With only a few days to go until Christmas, which is everyone's favourite day of the year, some readers may be growing anxious. Sure, if you're reading this, you've escaped the destruction of the planet in a cataclysm of fire and molten rock, as allegedly predicted by the Mayans, which was scheduled for yesterday. So that's something. But there's still so much to worry about: the overcooked turkey, the children disappointed by their gifts, the family rituals that descend into bickering, the carol service disrupted by a dirty bomb, and so on. It's only right, then, that this week's column should distil the wisdom of countless self-help gurus and magazine tip lists into one handy guide to the Perfect Christmas:
One of the great strengths of the English language is the number of ways it provides to describe people who annoy us. True, German has the word "Backpfeifengesicht" – "a face in need of a punch" – but English overwhelms us with options, thanks partly to its abundance of vulgarisms. If I call you a "wanker" I mean something subtly different from a "dickhead". (It can be hard to pinpoint these nuances without resort to further swearing, as demonstrated by users of urbandictionary.com, as they struggle to define a "prick": "An all around fucktard, dickweed, assrat bastard.") These differences aren't just a matter of intensity. We can presumably all agree that Simon Cowell is a bit of a tosser. But his success makes it hard to dismiss him as a fuckwit, while it's not clear he's guilty of the malice that would condemn him as a shit.
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.
It's a fairly well-established fact, in political psychology, that leftwingers report lower levels of happiness than rightwingers. (This fact, you may have noticed, is self-reinforcing: learning of it makes leftwingers even gloomier.) What's much less clear is why. Conservatives like to argue that it's because the things they value – traditional families, faith, free markets – make people happiest. Liberals prefer to think conservatives are blinkered, clinging to an ideology that lets them avoid confronting life's grim truths; it's even been proposed that conservatism might be a mental illness. And there's an added complication: the social psychologists who study such questions, as the American academic Jonathan Haidt has complained, tend to lean left. But does that mean they are biased – or that, when you closely study the real world, you usually end up liberal? ("Reality has a well-known liberal bias" – Stephen Colbert.) It's all very murky – though if you're a liberal, like me, that's less of a problem, as studies suggest we might have more capacity for tolerating uncertainty. So there's that.
Earlier this year, two American bloggers triggered a global media convulsion by embarking on what they called a "mirror fast": covering the mirrors in their homes, and shunning mirrors elsewhere, in an effort to reduce what one of them called "the overriding self-consciousness that's taken up residence in my psyche". Since the social pressure to conform to ideals of beauty falls mainly on women, I can only guess what it's like to be so aware of one's appearance: I assume it's related to what I feel whenever a badly-angled photo reminds me how astoundingly bald I am. But for the fasters, the experiment proved a liberation. "All the other interests in my life – my goals, passions, friends, family, favourite hobbies, etc – have attracted the energy and attention I used to give to my looks," wrote Kjerstin Gruys, while Autumn Whitefield-Madrano said she felt "calmer and more serene". They'd pulled off an ingenious psychological trick. In a world obsessed with appearances, it's impractical just to decide you're going to think differently. What they'd done, instead, was to deny themselves the feedback that fuelled the fixation.
For as long as I can recall, I've been unreasonably fascinated by other people's daily schedules. It thrills me to learn, for instance, that Karl Lagerfeld always sleeps for exactly seven hours, no matter when he goes to bed; that he drinks only Diet Coke, and rarely exercises "because my doctor said it's not necessary". My bursting mental library of similar trivia includes, naturally, Churchill's daily 90-minute siesta, but also the fact that Paula Radcliffe is usually in bed by 10ish and that Will Self keeps a stove on his desk to brew "strange infusions" of tea while he writes. These days, I encounter such nuggets most frequently in media profiles of web entrepreneurs, presumably because they're our era's most envied role models. Thus I've discovered that Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey divides his week thematically: Tuesdays for product development, Wednesdays for marketing, etc. Maria Popova, who runs the popular Brainpicker account on Twitter, gets so much reading done by taking her Kindle to the gym. And Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, leaves the office at 5.30pm daily, for dinner with her children at 6pm. At any hour of the day, I can tell you what four or five famous people are probably doing, should you wish to know. Which, I appreciate, you maybe don't.
Mainly, I just wish I'd never encountered the website Serial Killers Ink, which showcases terrible artworks by the perpetrators of some truly terrible crimes. I don't like to think about the kind of person who'd pay, say, $175 for a portrait of Jennifer Love Hewitt by Elmer Wayne Henley, who is serving six life sentences for mass murders in Houston in the 70s, or $60 for a cartoon panda by a man with the soubriquet of "the internet's first serial killer". It's all very depressing. But I can't deny it: I kept clicking. The flicker of fascination was there.