An economist walks into a bar. This is a true story; it's 2002, the bar is the Lava Lounge in LA, and the economist is an academic named Glen Whitman. He gets chatting to a fellow patron and mentions his line of work. "So," asks the stranger, "what are the Two Things about economics?" "Huh?" Whitman replies, confused. "You know, the Two Things. For every subject, there are only two things you need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things, or just not important." Whitman thinks, then replies: "One: incentives matter. Two: there's no such thing as a free lunch." Which is arguably a pretty good summation of the whole of economics.
Until recently, I owned a mobile phone so chunky and ridiculous that people had started to laugh at it – including, memorably, the staff at the shop where I'd originally bought it. (In their defence, I'd had it since 2007, which is the Mesolithic period in phone years.) But if there's one thing psychology has taught us, it's that buying shiny gadgets is a guaranteed path to fulfilment, so I'm now the proud owner of a Nexus 4, a sleek, blemish-free slab of glass, 9mm thick. Well, I say "proud owner". "Proud but with a background hum of anxiety" is more like it. Because it is, after all, a blemish-free slab of glass – which means I can never quite forget the risk of dropping or scratching it.
It's a truth universally acknowledged that everyone hates managers. Managers are the people destroying your soul with pointless meetings, overly complex procedures for claiming expenses, and stupid team-building awaydays. If you're a teacher, doctor or police officer, managers are why you're always bogged down in paperwork, rather than doing what you're best at. Most of us, write Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan in their new book The Org: The Underlying Logic Of The Office, "imagine a world without managers as a kind of paradise where workers are unshackled by pointless bureaucracy… a place where stuff actually gets done". Strangely, managers tend to agree. The goal of every lumbering conglomerate is to "become more like a startup" – which usually means buying some vivid furniture, and maybe a ping-pong table, provided Jim in Purchasing can get the expenditure authorised sometime in the next five years.
I hereby announce the formation of an international campaign to eliminate all future uses of the phrase, "Work smarter, not harder." It's a mission I'm undertaking with some regret, since the idea behind that annoying slogan is fundamentally a decent one: in our overworked era, who wouldn't be in favour of finding ways to get the same amount done in fewer hours, freeing up time to relax, socialise or nurture the soul? Besides, this column has championed many such techniques in the past. But "Work smarter, not harder" has reached pandemic proportions. It's everywhere in business books and blog posts; it's been recommended as the solution to the problems facing everyone from doctors to police officers. And it's infected domains beyond work: there are books on studying smarter, not harder, on working out smarter, not harder, on cleaning, seducing women, grooming your pet, gardening, even reading the Bible smarter, not harder. Not all at once, obviously, though if you could figure out a way to do that, nobody could fault you for inefficiency.
The narrator of Joseph O'Neill's 2008 novel Netherland, a banker who has lived in both London and New York, seems permanently torn between the two – not merely as places to live, but because they embody different approaches to life itself. In London, he observes, people older than 40 considered themselves "over the hill and entitled to an essentially retrospective idea of [life]", as if all the exciting stuff were behind them, whereas in New York "selfhood's hill always seemed to lie ahead, and to promise a glimpse of further, higher peaks". That makes New York sound more fun, but on closer inspection both are depressing. Would you rather feel your life is over, or that the real you remains out of reach? Maybe O'Neill's globe-hopping banker would have been happier in some less self-regarding world city: Brussels, say, where they have good beer and shellfish, and probably – I'm guessing here – less existential angst.
Over the next couple of weeks I'll be talking about my book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking at events in Seattle, Berkeley, Sonoma, Corte Madera, Portland, Denver, Brookline and New York City. (And I do mean "talking about" rather than "reading from", because to my mind it makes for a far more entertaining experience for everyone involved that way.) Here's the full list. If you're in one of these areas, I really hope you'll come and say hello. I promise that you'll either have an incredibly fantastic, intellectually stimulating, laughter-filled time, or that it'll be a character-building Stoic exercise in learning to remain calm in the face of undesirable circumstances. One of the two.
When, if ever, is it best to "settle" – to opt for a relationship, or a career, or anything else, that’s less than you’d hoped for? The standard advice from dating experts is that you should never settle ("living with integrity [means] not settling for less than you know you deserve," writes one such pontificator, Barbara DeAngelis) except, you know, sometimes ("it sure ain’t romantic, but it is practical," says another, Evan Katz). So you’ll have to settle for being confused, at least if you listen to dating experts. Or you could listen to Robert Goodin. Goodin is a philosopher, not a dating expert: his previous publications have titles like Rationalising Discursive Anomalies, which won’t get him invited onto ITV’s This Morning in a hurry. But he has just published a book on settling. It’s called (wait for it) On Settling – and it may be of more use than most self-help works on the topic combined.
A piece I wrote for the Guardian on a strange problem that has some serious ramifications: really important things aren't necessarily interesting.
Rarely has a metaphor seemed more inappropriate: the US hurtled towards a cliff, then briefly hurtled over that cliff – and yet the whole experience was marginally less interesting than, say, regrouting the tiles in your bathroom.
The advice of etiquette experts on dealing with unwanted invitations, or overly demanding requests for favours, has always been the same: just say no. That may have been a useless mantra in the war on drugs, but in the war on relatives who want to stay for a fortnight, or colleagues trying to get you to do their work, the manners guru Emily Post's formulation – "I'm afraid that won't be possible" – remains the gold standard. Excuses merely invite negotiation. The comic retort has its place (Peter Cook: "Oh dear, I find I'm watching television that night"), and I'm fond of the tautological non-explanation ("I can't, because I'm unable to"). But these are variations on a theme: the best way to say no is to say no. Then shut up.
My book THE ANTIDOTE: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking is published in paperback in the UK today, with an amazing cover designed by the excellent people at Scriberia, who made the equally excellent short trailer that you can find, along with more details about the book, on my books page. It's also available for Kindle and in the iTunes Store, where you'll also find the newly published audiobook version, narrated (over the protestations of Morgan Freeman) by me. The audiobook is also at Audible.com and should be available via Audible.co.uk imminently. Here's what it says on the back cover: