Book Review: Help! by Oliver Burkeman

A few months ago I reviewed Oliver Burkeman’s recent book The Antidote, which is a powerful meditation against conventional self-help gospel and in favor of a different, darker sort of path for

After I wrote the review, I met Oliver in New York and he gave me a copy of his earlier book entitled Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. It’s a collection of his columns in The Guardian. It’s fantastic — full of insight, cyncial quips and cheap shots, and amusing yet still very wise suggestions on how to live the good life. It’s also easy to read. Each column is a couple pages long and the topics vary quite a bit, so you can skip around without feeling guilty.

I stand by my claim that Oliver is one of the most interesting commentators on, and curators of, the vast self-help space.

Favorite quotes from the book below.

SMART goals: ‘Smart’ stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bounded, and it’s one of those acronyms that ought to make you suspicious from the outset, if only because it spells out a slightly too convenient word.

The other day, I learned of some breakthrough psychological research which proves that contributing to good causes stimulates the same part of the brain as receiving large sums of money — only more so. Giving to others, it turns out, really may be the key to happiness. About 35 minutes later, I ran into a ‘charity mugger,’ collecting for a human rights organization, and became consumed with a quasi-homicidal rage that only worsened as he trotted after me down the street, stoking fantasies of breaking his clipboard in two and dropping it into pieces at his feet. There seems to be a contradiction here. Some possible conclusions: a) my brain is hardwired wrongly; b) the psychology researchers screwed up, or c) there are only certain conditions under which giving makes you happy, and being bullied by an out-of-work actor with a goatee isn’t one of them.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: when really big crises occur, people often find inner strength; it’s the little things that drive us crazy. Deep down, we know we can escape bereavement, and maybe illness and divorce, but we think we shouldn’t have to deal with queues or irritating colleagues.

The scholar Dacher Keltner makes a powerful case that embarrassment is evolution’s answer to the ‘comittment problem’: it’s in everyone’s interests to collaborate for long-term gain, but how do you weed out the conmen who want to take advantage? Perhaps because they’re unembarassable. Embarrassment — signalled by facial microexpressions that can’t be faked and that are remarkably consistent across cultures — ‘reveals how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us together.’ In the moment, you realize you’ve come to the restaurant without your wallet, your eyes shoot down, your head titles, a smile flickers. These are the ‘the most potent nonverbal cues we have to an individual’s commitment to the moral order.’

On a really bad day, I may spend hours stuck in angst-ridden meanderings, wondering if I need to make major changes in my life. It’s usually then that I realize I’ve forgotten to eat lunch.

Ted Huston, a University of Texas psychology professor who runs the PAIR Project, a long-term study of married couples that began in 1981. The project has reached numerous intruiging conclusions, such as that couples who are ‘particularly lovey-dovey’ as newlyweds are more likely to divorce.

We don’t know our friends nearly as well as we imagine. Research demonstrates that we tend to assume our friends agree with us — on politics, ethics, etcetera — more than they really do….Friendship may be less about being drawn to someone’s personality than about finding someone willing to endorse your sense of your own personality. In agreeing to keep your company, or lend an ear, a friend provides the ‘social-identity support’ we crave. You needn’t be a close match, nor deeply familiar with their psyche, to strike this mutual deal. And once a friendship has begun, cognitive dissonance helps keep it going: having decided that someone’s your friend, you want to like them, if only to confirm they you made the right decision. We don’t want to know everything about our fiends, Gill and Swann suggest: what we seek is ‘pragmatic accuracy.’ … Friendship as an agreement to keep each other company, overlook each other’s faults, and not probe too deeply in ways that might undermine the friendship.

“One of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption, ‘I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way.’ They don’t see that their behavior may be irrelevant, or worse, that they succeeded in spite of it.” – Marshall Goldsmith in his book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Neil Pasricha from has a deep affinity for another category of pleasures, usually neglected by purveyors of pop psychology, which fall under the heading of “relief”: the joyous moment an unpleasant experience stops, or when things don’t turn out half as badly as you were expecting. Who’d dissent, for example, from Pasricha’s observation that there’s a weirdly disproportionate enjoyment, when hauling luggage or shopping, in ‘picking up something that turns out to be a lot lighter than you expected’? Or ‘dropping your cell phone on the sidewalk and then realizing it’s totally fine’? Or arriving late for a rendezvous, sweaty and exhausted, only to find the other person’s even later’?

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