If, like me, you've recently purchased a mattress, you'll know it's an astoundingly tedious and soul-depleting process – rendered only slightly less awful by the fact that when you do finally collapse, exhausted by indecision, in the middle of the beds department, there are plenty of places to lie down. Long ago, maybe mattress-shopping was a simple choice between "firm" and "soft", but these days it's a thicket of dilemmas. Memory foam, wool, gel, fibre? Solid-slatted or sprung-slatted? Lumbar zoning? Perhaps a pillow-top? This complexity at first seems hard to explain. Sure, it's nice to have options, but why deliberately aggravate customers, delaying the moment of purchase with so many extra decisions? Aren't mattress-makers aware of one of the best-known truths of consumer psychology: that too much choice makes people miserable?
Blatant self-promotion alert: my book THE ANTIDOTE: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking is published today in north America, by Faber & Faber in the US and by Penguin in Canada. In short, it's about the hidden upsides of failure, uncertainty, insecurity, pessimism and death. Here's an excerpt from the US jacket:
"Looking both east and west, in bulletins from the past and far afield, Oliver Burkeman introduces us to an unusual group of people who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. Whether experimental psychologists, terrorism experts, Buddhists, hardheaded business consultants, Greek philosophers, or modern-day gurus, they argue that in our personal lives, and in society at large, it's our constant effort to be happy that is making us miserable. And that there is an alternative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty – the very things we spend our lives trying to avoid."
The short video above, made by the excellent people at Scriberia, is an attempt to sum it up. Here's the starred Kirkus Review, which calls it "fascinating" and says it "deserves wide readership"; here's the Guardian excerpt, on failure, and the Fast Company excerpt, on the perils of goal-setting – and a New York Times op-ed I wrote on why you shouldn't walk barefoot across hot coals. (Spoiler: you might burn your feet!) I'll be speaking this coming Saturday as part of the Rubin Museum's "Happy Talk" series in New York, and there are a number of other US events planned for January: more details here.
You can order The Antidote here, and I'd appreciate enormously if you did.
Can men and women ever be "just friends"? The correct answer is: "Yes, obviously, so why in God's name do magazine editors, authors of dating books and headline-seeking psychologists keep asking?" My evidence is as follows: one, I'm male (and heterosexual, as the question implies); two, a majority of my oldest and closest friends are female; three, the prospect of romantic involvement with them strikes me, in most cases, as absurd. Yet the "debate" rages on. The latest round came a few weeks back, following a study from the University of Wisconsin that showed, even Scientific American claimed, that men and women "can't be 'just friends'". What it really showed was that men – specifically undergrads, which seems relevant – were likelier than women to feel attracted to opposite-sex friends, and that this might have "potential negative consequence[s]". The death knell for platonic cross-sex friendships? Not even close.
There's a new add-on for Gmail called Inbox Pause, which does something utterly simple – it adds a pause button to your inbox – but represents, I think, a new phase in our long war against information overload. Consider the absurdity. Inbox Pause doesn't reduce the quantity of emails that bombard you. Nor does it help you answer them faster. In any case, there's already a perfectly good way to "pause" your email: just don't check your damn email for a few hours. Or just resist the temptation to open new ones. But we're too weak-willed for that: instead we need a button that tricks us into thinking we're controlling the deluge. In short, Inbox Pause is an innovation for which there's no rational need, which treats its users like impulsive toddlers. To any self-disciplined adult, it's an insult.
I've been using it for several weeks now, and I love it.