Book Review from the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Help! by Oliver Burkeman. Canonsgate. £12.99
Subtitled ‘How to Become Slightly Happier and Get A Bit More Done’ this is a well written and amusing romp through one of capitalism’s biggest growth industries: self help books and ideas. Readers of The Guardian will know Burkeman as the author of the ironically titled ‘This Column Will Change Your Life’ feature, and here he tackles everything from numerology to leadership systems and Scientology.
Burkeman is an expert spotter of flummery and exaggeration and the world of self-help and personal growth literature has more than its fair share of both:
“If you want to get really stressed out…you could do worse than read Change Your Life in 30 Days, a bestselling book by the American TV life coach Rhonda Britten… [but] 30 days looks relaxed compared to Change Almost Anything in 21 Days, Change Your Life in 7 Days, Shape Shifter: Transform Your Life in One Day, and my favourite, Transform Your Life in 90 Minutes… As a sucker for quick fixes, it took me a long time to realise the problem. Deadlines induce stress and worry.”
In truth, a book knocking some of the worst excesses of this genre is easy enough to concoct, but Burkeman has also accessed a good deal of the research to make a case for what does work (usually with modest effect) compared with what manifestly doesn’t. Among the interesting findings are that the act of giving has more lasting, positive psychological effects than receiving, about why Sunday is the most depressing day of the week, and of the reasons why having experiences tends to be more fulfilling than acquiring possessions.
Burkeman is clear that one of the problems with the self-help approach is that it systematically over-estimates individual willpower and under-estimates environmental factors in making us what we are. His book is unlikely to fundamentally change many lives (and thankfully doesn’t promise to) but it manages to be alternately amusing and sobering about what is possible and impossible within the confines of the society we live in.