Among the most obvious portents of the impending collapse of western civilisation is the fact that you can now buy something called Chicken Soup For The Chocolate Lover's Soul, which is a gift box containing a book - part of the dispiritingly unstoppable Chicken Soup For The Soul series - and a bar of chocolate. There's also Chicken Soup For The Wine Lover's Soul, which comes with a corkscrew, and Chicken Soup For The Tea Lover's Soul, which features, confusingly, tea-flavoured chocolate. Apparently, the temptation to take a successful brand and spin it into ever more absurd cash-generating niches was irresistible. The logical conclusion is surely Chicken Soup For The Chicken Soup Lover's Soul, which will come with some chicken soup; at this point, earthquakes will consume London and New York, and God will burst into tears.
So it's to the credit of Richard Carlson, who died in 2006 aged 45, that after writing Don't Sweat The Small Stuff... And It's All Small Stuff, he published 20 spin-offs (Don't Sweat The Small Stuff At Work, and suchlike) without entering the realm of self-parody. Like Chicken Soup and The Secret, the Don't Sweat books broke records. Unlike them, however, they're full of calm good sense, anchored in Carlson's understanding that stress obeys an ironic principle: when really big crises occur, people often find inner strength; it's the little things that drive us crazy. Deep down, we know we can't escape bereavement, and maybe illness or divorce, but we think we shouldn't have to deal with queues or irritating colleagues.
Carlson's suggestions aren't complex. They include "make peace with imperfection", "nurture a plant", "choose being kind over being right" and "allow yourself to be bored... [if you] don't fight it, the feelings of boredom will be replaced by feelings of peace". He doesn't claim his insights are new. But that modesty is central to his message: we don't need new information on how to be happy anywhere near as much as we need a dose of perspective.
Advice on how to get more done, feel better, find a soulmate, etc, can be useful, but it subtly reinforces the notion that achieving such goals is overwhelmingly important, which fuels stress. Sometimes it's more helpful to be jolted into remembering we'd be OK without them, and that most things we worry about seem absurd even weeks later; there's a sort of serenity, too, in realising that even the greatest calamities won't mean much in 100 years. That jolt can come from a good self-help book, which puts you in the author's shoes, and gets you out of your head. But it also can come from travel, or writing down problems: anything that puts you in a third-person relationship to yourself. It isn't really "all small stuff", as Carlson acknowledged, but there's always a perspective from which even the biggest stuff is, in some sense, handleable. The challenge is to keep making that shift in vantage point, rather than staying locked in position, forever seeking sources of comfort to deaden the negative feelings, marinating in Chicken Soup.