So this is happiness?

Self-help books. Has anyone who is really successful ever actually read one of these and used what they read to become successful? And just how do you define success anyway? Isn’t that something that is very dependent on the individual in question?

As you’ve probably already guessed I’m not really a fan of self-help books. There are many reasons for this. Anytime I’ve been recommended a self-help book I’ve always thought (but mostly kept it to myself) that if the book was really any good then the person recommending it would probably be calmer, happier and generally less mental. Yes, it’s probably not the best sign that I often am advised to read self-help books by different people – sometimes very shortly after meeting me – but I like to think those people recommend everyone to read the book.

Another problem I have with these types of books is that I usually feel quite defeated by the introduction. The author usually starts by explaining who you, their reader, is. Generally you are someone with a very busy life, juggling many responsibilities, demanding perfection from yourself and probably from others too. You’re working yourself to bone to have “the-perfect-life”, you’re doing everything you can and yet somehow contentment and joy are always just beyond reach? Is that you? It’s not me. I’d have to do a serious amount of self-improvement to reach that level of dysfunctional efficiency. The kind of introduction I’d relate to would read something like:

Right now are you sat in a comfy chair? With some nice snacks to munch on? Do you get a cozy sense of contentment from the knowledge that while your lifestyle isn’t the healthiest you still don’t have any life threatening diseases unlike the people in the daytime tear-jerker you have on in the background? Do you really want to do something more constructive with your time? You might even have a very detailed idea of what you want to achieve, but somehow are completely unable to get yourself together enough to even, let’s say, get out of bed in the morning when the alarm sounds? Do you occasionally wonder if it’s not good that deep down you’re fairly contented with your life even though, by pretty much anyone’s standards, it’s a mess?

And the problem is if I did pick up a book like this I still don’t think that it would be any use to me because presumably the next part of the book would be all about convincing me that yes it is not good to be so easily contented – and I’m not sure that is something I can believe in. Particularly after reading the self-help introductions aimed at those who really are giving it their all – they sound miserable! Probably they should bin the book and just chill out for a while – stop being so hard on themselves.

I know that some people are horrified by such an easy-going attitude. I think they fear it might be contagious. They worry that one morning they will awake to find that everyone has decided to not to do anything – it’s all going to be left up to them. They’ll need a really good book on time management that day.

If it makes you feel any better while deep-down I’m reasonably content, on the surface I’m fairly anxious about the matters of day to day living – this is possibly why people keep recommending me self-help books.

All that said I am quite open to new ideas or trying to change my perspective on everything and anything. So I often will read what is recommended, if they give me the book or I happen to come across it shortly after it’s been suggested. One book that I did find quite good was The Art of Effortless Living by Ingrid Bacci. Again I didn’t fit the profile of the reader but I liked the general message of the book – no it isn’t that you should not make any effort (admit it that is what you were thinking). I think her message is that if you become more conscious of yourself and your surroundings, if you are more present in the moment, then that awareness will help you chose the best course of action to take in any given circumstance and so life should feel less like hard work. It has some good meditation exercises in it. Unfortunately, for me, it becomes a little too ethereal in the last part of the book. I will admit that I’m very far from being “present” generally, so perhaps I’m not sufficiently aware yet to appreciate this part.

So what made me think about self improvement? Well, I was watching episode 1, Seneca on Anger, of Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness on channel4od. This wasn’t personally recommended to me. I don’t have a TV but I still like a lot of distraction and so I watch shows online. It’s the same as having a TV really but you choose what you watch and actually deciding what to watch can take ages. Anyway I came across this and gave it go. I enjoyed it but disagreed with a few things, and I thought well maybe this would make an enjoyable bit of rambling to add to twimii.

Seneca was a philosopher in Rome and advisor to the caesar Nero, who was apparently a bit of brute. He dealt very severely with public disorder or protest and this may have been what lead Seneca to devote time advising the good citizens of Rome to expect less and to not get so uptight about things as to end up dead or worse. OK, might be over-simplifying a bit there but essentially that was his philosophy. Expect less. That’s why you’re getting so angry. You expect to have a reasonable caesar. What is wrong with you? Don’t you know some things are beyond your control? Now don’t you start raising your voice at me – I advise the caesar you know…

OK that bit’s just totally made up but you get the picture. The presenter, Alain de Botton, suggested that if you contemplated how wrong everything could go regularly and developed a more pessimistic outlook it could help you be less disturbed and disgruntled by the terrible terrible disappointments you will undoubtedly suffer time and time again. Shockingly Seneca was a depressive, suffering bouts of near suicidal depressions throughout his life. Actually the way it was presented, this philosophy did make some sense. It’s just that I was quite amused that no connection was made with this fairly depressing outlook on life and the great man’s tendency to be depressed.

Seneca also noted how rich people are more inclined to display their anger than poor people. And bless him, he believed this is because rich people expect more out of life and so they are less able to cope with life’s disappointments. Clearly Seneca never actually experienced any financial deprivation that wasn’t self-imposed. It seems likely that Alain de Botton also hasn’t had to face this situation (and I hope he never shall) as he commented on how economy-class passengers are less likely to erupt at the check-in desk than business or first class passengers. I would have to say, being someone who has quite a temper, and being someone who has experienced times where money wasn’t a concern and times when it definitely has been, that to me it seems that the reason why poorer people are more inclined to accept negative circumstances with grace is that they are more likely to suffer negative consequences from venting their anger than rich people. In fact rich people are more likely to profit from displaying anger, as businesses or organisations are afraid to lose their custom or patronage and will work hard to clear up any upset. As we all know businesses can be happy enough to rid themselves of a difficult client who doesn’t spend much whereas they will do everything they can to keep large clients on their books, even if doing so is in fact unprofitable, simply because of the cache of having such clients on their books.

Seneca’s example involved some rich man who brutally executed a slave for dropping a tray of glasses. Seneca believed that the slave-owner should expect that slaves will, from time to time, drop things. I agree. Who wouldn’t? However I’m pretty sure the slave-owner in question didn’t pay the blindest bit of notice of Seneca. And I would assume that anyone unfortunate enough to work for the monster was extra careful not to drop anything and to hide the evidence if they did, confirming in the brute’s mind the effectiveness of his angry outburst. And you can imagine just how an outburst of anger on slaves’ part would have been treated. Which probably made them accept gracefully, albeit mournfully, the fate of their fellow worker. Was this graceful acceptance of unjustifiable brutality the result of their philosophical attitude towards injustice or was it simply because of their inability to overcome a might that was anything but right?

My problem with Seneca’s philosophy is that the people who could get away with displaying their anger could simply ignore him and the poor old Roman out on the streets protesting about – whatever ancient Romans protested about – not only faced horrible consequences for voicing their (probably) justifiable anger but also had to accept the great philosopher’s advice that they should simply expect less.

I guess, in those days, when the less well off would mount protests it would be when they believed they had nothing left to lose.

I don’t know that much about Seneca. I don’t think I’d heard of him before watching the show. I’m aware that I’m doing him a disservice and I apologise. For any fans of his philosophy who happen to read this, yes I know that after just one short show I don’t really have a clue what he was about or what he stood for or against. And I’m sure if I did actually read some of his works I would find them very useful and informative. I probably won’t bother though because there are a lot of things I need to be more informed about. So Seneca will just be added to the ever growing list of things-I-wish-I-knew-more-about.

I enjoyed the programme and I’ll probably check out the rest of the series. If you want to as well here’s the link.

Although I guess I should expect that it won’t be shown on 4od anymore. Otherwise if that happened and I wasn’t expecting it I might get angry. And that isn’t good. Pessimism – the first step to happiness. Apparently.