via Personal Message
Oliver Burkeman is the author of This Column Will Change Your Life, a weekly column in the Guardian about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness. His widely praised book Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done (Canongate Books, 2011) is a collection of these columns. He also writes on politics (including the terrific satirical column All the president’s emails: “In a unique experiment in democratic transparency, Barack Obama has agreed to copy the Guardian in on his otherwise highly confidential electronic communications”) and closely followed the US election in 2008. A former Londoner, he now lives in Brooklyn, New York City.
I am one of those people (and believe me, there’s a growing number of us) who hangs out, shamelessly, for Burkeman’s Guardian column each week. He seems to have read and absorbed every “self-help” book that’s been written – not only by the big philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Epictetus, Nietzsche …) and great writers (Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain …) but the ones with titles like Getting Things Done, The Little Book of Calm, The Secret and so on ad nauseum. Through this wide lens, and with his distinctive hearty scepticism and humour, he espies the useful stuff buried amongst the useless, and magnifies it wonderfully for the rest of us. Even if you’re not in the market for a bit of self-help, Burkeman has a way of approaching this guff that shows how it’s relevant to you. And, OK, even if you feel it’s not, you can still have a laugh. As others have said, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. But I take him seriously enough to have tried a number of the strategies he’s suggested, such as the gratitude journal and the Pomodoro Technique (“Ready, Set, Pomodoro!”), and I can report that they work.
My top five Change Your Life columns (in no particular order) would have to be:
Anyway, I harangued Oliver to answer a few questions for me. He was very obliging, for which I am grateful.
AY: You’ve been described as a guiding light in the gloom for those of us dazed and confused by the self-help genre. Given the masses of self-help literature you must wade through, and that occasionally the silliest-seeming ideas are the most useful, how do you sift the helpful advice from the hokum for the rest of us? What’s your own guiding light?
Action for Happiness in the UK has copped a lot of flak for its supposed over-simplification of happiness. (Personally, I think it’s a great initiative, but it could be that I’m over-simple.) Do you think it’ll fly, and/or that people will warm to the idea?
The problem here seems to me that you can’t address happiness at all unless you over-simplify it. I’m broadly in support of AfH, from what I’ve read of its goals. But I think some of the negative reaction is worth taking seriously — not least because it’s always right to be sceptical, though not cynical, when government and organisations allied to the government start promising happiness. Also, there’s an issue to do not so much with “oversimplifying” as with “too much directness” — the idea that striving hard and directly for happiness isn’t the best way to get it. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.
This is a murky question: I like your observation about the problem with the science of happiness: that “the place where happiness and sadness happen – your conscious experience of being yourself – is intrinsically first person. You can never perfectly communicate, even to your closest friend, your experience of subjectivity.” There is something reassuring, yet also lonely, about this. (Like in Anna Karenina: “Is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels?”) Do you think that people seek self-help literature because they wish to make sense of that indefinable inner experience?
Yes, absolutely; that’s surely why people read self-help, go on spiritual searches, seek therapy, and many other things.
Would we be happier if we accepted that there will always be a part of ourselves that we can’t really communicate or have others fully understand?
In the past you’ve said that something that lifts you out of a funk is beer and cheese (in modest quantities…). I just have to ask: what is your favourite beer?
One of the excellent things about living in Brooklyn is all the “craft beer” brewed by small breweries and stocked in the bars here. Bud Light has given American beer an undeserved reputation! I am partial to almost everything that comes out of the Smuttynose brewery in New Hampshire, for example.
Do you see patterns or trends or cycles in self-help, as we see in fashion and forms of physical exercise? For example, the pursuit of happiness seems pretty hot right now. The importance of living in the present, as in the work of Eckhart Tolle, seems to be taking a back seat.
I’m not sure I agree with this; it seems to me that these things are all fairly constantly present in the self-help industry, though of course in any one period one or two bestsellers may predominate. It’s possible that people find it more palatable to consume present-oriented material when their circumstances/the economy is good, and more future-oriented material when it’s not. (Although of course Eckhart Tolle would say you can be happy in the moment regardless of your economic circumstances…)
Finally, to steal a question from the Guardian, what single thing would improve the quality of your life?
Sincere answer: the ability to more consistently put into practice the things I already know make me happiest. (Time with family and old friends; time in nature; getting enough sleep…) Also, a ton of money.