I’ve long overcome that sheepish feeling when browsing the Self-help section at the bookstore. Sure, How to Make Friends and Influence People or the Seven Steps to World Domination in your bookcase aren’t exactly the sort of titles to suggest a deep intellect but I like to keep an open mind when checking out the latest hardcover secret to happiness and prosperity. Basically I try not to diss a book just because it’s got “soup” on the cover.
I will concede that publishers have gone a bit overboard with churning out the number of self-help titles in the last 20 years or so. As with anything that proliferates you’re stuck with having to wade through the swamp of well, BS. HELP! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman is ideal for those curious enough about self-improvement but too cool to buy into mind-body-soul mantras.
Since 2006 Burkeman has been writing a column in The Guardian, self-mockingly titled, This Column Will Change Your Life. It has garnered a large enough following and accumulated a substantial amount of content to warrant a book version or if you like, a best-of collection.
Approaching the subject with rational skepticism, Burkeman has made it his mission to sort through the best and the worse of self-help literature to tell us what works and what doesn’t. He doesn’t hesitate to call out the snake oil salesmen nor does he dismiss all self-help advice as hokum because he genuinely believes there is something we can all learn from research in human-happiness, however flawed.
I reckon Burkeman’s greatest achievement is his ability to strip down what has been pedaled as new enlightenment by the self-help gurus, into realistic terms with wry humor and wit. I say realistic, because he reminds us that self improvement is a lifelong project for anyone who cares to make the effort, and it would be ridiculous to take a prescriptivist approach. From managing your inbox to procrastinating less, the topics he tackles are easy to relate to; for example, why your friends’ Facebook statuses usually make their lives seem more awesome than they actually are or his explanation of the Color of the Bike Shed phenomenon, where the time spent on any item is inversely related to its cost and importance.
Although I sometimes wonder why buy a book when you can read all its contents online, Burkeman’s writing has obviously been compelling enough for its publishers to re-release the title with a new so-called mass-market cover (notice the cute belly-up turtle). Even if it doesn’t change your life, HELP! will definitely entertain.