Oliver Burkeman and the Happiness Industry

Image: Oliver Burkeman / Canongate Books

Vingt Paris Magazine, 13/07/2011

Five years ago the journalist Oliver Burkeman embarked on a mission, a mission that might sound about as enticing to some of us as a bout of gastroenteritis, but a mission nonetheless. He decided, through his weekly column in the Guardian newspaper, to explore the world of self-help books; taking a rational, reasonable, journalistic approach to an area not always synonymous with rationality or reason (or indeed reality).

“I think everyone on some level would like to be a bit more happy, or efficient, or achieve their goals,” he explains in a phone interview from New York, where he lives. “I very much doubt that most of these books are going to contain the answer to that, but there’s a tiny little part of you that thinks: it would be fantastic if they did.”

“That was the idea, to sort the wheat from the chaff, knowing that there would be a very large amount of chaff,” he says.

What has emerged from the project is a book, Help! (modestly subtitled ‘How To Become Slightly Happier And Get A Bit More Done’; modesty being another quality often foreign to the world of self-help). It is an insightful, remarkable account of what could slightly pretentiously be termed the modern condition; how the technological and societal changes of recent times have impacted on our psychology, and our age-old search for happiness. Also it’s very funny.

For centuries the quest for Happiness has been the realm of philosophers and psychologists, great thinkers and earnest academics. Nowadays it seems the public are more willing to take their cues from hypnotists and gurus with no apparent qualifications aside from their own unshakeable belief in themselves.”It’s such a subjective and open topic,” Burkeman, a former Foreign Press Association’s Young Journalist of the Year, suggests. “In Ancient Greece and Rome the same distinction wasn’t made between philosophy and practical self-help. The idea was to come up with answers and then put them into practice. I think the modern self-help industry is filling the gap that academic psychology and philosophy have left open by asking theoretical questions.”“A quack who claims to be able to cure your migraines is going to be found out pretty soon,” he continues. “But happiness being this sort of nebulous and never ending quest, it’s very easy to give the impression that a book or a technique can help when actually sometimes it’s making things worse.”Not all “gurus” are necessarily out to con you, according to Burkeman, nor are they necessarily purely cynical. “But they’re certainly often not very helpful” he says.A major self-help sacred cow humbled in Help! is the power of Positive Thinking, and the battle against negativity. “There’s quite a lot of evidence that in fact this puts you into a state of warfare with your own psychology. You’re constantly on the lookout for negativity creeping in, and this is an exhausting and not very happy-making way to live,” Burkeman says.Also not advisable are the kind of total personality makeovers espoused by some prominent self-help gurus, the “seductive appeal of fresh starts” as Burkeman puts it. “When you’re life isn’t going how you want it to go, there’s a huge temptation to say: OK, from now on, everything’s different! Gonna’ go to the gym everyday, gonna stop procrastinating…because it feels as though you’re making a proper effort.”

“It’s a noble feeling,” he says, “But one of the findings of a lot of psychological studies is that willpower is a depletable resource. By putting the effort into going to the gym every day, you’ll have less left over to stick to your work schedule, or not eat fast food. So these (projects) become very short lived and they make you feel worse because you’ve set out to do this great thing and failed.”

Throughout the book other self-help myths are exposed, from the oft cited statistic that we only use ten percent of our brains — “There’s just no way you could ever measure it! It doesn’t get out of the starting gate!” — to the endless list of metaphors to explain why we do what we do, that only lead us into further Wittgensteinian tangles. And it’s not just self-help gurus who are guilty of that one.

“There’s one that’s used across the whole of professional psychology, this idea that emotions are a bit like gases and we’re a bit like bottles, and the pressure builds up inside and needs to be vented,” Burkeman recalls. “It makes a lot of sense and in some cases it’s true, but it’s limiting because it assumes that ‘letting it all out’ is always right,” he continues.

“There’s a lot of evidence that venting your anger is a fairly useless way of dealing with things. Beating up a pillow when you’re cross with somebody, to the extent that it seems to work does so because it tires you out rather than because it takes the anger and moves it outside of you. The reason it’s wrong to bottle things up is because of how sparkling drinks work in bottles, not because of how human brains work!” he says.

Help! also contains some advice for all those self-described perfectionists. “A lot of people, including myself in the past, are secretly proud to be a perfectionist, because it implies that you have incredibly high standards,” he explains. “But what I came to realise, and a lot of the research backs it up, is that perfectionism is a 100 percent unmitigatedly unhelpful thing. The perfect standard is unreachable, or not even definable in many cases.”

“It’s good to have ambitious goals,” he adds, “and there may be times in life when it’s good to have a crazily wild ambitious goal – which you should then divide into much smaller goals in order to achieve – but to have one that’s literally by definition unreachable is just a recipe for misery.”

Indeed the self-help writer David Burns in his book Feeling Good suggests trying to have a deliberately mediocre day. “Try to be 60 percent as good as you think you can be and see what happens,” recalls Burkeman. “Often you fail and end up having a very good day by accident.”

So enough of this self-defeating pessimism — what does work? Is there any help for us wretched souls?

One of the techniques that Burkeman found most useful was setting tiny goals: doing five minutes work on a project, or taking a 30 second walk in the morning before work. Indeed he carries a kitchen-timer with him everywhere for just this purpose. “Because it’s such a small goal it sneaks past the part of your brain that is lying in wait to put up resistance,” he explains.

“It’s completely absurd and it makes you laugh,” he says, “but you’re sneaking in something that, if repeated and expanded incrementally, will make a far bigger and lasting difference.”

Burkeman also discovered, seemingly to his chagrin, that the cheesiest, cringiest advice is very often the best. One of his examples is keeping a gratitude journal, in which you write down the things that you are grateful for. “If you’re not a big fan of Oprah Winfrey that sounds kind of sappy, but there are good studies that show it works,” he explains. “I’ve found it to be really surprisingly useful. It calls back into mind the things that you’re happy about in your life and stops you acclimatising to them.”

Self-help books have never had the pull here in France that they do in the US and UK, which Burkeman believes is down to the “individualist ethos and focus on career achievement” of America “and to a lesser extent the UK”.

“Historically the modern self-help movement goes back to the development in American Christianity,” Burkeman says. “Of grafting the ideas of salvation and redemption onto ideas of worldly success, and the Calvinist responsibility to keep not only your home but your mind in order. I assume that didn’t develop in the same way (in France).”

However, the best-selling book here in 2010 was Indignez-vous!, a call to arms inciting the public to shake off their apathy and do something about the insidious, oppressive forces that control their lives; a self-help book of sorts, if perhaps a very French one.

“That’s quite possibly enormously admirable,” says Burkeman, “But very much opposed to the US tradition of self-help which often focuses entirely on the individual, even to the extent of recommending that people ignore the news media because stories about bad things happening will only drag their moods down!”

The conclusion that emerges from Burkeman’s project, as much as there is any one conclusion, is that for all its outward eccentricity and off-putting characters, there is some useful advice to be found in the self-help section of the bookshop. For all the mountains of chaff, as it were, there remains a little wheat.

“Even in some of these crazy books written by gleaming eyed maniacal gurus who want you to adopt their system and change your whole lives – there’s still some good advice there,” he concludes. “It’s just that you’ve got to not approach it with the idea that this particular author, if you just surrender your entire life to him, is going to transform everything.” Sound advice. Now do as he says.

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