Happiness tips from the man who's tried it all

Oliver Burkeman writes weekly for the Guardian about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness.

Oliver Burkeman writes weekly for the Guardian about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness. Here, the author of HELP!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done offers his advice on the best and worst of what the happiness industry has to offer.

Q: What’s the connection between happiness and getting stuff done?

A: It cuts both ways. On the one hand, we all have to-do lists and family obligations and email inboxes and the rest of it, and learning simple techniques to stay in control of all that is surely crucial to any lasting sense of calm. On the other hand, I think it’s a big error to associate major achievements with happiness, so I’m no fan of self-help authors who insist on hyper-strenuous goal-setting: by definition, goals are always in the future, and they can all too easily pull you away from focusing on the present. And being engaged with the present moment, Buddhists, experimental psychologists and many others agree, seems to be key to feeling happy.

Q: What are some of the best ideas the “happiness industry” has come up with? (ie., things you’ve found to be effective.)

A: Something I found difficult to accept at first is that sometimes the cheesiest, most corny-sounding ideas are actually the most effective. The most obvious example is keeping a gratitude journal – a brief daily note of things for which you feel grateful. I’d never have thought of myself as the kind of person to do this, but the fact is that it works (based on personal experience, but also some good scientific studies). Mindfulness meditation is another notion that some people dismiss as far out, but which really just embodies the very simple principle that it’s more fruitful to develop a gentle tolerance towards your negative emotions than to try to stamp them out with positive thinking.

Q: What’s the worst happiness advice you’ve ever encountered?

A: “Think positive” is probably the worst – along with all the traditional self-help techniques that owe their origins to positive thinking. Obviously I’m not opposed to people feeling positive, but the strenuous effort to discipline your mind to be upbeat is usually counterproductive. Some studies show that when people with low self-esteem are asked to repeat “affirmations” – such as “I am a loveable person!” – it actually makes them feel worse, because their minds immediately generate all sorts of objections to the claim.

Also, The Secret. Don’t get me started on The Secret.

Q: Have your years of research changed your understanding of what happiness actually is?

A: The main two things that emerged from consuming far too many self-help books (as well as interviewing psychologists, attending personal development workshops and listening to bizarre self-hypnosis CDs…) were that looking for One Big Secret of Happiness is a mistake, and that seeking massive instantaneous change is self-defeating. The commercial imperatives of the self-help industry mean every guru wants to sell us his or her own trademarked solution, but what really worked for me was a host of smaller tips and tricks. And the human mind just isn’t set up for enormous overnight transformation; incrementalism is a far better path.

Q: What’s your advice for anyone who wants to be happier?

A: In a certain sense, the answer is “stop trying to be happier”. I certainly don’t mean resigning yourself to a job or relationship or living situation that you hate – but rather, easing up on yourself and not assuming that you’re a basket-case in need of fixing up. As the psychologist Carl Rogers famously said, “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” I’m not sure it’s really a paradox, though. Once you realize you’re already OK, trying to become more-than-OK stops being a terrifyingly urgent necessity and becomes an enjoyable challenge instead.