The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking

by Oliver Burkeman


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Success through failure, calm through embracing anxiety—a totally original approach to self-help

Self-help books don't seem to work. Few of the many advantages of modern life seem capable of lifting our collective mood. Wealth—even if you can get it—doesn't necessarily lead to happiness. Romance, family life, and work often bring as much stress as joy. We can't even agree on what "happiness" means. So are we engaged in a futile pursuit? Or are we just going about it the wrong way?
Looking both east and west, in bulletins from the past and from far afield, Oliver Burkeman introduces us to an unusual group of people who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. Whether experimental psychologists, terrorism experts, Buddhists, hardheaded business consultants, Greek philosophers, or modern-day gurus, they argue that in our personal lives, and in society at large, it's our constant effort to be happy that is making us miserable. And that there is an alternative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty—the very things we spend our lives trying to avoid. Thought-provoking, counterintuitive, and ultimately uplifting, The Antidote is the intelligent person's guide to understanding the much-misunderstood idea of happiness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865478015
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/05/2013
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 124,564
Product dimensions: 5.37(w) x 8.32(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Oliver Burkeman is a feature writer for The Guardian. He is a winner of the Foreign Press Association's Young Journalist of the Year Award and has been short-listed for the Orwell Prize. He writes a popular weekly column on psychology, "This Column Will Change Your Life," and has reported from New York, London, and Washington, D.C. He lives in New York City.

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The Antidote

Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking

By Oliver Burkeman

Faber and Faber, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Oliver Burkeman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4760-2


On Trying Too Hard to Be Happy

Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.

– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions

The man who claims that he is about to tell me the secret of human happiness is eighty-three years old, with an alarming orange tan that does nothing to enhance his credibility. It is just after eight o'clock on a December morning, in a darkened basketball stadium on the outskirts of San Antonio in Texas, and – according to the orange man – I am about to learn 'the one thing that will change your life forever'. I'm sceptical, but not as much as I might normally be, because I am only one of more than fifteen thousand people at Get Motivated!, America's 'most popular business motivational seminar', and the enthusiasm of my fellow audience members is starting to become infectious.

'So you wanna know?', asks the octogenarian, who is Dr Robert H. Schuller, veteran self-help guru, author of more than thirty-five books on the power of positive thinking, and, in his other job, the founding pastor of the largest church in the United States constructed entirely out of glass. The crowd roars its assent. Easily embarrassed British people like me do not, generally speaking, roar our assent at motivational seminars in Texas basketball stadiums, but the atmosphere partially overpowers my reticence. I roar quietly.

'Here it is, then,' Dr Schuller declares, stiffly pacing the stage, which is decorated with two enormous banners reading 'MOTIVATE!' and 'SUCCEED!', seventeen American flags, and a large number of potted plants. 'Here's the thing that will change your life forever.' Then he barks a single syllable – 'Cut!' – and leaves a dramatic pause before completing his sentence: '... the word "impossible" out of your life! Cut it out! Cut it out forever!'

The audience combusts. I can't help feeling underwhelmed, but then I probably shouldn't have expected anything different from Get Motivated!, an event at which the sheer power of positivity counts for everything. 'You are the master of your destiny!' Schuller goes on. 'Think big, and dream bigger! Resurrect your abandoned hope! ... Positive thinking works in every area of life!'

The logic of Schuller's philosophy, which is the doctrine of positive thinking at its most distilled, isn't exactly complex: decide to think happy and successful thoughts – banish the spectres of sadness and failure – and happiness and success will follow. It could be argued that not every speaker listed in the glossy brochure for today's seminar provides uncontroversial evidence in support of this outlook: the keynote speech is to be delivered, in a few hours' time, by George W. Bush, a president far from universally viewed as successful. But if you voiced this objection to Dr Schuller, he would probably dismiss it as 'negativity thinking'. To criticise the power of positivity is to demonstrate that you haven't really grasped it at all. If you had, you would stop grumbling about such things, and indeed about anything else.

The organisers of Get Motivated! describe it as a motivational seminar, but that phrase – with its suggestion of minor-league life coaches giving speeches in dingy hotel ballrooms – hardly captures the scale and grandiosity of the thing. Staged roughly once a month, in cities across North America, it sits at the summit of the global industry of positive thinking, and boasts an impressive roster of celebrity speakers: Mikhail Gorbachev and Rudy Giuliani are among the regulars, as are General Colin Powell and, somewhat incongruously, William Shatner. Should it ever occur to you that a formerly prominent figure in world politics (or William Shatner) has been keeping an inexplicably low profile in recent months, there's a good chance you'll find him or her at Get Motivated!, preaching the gospel of optimism.

As befits such celebrity, there's nothing dingy about the staging, either, which features banks of swooping spotlights, sound systems pumping out rock anthems, and expensive pyrotechnics; each speaker is welcomed to the stage amid showers of sparks and puffs of smoke. These special effects help propel the audience to ever higher altitudes of excitement, though it also doesn't hurt that for many of them, a trip to Get Motivated! means an extra day off work: many employers classify it as job training. Even the United States military, where 'training' usually means something more rigorous, endorses this view; in San Antonio, scores of the stadium's seats are occupied by uniformed soldiers from the local Army base.

Technically, I am here undercover. Tamara Lowe, the self-described 'world's number one female motivational speaker', who along with her husband runs the company behind Get Motivated!, has been accused of denying access to reporters, a tribe notoriously prone to negativity thinking. Lowe denies the charge, but out of caution, I've been describing myself as a 'self-employed businessman' – a tactic, I'm realising too late, that only makes me sound shifty. I needn't have bothered with subterfuge anyway, it turns out, since I'm much too far away from the stage for the security staff to be able to see me scribbling in my notebook. My seat is described on my ticket as 'premier seating', but this turns out to be another case of positivity run amok: at Get Motivated!, there is only 'premier seating', 'executive seating', and 'VIP seating'. In reality, mine is up in the nosebleed section; it is a hard plastic perch, painful on the buttocks. But I am grateful for it, because it means that by chance I'm seated next to a man who, as far as I can make out, is one of the few cynics in the arena – an amiable, large-limbed park ranger named Jim, who sporadically leaps to his feet to shout 'I'm somotivated!' in tones laden with sarcasm. He explains that he was required to attend by his employer, the United States National Park Service, though when I ask why that organisation might wish its rangers to use paid work time in this fashion, he cheerily concedes that he has 'no fucking clue'.

Dr Schuller's sermon, meanwhile, is gathering pace. 'When I was a child, it was impossible for a man ever to walk on the moon, impossible to cut out a human heart and put it in another man's chest ... the word "impossible" has proven to be a very stupid word!' He does not spend much time marshalling further evidence for his assertion that failure is optional: it's clear that Schuller, the author of Move Ahead with Possibility Thinking and Tough Times Never Last, but Tough People Do!, vastly prefers inspiration to argument. But in any case, he is really only a warm-up man for the day's main speakers, and within fifteen minutes he is striding away, to adulation and fireworks, fists clenched victoriously up at the audience, the picture of positive-thinking success.

It is only months later, back at my home in New York, reading the headlines over morning coffee, that I learn the news that the largest church in the United States constructed entirely from glass has filed for bankruptcy, a word Dr Schuller had apparently neglected to eliminate from his vocabulary.

* * *

For a civilisation so fixated on achieving happiness, we seem remarkably incompetent at the task. One of the best-known general findings of the 'science of happiness' has been the discovery that the countless advantages of modern life have done so little to lift our collective mood. The awkward truth seems to be that increased economic growth does not necessarily make for happier societies, just as increased personal income, above a certain basic level, doesn't make for happier people. Nor does better education, at least according to some studies. Nor does an increased choice of consumer products. Nor do bigger and fancier homes, which instead seem mainly to provide the privilege of more space in which to feel gloomy.

Perhaps you don't need telling that self-help books, the modern-day apotheosis of the quest for happiness, are among the things that fail to make us happy. But, for the record, research strongly suggests that they rarely much help. This is why, among themselves, some self-help publishers refer to the 'eighteen-month rule', which states that the person most likely to purchase any given self-help book is someone who, within the previous eighteen months, purchased a self-help book – one that evidently didn't solve all their problems. When you look at the self-help shelves with a coldly impartial eye, this isn't especially surprising. That we yearn for neat, book-sized solutions to the problem of being human is understandable, but strip away the packaging, and you'll find that the messages of such works are frequently banal. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People essentially tells you to decide what matters most to you in life, and then do it; How to Win Friends and Influence People advises its readers to be pleasant rather than obnoxious, and to use people's first names a lot. One of the most successful management manuals of the last few years, Fish!, which is intended to help foster happiness and productivity in the workplace, suggests handing out small toy fish to your hardest-working employees.

As we'll see, when the messages get more specific than that, self-help gurus tend to make claims that simply aren't supported by more reputable research. The evidence suggests, for example, that venting your anger doesn't get rid of it, while visualising your goals doesn't seem to make you more likely to achieve them. And whatever you make of the country-by-country surveys of national happiness that are now published with some regularity, it's striking that the 'happiest' countries are never those where self-help books sell the most, nor indeed where professional psychotherapists are most widely consulted. The existence of a thriving 'happiness industry' clearly isn't sufficient to engender national happiness, and it's not unreasonable to suspect that it might make matters worse.

Yet the ineffectiveness of modern strategies for happiness is really just a small part of the problem. There are good reasons to believe that the whole notion of 'seeking happiness' is flawed to begin with. For one thing, who says happiness is a valid goal in the first place? Religions have never placed much explicit emphasis on it, at least as far as this world is concerned; philosophers have certainly not been unanimous in endorsing it, either. And any evolutionary psychologist will tell you that evolution has little interest in your being happy, beyond trying to make sure that you're not so listless or miserable that you lose the will to reproduce.

Even assuming happiness to be a worthy target, though, a worse pitfall awaits, which is that aiming for it seems to reduce your chances of ever attaining it. 'Ask yourself whether you are happy,' observed the philosopher John Stuart Mill, 'and you cease to be so.' At best, it would appear, happiness can only be glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, not stared at directly. (We tend to remember having been happy in the past much more frequently than we are conscious of being happy in the present.) Making matters worse still, what happiness actually is feels impossible to define in words; even supposing you could do so, you'd presumably end up with as many different definitions as there are people on the planet. All of which means it's tempting to conclude that 'How can we be happy?' is simply the wrong question – that we might as well resign ourselves to never finding the answer, and get on with something more productive instead.

But could there be a third possibility, besides the futile effort to pursue solutions that never seem to work, on the one hand, and just giving up, on the other? After several years reporting on the field of psychology as a journalist, I finally realised that there might be. I began to think that something united all those psychologists and philosophers – and even the occasional self-help guru – whose ideas seemed actually to hold water. The startling conclusion at which they had all arrived, in different ways, was this: that the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness – that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy. They didn't see this conclusion as depressing, though. Instead, they argued that it pointed to an alternative approach, a 'negative path' to happiness, that entailed taking a radically different stance towards those things that most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death. In short, all these people seemed to agree that in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to learn to stop running quite so hard from them. Which is a bewildering thought, and one that calls into question not just our methods for achieving happiness, but also our assumptions about what 'happiness' really means.

These days, this notion certainly gets less press than the admonition to remain positive at all times. But it is a viewpoint with a surprisingly long and respectable history. You'll find it in the works of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, who emphasised the benefits of always contemplating how badly things might go. It lies deep near the core of Buddhism, which counsels that true security lies in the unrestrained embrace of insecurity – in the recognition that we never really stand on solid ground, and never can. It underpins the medieval tradition of memento mori, which celebrated the life-giving benefits of never forgetting about death. And it is what connects New Age writers, such as the bestselling spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, with more mainstream recent work in cognitive psychology on the self-defeating nature of positive thinking. This same 'negative' approach to happiness also helps explain why so many people find mindfulness meditation so beneficial; why a new generation of business thinkers are advising companies to drop their obsession with goalsetting and embrace uncertainty instead; and why, in recent years, some psychologists have reached the conclusion that pessimism may often be as healthy and productive as optimism.

At the bottom of all this lies the principle that the countercultural philosopher of the 1950s and '60s, Alan Watts, echoing Aldous Huxley, labelled 'the law of reversed effort', or the 'backwards law': the notion that in all sorts of contexts, from our personal lives to politics, all this trying to make everything right is a big part of what's wrong. Or, to quote Watts, that 'when you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float' and that 'insecurity is the result of trying to be secure'. In many cases, wrote Huxley, 'the harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed'.

The negative path to happiness is not an argument for bloody-minded contrarianism at all costs: you won't do yourself any favours by walking into the path of oncoming buses, say, rather than trying to avoid them. Nor should it be taken as implying that there's necessarily anything wrong with optimism. A more useful way to think of it is as a much-needed counterweight to a culture fixated on the notion that optimism and positivity are the only possible paths to happiness. Of course, many of us are already healthily sceptical when it comes to positive thinking. But it is worth noting that even most people who disdain the 'cult of optimism', as the philosopher Peter Vernezze calls it, end up subtly endorsing it. They assume that since they cannot or will not subscribe to its ideology, their only alternative is to resign themselves to gloom, or a sort of ironic curmudgeonhood, instead. The 'negative path' is about rejecting this dichotomy, and seeking instead the happiness that arises through negativity, rather than trying to drown negativity out with relentless good cheer. If a fixation on positivity is the disease, this approach is the antidote.

This 'negative path', it should be emphasised, isn't one single, comprehensive, neatly packaged philosophy; the antidote is not a panacea. Part of the problem with positive thinking, and many related approaches to happiness, is exactly this desire to reduce big questions to one-size-fits-all self-help tricks or ten-point plans. By contrast, the negative path offers no such single solution. Some of its proponents stress embracing negative feelings and thoughts, while others might better be described as advocating indifference towards them. Some focus on radically unconventional techniques for pursuing happiness, while others point towards a different definition of happiness, or to abandoning the pursuit of it altogether. The word 'negative' often has a double meaning here, too. It can refer to unpleasant experiences and emotions; but some philosophies of happiness are best described as 'negative' because they involve developing skills of 'not doing' – of learning not to chase positive feelings so aggressively. There are many paradoxes here, and they only get deeper the more you probe. For example, is a feeling or a situation truly 'negative' if it leads ultimately to happiness? If 'being positive' doesn't make you happy, is it right to call it 'being positive' at all? If you redefine happiness to accommodate negativity, is it still happiness? And so on. None of these questions can be tidily resolved. This is partly because the proponents of the negative path share only a general way of seeing life, rather than a single strict set of beliefs. But it is also because one crucial foundation of their approach is precisely that happiness involves paradoxes; that there is no way to tie up all the loose ends, however desperately we might want to.


Excerpted from The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman. Copyright © 2012 Oliver Burkeman. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 On Trying Too Hard to Be Happy 1

2 What Would Seneca Do? The Stoic Art of Confronting the Worst-Case Scenario 23

3 The Storm Before the Calm: A Buddhist Guide to Not Thinking Positively 51

4 Goal Crazy: When Trying to Control the Future Doesn't Work 75

5 Who's There? How to Get Over Your Self 101

6 The Safety Catch: The Hidden Benefits of Insecurity 125

7 The Museum of Failure: The Case for Embracing Your Errors 151

8 Memento Mori: Death as a Way of Life 179

Epilogue: Negative Capability 205

Acknowledgements 213

Notes 215

Index 227

Reading Group Guide

1. When you first read about the "negative path" and Alan Watts's "backwards law" in chapter 1, did you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with Oliver Burkeman that these might be more sensible strategies for happiness than positive thinking? Have you ever experienced a failure that turned into a success when you stopped pushing yourself to achieve a goal?

2. In chapter 2, Burkeman writes, "For the Stoics, the ideal state of mind was tranquility . . . to be achieved not by strenuously chasing after enjoyable experiences but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one's circumstances." In chapter 6, Burkeman visits Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where a woman tells him, "The things you need for happiness aren't the things you think you need." If a Stoic philosopher or a resident of Kibera were to speak at a Get Motivated! seminar, what might they have to say about insecurity and uncertainty that Dr. Robert Schuller wouldn't want his audience to hear?

3. When Burkeman visits the modern-day Stoic Keith Seddon and his wife Jocelyn at their home, Jocelyn describes her debilitating illness as a "dark gift." What is your dark gift? What insights and experiences has it given you that you might not have had without it?

4. In chapter 3, Burkeman cites the Zen Buddhist Barry Magid's view of the tragedy of Oedipus as the backwards law in mythological form: struggling to escape our demons is what gives them their power. What are other examples of this from fiction, history, recent events, or your own life?

5. Burkeman makes a case for Buddhist "non-attachment" as a key component of the negative path to happiness. Do you agree that it is usually pointless to attempt to change "mental weather"? Or are you inclined to think that we can control or even force our moods and behaviors?

6. Burkeman posits that if self-help books actually worked, there would be no need for new self-help books. In chapter 3, he uses procrastination as an example of a behavior that motivational techniques fail to change. Why, according to Burkeman, is Buddhist non-attachment a more helpful tool for overcoming procrastination than tactics like creating lists of goals or systems of rewards?

7. Chapter 4 explores why setting goals can be a counterproductive or even destructive practice. The story of the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest, where eight climbers died reaching the summit, makes a compelling argument. What are some of the reasons that the stronger one's emotional investment in a goal, the greater the potential for something to go wrong? Have you ever experienced "summit fever"? What were the results?

8. In chapter 4, Burkeman touches on several ways goals can go wrong: We set goals that are too simple, don't take all the variables of a situation into account, or don't allow for the introduction of new information. We set goals that disregard the consequences of what we do in order to achieve them. We set goals that are simply bad goals. What are some alternatives to goal-setting that Burkeman presents? How are Stoic and/or Buddhist principals implicit in these?

9. According to the epigraph from Wei Wu Wei at the beginning of chapter 5, people are unhappy because almost everything they think about and do is for the self, which does not exist. Do you agree with Eckhart Tolle and Alan Watts that self, in the form of thought or ego or the boundary between the body and the rest of the world, does not exist? How are these concepts helpful in the search for happiness?

10. In chapter 6, Burkeman explores the hidden benefits of insecurity and the many irrational ways we have of fooling ourselves into thinking we are safe when we may not be. He writes, "Seeing a television report of a terrorist attack on foreign soil, you might abandon plans for an overseas holiday, in order to hang on to your feeling of safety—when, in truth, spending too much time sitting on the sofa watching television might pose a far greater threat to your survival." But fear is a natural and unavoidable presence in our lives. Have you ever acted irrationally out of fear? What tools or strategies does Burkeman recommend to help us embrace and thereby deal realistically with fear?

11. It would be difficult to be less secure than the inhabitants of the Kibera neighborhood that Burkeman describes in chapter 6. He asks, "Why is it that places such as Kibera aren't unequivocally at the bottom of every assessment of happiness levels every time?" He does not find a wholly satisfying answer to this question. He does, however, offer insight into how feeling insecure or vulnerable can lead to a more meaningful life. What can we learn about relationships, ambition, material wealth, hope, etc., from the people who live in Kibera?

12. In chapter 7, Burkeman writes of his visit to GfK Custom Research in Michigan, which houses "the museum of failed products." What do the products in this museum demonstrate about failure? Why is it good to fail, whether in business, in the life of an individual, or in the evolution of a species? Think of yourself as the Director of Product Development for your life. What failed products have you created, and what did you learn?

13. Writing of human beings' innate fear of death in chapter 8, Burkeman cites Ernest Becker, author of the bestseller The Denial of Death. According to Becker, what is an "immortality project"? Do you agree with his sweeping definition? If Becker is correct that the denial of death "is far too deep-rooted for us ever to hope to unseat it," what are some ways we might at least become more comfortable with mortality? In doing so, what would we stand to gain?

14. Before reading The Antidote, what were your beliefs about setting goals and accumulating "the things you need" as a means of achieving happiness? Did the book change your thinking?

15. In The Antidote, Burkeman explores many definitions of the concept of happiness: having everything you need; setting goals that you work toward and reach; living without regret; enjoying every moment of your life; always feeling positive about your life; living without fear of death; feeling safe and secure; believing in yourself and your ability to succeed; living with mystery and uncertainty. He dismisses some of these and embraces others. What is your definition of happiness? Which of Burkeman's "antidotes" to positive thinking will you use?

Guide written by Patricia Daneman

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The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
clahain1 More than 1 year ago
Reading THE ANTIDOTE: HAPPINESS FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN'T STAND POSITIVE THINKING isn't a comfortable experience. I'd run into an excerpt in the online magazine BRAIN PICKINGS and was prepared for a snide, curmudgeonly critique of our be-happy-or-something's-wrong-with-you culture. And Burkeman certainly demonstrates many of the hallmarks of a grumpy old man. He's skeptical, judgmental, argumentative. He also seems to be onto something that most of us, in our rush to capture joy and fulfillment in a (recycled) bottle, never manage to grasp: prayers, wishes and abundance spells aside, things do not always work out for the best. Worse, as good as things might be at the moment, it'll all head downhill as we inevitably age and die.   One day the sun will rise without us. That's the plain truth of the matter. It's also, according to Burkeman, why it's so important that we live our time here on earth with our eyes wide open. Even if it's hard. And scary.  Burkman gathers evidence from various schools of philosophy/religion/psychology. One of the most entertaining parts of the book is the chapter about his week in the forests of Massachusetts attempting  Buddhist meditation. His evaluation of the power our momentary (and often inaccurate) thoughts/judgments have over our perception of our world is fascinating.  I also enjoyed his discussion of Stoicism, basically, the idea that emotional pain results not from outside events themselves, but from our judgement about those events. This isn't, as many people believe, an attitude of "life's terrible so deal with it." It's more "plan for the worst and hope it doesn't turn  out quite so bad."  Some would call this crass pessimism or even nihilism, the belief that life is essentially meaningless. I don't think this is Burkeman's  contention at all. He seems to be prescribing an unsentimental common sense. Like, save for retirement because, though you may die  before you need the money, it'll be worse to be old and destitute. Or, if your cholesterol is high, skip the fried food--sure, you're going to die anyway, but why rush into it?  According to the author, rather than being a depressing way to live, this close attention to reality, especially the reality of our own mortality, can actually lead to a meaningful and--dare we suggest-- joyful life. So, in the end, THE ANTIDOTE isn't an argument against optimism and positive thinking. The question it addresses is far more basic and useful than that. Namely, does it really matter whether  the glass is half full or half empty if you don't appreciate the contents? Reading this book requires and open mind and some bravery, but it's worth the effort. 
neceD More than 1 year ago
I bought this book as a gift, but as I paged through it I was drawn to read it. The author did fascinating research on familiar theories in the business and psychology world. It was an entertaining, informative, and "good news" read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I keep this book on my phone so I can look through it when things aren't too good.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago