Cheer up, it may happen

The self-help genre has always had its critics. Even in 1983, before the craze for self-improvement had really got going, Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos was taking aim at its habits of mind. Then, in 1998, we got Christopher Buckley’s God is My Broker, which delineates the ‘7½ Laws of Spiritual and Financial Growth’. (Conclusion: ‘The only way to get rich from a get-rich book is to write one.’) More recently, we’ve had attacks on positive thinking from Barbara Ehrenreich (Smile or Die), Pascal Bruckner (Perpetual Euphoria) and Susan Cain (Quiet). If the grinning guru with the headset microphone is one of the cultural emperors of our age, there seems to be no shortage of voices happy to declare him in the altogether.

So numerous are these voices, indeed, that one could be forgiven for asking whether we need yet another tome cocking a snook at the happiness hucksters. But Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote is something very interesting: a book that argues that the self-help industry is not only ineffective but also counterproductive, and that happiness is more likely to arrive through adopting the very attitudes on which its purveyors train their guns. It’s an elegant thesis, all the more impressive for the fact that it doesn’t eschew the goal of increased wellbeing so beloved of the self-helpers.

The malaise to which this thesis is ‘the antidote’ is the ‘happiness industry’ that in the US alone is estimated to be worth over two billion dollars. Burkeman, who writes about psychology for The Guardian, argues from sound scientific principles that the solutions peddled by the ‘evangelists of optimism’ are not just vacuous but self-defeating, that ‘the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable’. What Burkeman calls ‘the white bear challenge’ – try not to think of a white bear for a minute (you will think of little else, of course) – is, in this sense, paradigmatic; remarkably, experimental subjects who are told of an unhappy event and instructed not to feel unhappy about it end up feeling more unhappy than people who are told of the same event but given no instructions on how to feel. Like a Chinese finger trap, Burkeman suggests, unhappiness only tightens its grip when we try to pull ourselves out of it.

But his is not a counsel of despair. In place of what he calls the ‘cult of optimism’, Burkeman recommends the ‘backwards law’ or ‘negative path to happiness’. This is a tradition with a respectable history – one that goes back to the Stoic philosophers, who developed ‘a kind of muscular calm in the face of trying circumstances’. Central to the Stoical view of life is what Burkeman calls ‘negative visualisation’. By dwelling on the things that might go wrong we not only lessen the shock when they do so; we also avoid ‘hedonic adaptation’, the process by which new sources of pleasure – whether minor, like an iPod, or major, like a marriage – are relegated to the backdrop of our lives. In short, by focusing on what we stand to lose we come to appreciate what we have.

The problem with motivational thinking, suggest Burkeman, is that it isn’t really about getting things done; it’s about ‘how to feel in the mood for getting things done’. Drawing on some key insights from Buddhism, he suggests that taking a ‘non-attached’ attitude to (say) work can be far more effective. In situations where you don’t feel like doing something, motivational thinking can make matters worse ‘by surreptitiously strengthening your belief that you need to feel motivated before you can act’. Better to disregard such thinking, embrace the negative feelings, and act.

Fundamental to The Antidote is a meditation on what Burkeman regards as the myth of an autonomous self with the power to take control of its own fate. And while many of his arguments are grounded in good sense, there are occasions on which his investigations lead him into some questionable company. (The inspirational musings of Eckhart Tolle are, I think, treated rather too charitably.) On the whole, however, he is a model of sanity. Certainly he has an eye for the detail that will appeal to those who, when they smell incense, imagine that there must be bullshit nearby. To take one example: If you find the idea that life is not a journey but ‘a dance’ a little too airy-fairy, consider the Formula One pit crew that managed to improve its performance-times by concentrating on style instead of speed. Whether Michael Schumacher won all those races by doing the same I very much doubt. But as a metaphor it works for me.

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‘My aim in life isn’t so much the pursuit of happiness as the happiness of pursuit’, writes Charles Saatchi in Be the Worst You Can Be, thus revealing a Stoical streak of which Burkeman would no doubt approve. Not that Saatchi is seeking anyone’s approval. On the contrary, the ad man turned art collector (and current Mr Nigella Lawson) comes across as remarkably self-assured and even self-satisfied in his latest book, which is notable for its question-and-answer format, illuminated lettering, ersatz gold-leaf, double columns and black and white photographs. Be the Worst You Can Be is not without its pleasures. But don’t expect to be charmed by its author.

The questions are from ‘journalists and readers’ and range from the matter-of-fact to the whimsical to the existential to the downright rude. Saatchi’s answers are similarly varied, though a number of distinct ‘genres’ emerge. For example, there’s Saatchi the agony aunt (‘My advice is to give your [alcoholic] husband a taste of rock bottom’), Saatchi the sage (‘A sharp tongue does not mean you have a keen mind’) and Saatchi the wag (‘As you know, 99% of lawyers give the rest a bad name’). This last is by far the dominant mode and is certainly the one most readers will warm to, though Saatchi’s humour is closely allied to his rather cynical view of the world. Sometimes, indeed, the humour goes missing and the cynicism is revealed in all its glory, as when the author haughtily dismisses ‘do-gooders’ for wanting to make the world ‘a better place’.

Written in lieu of the interviews its author declines to give, Be the Worst You Can Be is a peculiar book. Though often amused by Saatchi’s answers, I found myself occasionally irritated, too, and ultimately unable to shake the feeling that the author’s line in self-deprecation is really a kind of self-regard. He also makes a number of mistakes. For example, he says that ‘42.7% of statistics are made up on the spot’. As anyone who has looked into this area will know, the correct figure is 61.3%.

Oliver Burkeman
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking
Text Publishing; $32.99; 236pp

Charles Saatchi
Be the Worst You Can Be: Life’s Too Long for Patience and Virtue
Booth-Clibborn Editions; £9.99; 159pp

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First published in The Australian.