogger Andrew Sullivan often writes about the subject of doubt, comparing its virtues favorably to a cultural moment that would appear to crave certainty. Is doubt a "negative" power? 1:06
  3. Buddhism and the monotheistic traditions have a long tradition of apophatic thinking, of triangulating, rather than directly appropriating, a big idea. Insofar as the experience of a becalmed and starry night, for example, is such a happy one, it would seem that people value awe roughly as much as knowledge. Why does "not knowing," as it were, produce this feeling? 2:58
  4. You've written a couple of times at the Guardian about how a new purpose for an old object emerges once we overcome a predisposition toward functional fixedness. The process sounds like it may be useful to our happiness seeker. Perhaps once he or she stops thinking about what happiness should mean and pays attention to what, for them, it does mean, they're miles ahead. Would you agree or disagree? 4:30
  5. What questions will IF fans have after your talk? 5:56
  6. Do you have a favorite unanswered question? 7:25