Webchat with Oliver Burkeman

Oliver BurkemanCan you be poor and still be truly happy? Is social media a help or a hindrance? What about anti-depressants? Oliver Burkeman is a journalist who writes 'This column will change your life' in The Guardian. 

In the past five years, he has travelled to some of the stranger corners of the 'happiness industry' in an attempt to find out what makes us tick. The result is HELP! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done, which punctures many of self-help's most common myths and offers clear-headed, practical advice on a range of topics from stress, procrastination and insomnia, to laughter, creativity and wealth.

Inner happiness | Procrastination and goals | External factors | Tips, advice and 'life-hacking' | Money | Other

Oliver Burkeman

Inner happiness

Letter Qlongdarktunnel: Do you think you can 'think yourself happy'? If your life is pretty rubbish, is it possible to force yourself to be happy by thinking or acting differently?

Letter AOliver: I really don't think it is possible, except perhaps at a very superficial level. There was a fascinating study in 2009 that showed that when people with low self-esteem were asked to repeat affirmations to themselves ("I am a loveable person!") it made them feel actively worse, because their minds immediately came up with objections. 'Forcing yourself' to feel better is based on a very odd concept of the self, when you think about it, requiring some kind of internal division where one 'you' is forcing the other 'you' into line. I'm pretty sure this is usually a recipe for internal mental warfare rather than serenity. The advice I find more useful is to try to relate differently to negative emotions - ie not to be controlled by them - rather than trying to squelch them. Paul McKenna probably wouldn't agree. 

Letter QswallowedAfly: It seems to me that people want to adopt fantastical systems to make them 'happier' instead of looking at their lifestyles, beliefs and thought patterns and making the adjustments that would improve their general sense of satisfaction and mood. What do you think? Why do people look elsewhere than their own common sense?

Letter AOliver: I think you're exactly right about 'systems'. People have tried and tried to change themselves, and then some guru comes along with what looks like a new and self-contained set of techniques and that's understandably seductive. A counter-argument though is that I think we can still benefit from tricks and techniques for putting common sense into practice, which is why some of my favourite books in this field are actually 'productivity' or 'time management' books. I know what to do - I just need help actually doing it.

Letter Qali38: I think that the key to happiness is knowing where you're going - having some goals. The winds of change may not always blow in our favour but we can adjust our sails as long as we know where we're headed, even if we get blown off track occasionally. Also, think about what you want, not what you don't want. Try it - it works! We may not always be able to control what happens but we are able to choose our response - isn't that what 'response-ability' means?!

Letter AOliver: If it works for you I wouldn't dream of disagreeing! As mentioned earlier though, sometimes I think the pop-psychology world goes too far with this stance. Seneca the Stoic (and some modern psychologists) would also say that thinking about what you don't want has some advantages - figure out the worst-case scenario (instead of always 'visualising the goal') and you're likely to find it's less catastrophic than you'd been assuming.

Letter Qjepa: I find it quite hard to be happy and I don't know why. I have two very happy and healthy children whom I adore, a job which, though stressful, I love, with lots of lovely friends and family, and a pretty good relationship with my partner. So why am I not bouncing around full of happiness? I am very aware of how awful life can be, so I guess my question is how do we appreciate what we do have?

Letter AOliver: See my answer about gratitude (and a book on that whole topic by Robert Emmons called Thanks!, I believe). But I think all but the most excruciating positive-thinking gurus would not say that 'bouncing around full of happiness' all the time is an achievable goal, so I guess I'd also suggest not setting that as the ultimate goal. But no easy answer to this one - it is the big challenge.


Procrastination and goals

Letter QaliceAliceM: The title of your book implies that readers would like to 'get a bit more done'. Don't you think that the very title of the book very much refers to the consumption society, where everyone should be productive, whose aim should always be to 'get things done'? I don't have a 'to-do list' (what a horrible term) and I see procrastination as one of the great pleasures in life.

Letter AOliver: I envy your attitude, and in some ways I'd quite like to feel no particular need to get things done. But I just do, and I think most people do, and the book title is an effort to express a way to meet that feeling halfway. I like the feeling of being productive; the challenge, I suppose, is not to make your happiness dependent on reaching some specific level of productivity or achievement. I haven't found the answer yet.

Letter Qtoomuchmonthatendothemoney: What advice would you offer someone who is a world-class procrastinator? (Apart from 'get off your arse'.)

Letter AOliver: The best advice I ever found came from an author called Julie Fast who was writing specifically for depressed people, but I think the answer applies to everyone: don't wait until you feel like doing something. Sounds so obvious, but I think it's actually quite profound. In other words, next time you're feeling actively hostile towards the idea of doing some task, stop trying to feel enthusiastic about it. The overriding message from the 'motivational' industry - that you have to get psyched up before you do something - just isn't really true, it seems to me. Often it just creates an extra hurdle.

"The best advice I ever found for procrastination is: don't wait until you feel like doing something"

Letter Qchampagnesupernova: What about having goals? Isn't that basically cosmic ordering?

Letter AOliver: I'm sceptical about self-help's focus on goalsetting, but not half as sceptical as I am about cosmic ordering, which seems to involve assuming that all you have to do to achieve the goal is ask 'the Universe' for it. Noel Edmonds is a big proponent, apparently.

Goalsetting has been massively overhyped - the big study that everyone always cites, about how Yale University students with written goals earned vastly more than those without, turns out almost certainly never to have existed. I like the observation of the productivity writer Mark Forster who points out that the only purpose of a goal is to help you decide what to do in the present.


External factors

Letter QHammerlikedaisies: Feeling good about yourself makes you happy. Giving something to someone, having your views on MN agreed with, looking good all make you happy, but none of these are things which can be bought or legislated for. So my question, what is the role of government in this? Beyond ensuring that everyone has a roof, how can they help people to be happy?

Letter AOliver: Really good question. A lot of people get understandably jumpy about government attempts to increase happiness because it sounds so Orwellian. (Bhutan famously replaced 'gross national product' with 'gross national happiness', but it's hardly a shining example of democracy.)

But I really hate the ultra-individualist ethos of much self-help culture that implies you're entirely responsible for your happiness and success, because its implied flipside is that if you're poor (in the words of one actual self-help book), You're Poor Because You Want To Be. In short, my politics are the Guardian-ish ones you'd probably expect: I'd say government has a significant role to play in lifting people out of poverty and providing the healthcare and educational opportunities that allow people to focus on being happy (instead of just staying alive) in the first place.

Letter Qnotsohotchic: Just wondering, what's your opinion on medicating depression? Recently, I have become depressed due to events beyond my control, but have always preferred to avoid drugs. I've also noticed that I'm much more inclined to feel depressed in the winter. What are your thoughts on SAD?

"I know from the experiences of several close friends that for some people, medication for depression is simply incomparable to anything else - it finally makes them feel like who they're meant to be."

Letter AOliver: This would be as good a point as any to stress that I am a journalist who has read a preposterous amount of self-help books and research papers, and run random little psychological experiments on myself, rather than any kind of qualified psychologist or psychotherapist! That said, I know from the experiences of several close friends that for some people, medication for depression is simply incomparable to anything else - it finally makes them feel like who they're meant to be, so it provides a vital starting-point for making non-medical changes. In other words, I don't think rejecting drugs on principle makes a lot of sense. (That's not to say that in many specific cases their side-effects might not outweigh the benefits.)

Letter QRannaldini: Having had the money and time for navel gazing, I have purchased a fair bit of therapy. The most useful but obvious (and yet I needed to pay to be told it) seems to be acceptance therapy - where you accept where you are now and how you feel about it, and then move forward. What do you really think about the use of therapy to find happiness?

Letter AOliver: I'm a big fan of therapy in general. Not all therapists or therapies are great for everyone, and I know it's possible to get too deeply into therapy culture, but in terms of where attitudes are in the UK right now I think the far more important message is that it's usually enormously useful and needn't be an embarrassing topic. 'Acceptance' is a fascinating topic - really easily misunderstood as 'just put up with whatever situation you're in'. I like the Carl Rogers quote: "The curious paradox is that once I accept myself just as I am, then I can change." I'm not sure it's a paradox really - more just that denying reality is an impractical starting-point for modifying it.

Letter QJustineMumsnet: Isn't happiness in part, at least, a relative term though? I'm happy because my football team is top of the league, child is best in class, my husband is fittest man on planet (am not talking literally here, obviously). If so, doesn't it follow that a proportion will always be less than happy, no matter what?

Letter AOliver: I think that's a totally accurate observation about how happiness usually works, but I'm not sure it's how happiness inevitably has to work. And in any case I think you can choose who you're comparing yourself to. This is the syndrome whereby multi-millionaires who always fly on chartered jets get miserable because they start comparing themselves to billionaires who own private planes. In other words it's not a given, but a question of what you choose to focus on - which certainly doesn't mean that 'choosing' is easily done.

Letter QJFly: Interesting principles vs techniques, as that's where I fall down. I find that I can easily adopt a philosophy, but how do I apply it? If you are overwhelmed, will a change in attitude really kick start you into action? I think most of us who struggle with getting stuff done are looking for solutions. I suppose it's like losing weight, I can embrace 'exercise more, eat less' but what do I do? I know you have to fundamentally change your outlook, but I also want practical help to 'get stuff done'.

Letter AOliver: Really good point. I precisely don't think that a change in attitude is always crucial to kick start you into action; I think waiting for that attitude change can be a big obstacle. I quite like the approach of setting your initial goals absurdly low - eg go for a 30-second brisk walk every day for a week. I know that sounds like a joke but that's sort of the point - it's so small it passes under the radar of the part of your mind that's always ready to rebel. Far better, anyway, to go on a brisk walk in reality twice a week than run five miles a day in your imagination...


Tips, advice and 'life-hacking'

Letter Qchampagnesupernova: So how do you get more done? I have tried FlyLady (which suggests tips like setting a timer for 15 minutes, etc), which is effective when there's no one else around - but with a newborn and a toddler the timer makes no difference whatsoever.

"I quite like the approach of setting your initial goals absurdly low. I know it sounds like a joke but that's sort of the point - it's so small it passes under the radar of the part of your mind that's always ready to rebel."

Letter AOliver: I should be careful about dispensing advice to parents of young children because I am not one. I do think, though, that the principles of things like FlyLady can be useful even if the specific techniques aren't applicable. I think a big part of that kind of approach (as I understand it) is using checklists and routines so that when you do get a window of time, however tiny, you don't have to use any of it figuring out what to do - you can just do it.

Letter QCeliaFate: Could you list three things everyone should and could do to be a bit happier?


Letter AOliver: 1. I wouldn't admit it to my friends but will apparently admit it in public on Mumsnet: keep a 'gratitude journal'. Pretty much nothing could sound cheesier or more corny, I know, but it's backed up now by plenty of studies (and I can vouch for it personally too). It's a way of combating the 'hedonic treadmill' - the way new sources of pleasure cease delivering pleasure because we get accustomed to them.
2. Spend more time in nature. I think the most recent finding was that even five minutes a day surrounded by greenery has protective benefits for mental health.
3. Ease up on all the positive thinking! Accidentally leave your copy of The Secret on a train somewhere. Trying really hard to control your thoughts in that way is totally counterproductive for a lot of people.

Letter Qpersonnongrata: Could you expand a bit on 'lifehacking' and what it actually means? What do you do to hack your life? 

Letter AOliver: "Lifehacking" as a term comes from computer programming culture, where a hack refers to a "quick-and-dirty" fix for a software problem, rather than some grand abstract system or set of principles. See lifehacker.com for one of the original blogs that's still largely tech-based. I take the wider point to be that you don't need to adopt a whole philosophy when a few tricks will do. Tragic example from my own life: keeping a kitchen timer on my desk and doing work in bursts of five minutes when I can't bear to do any more.



Letter QTallyB: Due to the financial crisis and subsequent government cuts, huge numbers of people are going to lose their jobs, myself included, and as a consequence of that, many will lose their homes. How can these people remain optimistic?

Letter AOliver: I'm sorry to hear about your job. As I said earlier, I think one of the big problems with the prevailing ethos of self-help is that the pressure to feel optimistic/upbeat can actually be a hindrance, so I'd say that not beating yourself up for not always being optimistic is an important start. Beyond that, lots of people (myself included) find a lot of use in 'easy wins' - scaling back your goals to very small daily incremental steps towards (for example) finding a new job. It's weird how great it feels to cross five things off a to-do list even if they're tiny. (Caveat, this may just be me being a weirdo.)

Letter Qilovecrisps: I have wealth envy/anxiety! I suffer from the belief that everyone is earning heaps of money and I will never be able to keep up. Admittedly, this is mainly based around the fact that despite my husband and I both working full-time we have never felt able to afford a house or flat. How would you suggest I deal with this? My lack of house does affect my life I feel unable to have friends round, we live in a damp flat and so on. Please don't tell me to be grateful for what I have, I've recently lost my job and have a seriously ill child. 

Letter AOliver: Even if gratitude is important there is nothing more insanely annoying than other people telling you to 'be grateful' when you're not feeling that way so I certainly won't. I will not pretend to have big answers here, but hopefully one or two of the other answers may prove useful. Meanwhile don't forget that the fixation on home-ownership-at-all-costs is an idiosyncratic part of British culture, not gospel truth. (Also have you invited friends round to your damp flat? I bet they won't care about it 1% as much as you do. I often notice things when visiting friends that I know I'd have stressed out about if it was my flat - but that doesn't bother me in the slightest because it isn't.)

I'm quite sure it's possible to be happy on almost no money at all, it would probably involve a pretty strong embrace of some Buddhist-like philosophy that emphasised reducing your dependence on outside gratifications as sources of pleasure. But equally, that doesn't mean it's right to lionise poverty as a way to a purer form of happiness. 

Letter Qhobbgoblin: Can you be poor and happy in this world without being a monk?

Letter AOliver: You probably know of the finding (though it's not undisputed) that more money doesn't seem to bring a proportionate amount of happiness above about £12,000 a year. I'm quite sure it's possible to be happy on almost no money at all, it would probably involve a pretty strong embrace of Buddhism or some Buddhist-like philosophy that emphasised reducing your dependence on outside gratifications as sources of pleasure. But equally, that doesn't mean it's right to lionise poverty as a way to a purer form of happiness.

It's a tricky ethical conundrum though: some surveys suggest that people in poor communities in developing countries are far happier than Upper East Side Manhattanites. But does that mean they're "better off" really? Very complex. 



Letter Qginghamgiraffe: I would like to echo the questions about SAD. How you can prevent the winter slump?

Letter AOliver: I'm no expert on this but the two people I know well who are seriously affected by this swear by their Phillip's Blu-lights. (I'm not on commission!) 

Letter Qonebatmother: What do you think of Buddhism - or rather the bastard Californian version of it that's been around for a while? I find in incredibly annoying - solipsistic and ultimately entirely self-interested - but infuriatingly they do all seem very calm!

Letter AOliver: Excellent question - I think there are many, many people calling themselves Buddhists (yes, probably lots of them in California) who are really using it to avoid or suppress issues they should probably be confronting. But from what I understand of 'real' Buddhism it's the exact, diametric opposite of solipsistic and self-interested. A book I really liked was Nothing Special by Charlotte Joko Beck.

Letter QMmeLindt: What do you think about modern social media - is it a hindrance or a help in our lives? And how much is too much?

Letter AOliver: I have been strictly informed by Mumsnet bosses that "spending less time on Mumsnet" is not an acceptable answer, but I tend to be pretty suspicious of anyone arguing either that social media is the future of humanity or that it's hideously evil. It's just another medium - surely what matters is how you choose to integrate it into your life?

Personally, I think it's a question of breaking the strange spell the internet can exert, luring you back almost unconsciously over and over again, and replacing that with making a conscious decision to connect and then to disconnect. If your lifestyle allows it, making fixed times to check email (or hang out on Mumsnet etc) is a good trick that puts you in the driving-seat. "How much" is less of an issue, even if you're deciding to web-surf 30 times a day you're still doing the deciding, rather than salivating when a bell rings like Pavlov's dogs.

Letter QTillyBookClub: What is your favourite children's book? And what non-self help book would you give to someone to make them happy? Or to put it another way, is there a specific book that cheers you up?

Letter AOliver: For my favourite children's book, am I allowed to say Uncle Shelby's ABZ by Shel Silverstein? Happiness-inducing non-self-help book - long classic novels that are soothing precisely as a result of never actually being all that exciting (Trollope). Also anything by Anne Lamott, especially Bird By Bird, but that is almost a self-help book I suppose. 


Oliver: Phew, OK, I am going to leave it there. Thank you very much for your questions and I hope my answers were worth reading. Happy Friday afternoon! Oliver




Last updated: 9 months ago