It's Valentine's Day, in case you hadn't noticed. What kinds of love are in your life? Are you satisfied? Many clients come for counseling with one complaint or another about love.
Last year I worked with a client called Jim (not his real name—“Jim” gave me permission to write about him but I have changed his name and the details of his story to protect his anonymity). Jim worried that he was incapable of lasting love. “I just can’t trust it or commit to one person,” he said. “I am a commitment-phobe.”
A few months earlier he had ended a four-year relationship. It was fine, he said, but he knew in his heart she was not “the one.” Instead of feeling free, however, he was miserable. “It’s as if I fired the gun,” he said, “but it backfired and blew up in my face.”
The ex—who he described as “the nicest woman in the world”—was moving on with her life; Jim meanwhile couldn’t stop crying. He had to keep taking bathroom breaks at work so he could sob.
In one session, Jim was really struggling. He had just met his ex at the flat they’d shared to sort out the remaining stuff and hand over the keys to the landlord. At the exact moment they said goodbye, Jim realized how much he loved her—the exact opposite scenario to getting cold feet when walking down the aisle. But it was too late.
Jim was inconsolably sad. Here was a smart, successful and worldly man who felt an utter failure. He was worthless, he said.
We explored Jim’s story. When he was very young, Jim’s parents split up—his dad had met someone else. More than three decades later, this event was still casting a long shadow. Young Jim had gone to live with his mum—a terrible Oedipal “victory”—and quickly learned to adapt to the new configuration. Children are so very good at adapting.
Weather report: notes on being happy
Forecast: Unexpected outbreaks of sunny spells in remote Scottish islands. Fair becoming good in Cornwall. Unending downpours in Liverpool and London.
The Office of National Statistics last week released its figures on the state of the nation’s emotional weather: happiness, anxiety, life satisfaction and how worthwhile life seems. It’s the culmination of three years of data collection.
• Liverpool and Wolverhampton are supposedly the unhappiest places in Britain (average happiness scores of 6.96 and 6.99 out of 10)
Wolverhampton also has the second-lowest “life satisfaction” score. The lowest life satisfaction—where life is also ranked the least “worthwhile”—is in Harlow, just off the M11 in Essex, famous for being the site of Britain’s first modern residential tower block and first pedestrian precinct.
• Derry and Strabane in Northern Ireland have the highest levels of anxiety in the U.K. with a score of 3.73 out of 10, closely followed by and Belfast, Liverpool and a string of London boroughs
Northern Ireland is however the happiest part of the U.K, followed by Scotland, Wales and England. Is it possible to be anxious and happy? It is. Chesterton wrote of the Irish: “All their wars are merry / And all their songs are sad.”
And the converse is true also: you can be free of stress yet really miserable—unhappy Wolverhampton has the lowest levels of anxiety in all of Britain (1.95 out of 10). This perhaps suggests that trying to eliminate stress from your life in order to be happier may not work—you may just get depressed instead. People who achieve their dream of early retirement often make this confounding discovery: six months down the road they are bored and fed up. A certain amount of stress sharpens the focus, motivates people, boosts the heart and immune system—it enlivens. Too much of the wrong kind for too long, however—you get fried rather than fired up. This is the principle of hormesis—a little bit of hardship is good. In one experiment, mice that were given a small dose of poison outlived those who were given none. We are drawn to our cities not in spite of their stressful demands but because of them.
• Top of the happiness table—and the “life satisfaction” and “worthwhile” rankings, too—is Eilean Siar: the Outer Hebrides
The sample sizes for various remote Scottish islands were too small to be statistically significant, yet places like the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney consistently crowd the opposite ends of these kinds of rankings from the likes of Liverpool, Wolverhampton and London.
The Eilean Siar tourism website says: “This is a lively and challenging place. It’s a place where community matters...The sheer diversity of the landscape is remarkable. Endless machairs and dunes. Mountains and stunning beaches. Vast expanses of moor and lochs. Vertical sea cliffs and stacks... Little wonder that visitors to our islands are enchanted by what they find here.”
Where incidentally should you be living? The BBC has devised a quick personality test which tells you where in Britain you would be happiest, and where you would be least happy. It’s nonsense of course but fun. You can take the test here. I was advised to move to somewhere called Craven, and to avoid at all costs relocating to somewhere called Spelthorne, where I could expect a life satisfaction score of only 32 percent, whatever that means.
• Women are slightly happier than men (7.41 versus 7.35)
Women are also almost twice as likely to seek psychological help than men, who are conditioned instead to do a Clint Eastwood impersonation if ever they feel anxious or sad. Men are more than three times as likely than women in the U.K. to be alcohol-dependent, or commit suicide. Plus, women in the U.K. live on average four years longer than men. The debate about gender equality quite rightly focuses on gross injustices in terms of violence and sexual violence, pay, political and corporate power, and cultural representation, but those four lost years—four summers, birthdays, anniversaries; a thousand nights to sleep perchance to dream—rarely warrant a mention.
• Married people are happier than singletons (7.67 versus 7.11); the divorced or separated are the least happy (6.89)
Does marriage make you happy—or are happy people more likely to get married? A review of the literature from the National Bureau of Economic Research claims that there really is a cause-and-effect relationship between marriage and happiness. Marry, live happily ever after, right?
The authors of the report suggest that this is especially true if you marry someone who, you know, you actually like: “We explore friendship as a mechanism which could help explain a causal relationship between marriage and life satisfaction, and find that well-being effects of marriage are about twice as large for those whose spouse is also their best friend.”
On the other hand, marriage is the source of much misery for many. Untold sleepless nights lie behind the fact that 42 percent of marriages end in divorce in the U.K. There is some old evidence that marriage is good for men and bad for women. There is other evidence that nowadays the happiness boost from marriage is identical for both genders—feminism has redefined married life.
For all its ups and downs, imperfections and frustrations, marriage for most is better than the modern-day scourge of loneliness. Humans need other humans as much as they need food and water.
• Life satisfaction and happiness on average are lowest in the 45-59-year-old age bracket; Those aged 65-79 tended to report the highest levels of well-being
This is in accord with the “U-bend of happiness” pattern across the lifespan, which I have written about before: one day you find yourself trapped in an unsatisfying job, marriage or town, struggling to pay the bills, stressed, sandwiched between looking after your kids and looking after your parents. You are miserable. You are at the bottom of the U-bend. “And you may ask yourself,” as the Talking Heads song goes, “how did I get here?” One study of happiness data in 72 countries reported that the global average bottom of the U-bend is 46 years old (though this of course masks enormous variety and individual differences). But then, after a midlife crisis or two, things get better.
Midlife is an opportunity to return to the changing room, review what went wrong in the first half of the match, chat with coaches, colleagues and counsellors, attend to any bruises, fortify yourself and then, renewed, refreshed and utterly changed, charge back out into the pitch for the second half. You might play a quite different game until the final whistle.
• The employed are quite a bit happier than the unemployed (7.42 versus 6.89)
This is hardly surprising—so much unhappiness is dictated by socioeconomic misfortune. Western governments tend to blame the poor and the unwell for their fate so as to divert attention away from their own policies that maintain poverty and inequality. Corporate happiness is top of the agenda. If you’re a divorced, unemployed, middle-aged man in Liverpool, with your dreams tossed and blown, it would be insulting in the extreme to suggest happiness can be achieved with a few sessions of CBT. It’s not his thoughts that need changing so much as his economic environment. The happiest countries, of course, are egalitarian, truly democratic and with high levels of social capital.
• The happiest religion is Hindu, followed by Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim (the happiest ethnicity is Indian; the least happy is “Gypsy / Traveller / Irish Traveller”). People with no religion are the least happy.
A conviction that you’ve been pencilled in for a good karmic afterlife or a place in heaven probably does make a lot of people quite happy. Atheists might regard such believers as deluded, cocooned in blissful ignorance. In the film “The Truman Show,” Jim Carrey would have stayed blissfully happy if he’d never discovered he was living in an entirely artificial town—an unwitting pawn in a reality TV show. Buddha became very unhappy when he left the palace to discover a world beyond the confines of his walls of privilege—a world that included poverty, illness and suffering—but thank goodness he did or the valuable philosophy, art and culture of Buddhism wouldn’t have happened. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is not that life is about happiness. It is that life is suffering.
Questions for you
What to make of all this?
Is it meaningless—just an example of “lies, damn lies, statistics”—and, worse still, happiness statistics? Or is this an opportunity to take stock and maybe make some changes? How happy are you—how “worthwhile” is your life? Do you have good stress to contend with, or bad? If your new year’s resolutions didn’t work out, should you come up with new ones today, the first day of the Chinese New Year?
Should you marry your best friend, join the Hare Krishna, move to Stornaway and find a job? Or stay exactly where you are but change your attitude—turn your own personal Wolverhampton into some kind of heaven on earth?
Should you talk things through with a therapist?
Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll live the life you imagined, or maybe your dreams will forever elude you. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Your glass is neither half empty or half full.
The existentialists believe life is not about the pursuit of happiness. It is the pursuit of itself—to live to the full. Nietzsche famously argued that “god is dead”—there is no heaven, no afterlife, so you might as well throw caution to the wind and live intensely, making brave choices, feeling deeply, fully present, right here, right now.
Get to grips with the ups and downs, advise Echo & The Bunnymen, "because there's nothing in between." Or as Anaïs Nin wrote: "I must be a mermaid ... I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living."
Top-10 self-help books
Since it began in 1859, the self-help publishing industry has grown into an $11 billion business that shows no signs of abating.
Some books offer wisdom or practical advice, others have the potential to change your life. Some might simply raise a smile. Some are truly terrible, especially the ones that promise instant riches, health and happiness by asking the cosmos for these things, or communing angels, or thinking positively (scroll to the end to discover my nomination for the worst self-help book ever). Here I've selected an eclectic top-10 that for various different I have appreciated over the years.
Of course, reading is a solitary activity, which is fine. But if you want to feel really whole, you won't find all the answers in a book.
1. The prophet
By Kahlil Gibran
This 1923 masterpiece by the Lebanese poet-philosopher should be required reading for all—words of wisdom, beauty and inspiration from a fictionalized spiritual sage about to board a ship for home.
• “Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls"
• “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself”
• “To belittle, you have to be little”
• “Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation”
• “Pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding”
Every line is a gem.
2. Man's Search For Meaning
By Viktor E. Frankl
A profound account of how one man survived the Auschwitz concentration camp and what he learned in the process, which is that the very worst situations can sometimes bring out the very best in us. And that everything can be taken from us but one thing: “To choose one’s attitude on any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way." Whatever is going on in our outside world, we never have to surrender the freedom of our inner world. After the war Frankl, a psychiatrist, dedicated himself to what he called logotherapy—an existential approach to mental health based on finding meaning. In spite of everything, says Frankl, say yes to life.
3. Rewriting the Rules
By Meg John Barker
When it comes to relating, dating and mating, we are governed by an absurd collection of idealized fantasies, expectations and injunctions that often contradict each other and indeed human nature, Do you for instance believe in “The One"—your missing other half who will complete you, and vice versa, “forsaking all others," so long as you both shall live? (Oh you do? Well good luck with all that). The author, a writer, psychotherapist, and activist-academic, tears up the rulebook and suggests humane, life-affirming alternatives. In a postmodern world of uncertainty, there are no universal rules. Instead, we can make our own.
4. The Top Five Regrets of the Dying
By Bronnie Ware
Ware is an Australian nurse who worked for years in palliative care, sitting with people right at the end of their lives, talking with them as they faced the final curtain. What she has delivered to the world is an incredible gift from those on their deathbeds to those of us that aren't. No need actually to buy the book—it's too much about the life and times of the author for my taste, and there's a lot of chaff surrounding the wheat. There's a good summary here, but in brief, these are the commonest regrets:
• I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
• I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
• I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
• I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
• I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Now go and live.
5. The Drama of the Gifted Child
By Alice Miller
This classic, slim volume isn’t about budding little 6-year-old Mozarts. It’s about how so many children become who others want them to be instead of being themselves. Such children often end up parenting their parents—we “gratify their unconscious needs at the cost of our own emotional development,” says Miller. To a greater or lesser extent, the “gifted” child gives up their true gifts: their childhood; their personhood.
6. The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife
By James Hollis
A beautiful little book for anyone in the throes of any kind of existential crisis. Wrote Jung: “We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie" (Hollis is a Jungian analyst). So we give up our “provisional personality” and emerge, reborn, into a passionate life.
7. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway
By Susan Jeffers
For many, the title has become a mantra, a coda for living, though it's perfectly OK sometimes to feel the fear and not do it anyway, too. I once had a tape of Jeffers’ affirmations. I can still hear her voice saying, “everything is unfolding in a perfect way.” Even though it often doesn't feel like it at the time, in the rearview mirror you can often think yes, in hindsight, it unfolded in a perfect way.
8. The Art of Loving
By Erich Fromm
The romantic idea of love is that it’s all about thunderbolts, butterflies, cherubs, planets aligning, and, inevitably, heartbreak. Dove c'è amore, c'è anche dolore, as the Italians say—where there is love there is pain. With the rose comes the thorns. But for the famous psychoanalyst Fromm, true love is a choice. He says to forget about “falling” in love, which is a kind of neurosis. Better instead to be ”standing” in love.
9. Character Styles
By Stephen M. Johnson
Not really a self-help book—this classic text is a must-have for psychotherapy trainees—but it’s also surprisingly useful for everyone else, too. It’s a bit jargonish in places, but if you look carefully, you can find yourself here: your tendencies, their origin, and a way forward. Some therapists are drawn to the chapter on “The Owned Child: The Symbiotic Character.”
By Carol Dweck
An important book that distinguishes people with a "fixed mindset" of ability versus those of a "growth mindset." The former, afraid of failure, don’t try or learn anything new. In my experience, a fixed mindset leads to a kind of psychic agoraphobia—a fear of venturing beyond the tight confines of what you already know. Ability comes through trial, error and perseverance.
From the sublime to the ridiculous . . .
What is the worst self help book ever? Click here to find out!
1. What is a psychopath?
John Barton is a counsellor, psychotherapist, blogger and writer with a private practice in Marylebone, Central London. To contact, click here.