Oliver Burkeman on the strange incidence of coincidence

I was sitting at my desk the other day when the phone rang. It was an old friend - I'll call him Horace - and he was in a state of some consternation. "I've been reading a lot of self-help books recently," he said, "and I've noticed something that's really beginning to irritate me."

"Please, do go on," I said, accommodatingly.

"Well, here's the thing," Horace said. "Doesn't it annoy you how so many self-help gurus, whenever they want to demonstrate the efficacy of their teachings, will present incredibly dubious case studies, featuring people whose lives were purportedly transformed, rapidly and profoundly, by the self-help method in question? People who seem to support the author's point a little too conveniently? Or who come along at precisely the right moment to illustrate a point?"

"I'm glad you mentioned that," I replied, "because I'd been planning to write about this phenomenon in my column. What a coincidence that you called when you did!"

"For example," Horace went on, "I picked up Wayne Dyer's book Pulling Your Own Strings, opened it at a random page, and found the story of 'Donna', who was 'a bundle of nerves' when Dyer first met her. Ordinary life terrified her. But then she followed his empowering advice, and learned that she didn't need to be at the mercy of her terrifying thoughts. 'It was amazing to see the transformation in Donna as she developed fear-challenging behaviour,' Dyer writes. Imagine that!

"Older books like Dale Carnegie's and Norman Vincent Peale's are full of this kind of thing, but it's endemic in newer ones, too. 'Sarah' or 'Mike' or 'Gerald' implements the author's patented time-management technique, or starts keeping a gratitude diary, or whatever, and within a few days they've achieved perfect happiness. It's always 'Tom, a consultant in his 50s', or 'Sally, an academic in her 30s': surnames are never given, and job titles are always vague. In some other books you wonder whether they're not just completely fabricated."

"Steady on," I interjected hastily. "For legal reasons, I wouldn't want to accuse any specific self-help author of making things up."

"But nobody else can hear us," said Horace, who is in his 40s and works in finance. "We're just having a telephone conversation."

"Ah, yes," I replied, "so we are. Sorry, I forgot."

"Anyway, the sad part is that these unconvincing case studies are counterproductive, because they damage the author's credibility even when the strategies being presented are worthwhile," Horace continued. "Real change is difficult, and slow, and messy. It happens incrementally, and often it's a case of two steps forward, one step back. Presenting it as an easy, quick, frictionless process of complete transformation sets people up for disappointment and frustration when it doesn't pan out that way - or it puts them off even trying in the first place. I'm not suggesting advice is valuable only when it's supported by scientific studies: anecdotes can be powerful, too. But why not use anecdotes that accurately capture the messiness of real experience?

"Incidentally, while I've got you on the line," Horace added, "what's your advice for attaining happiness?"

"Practise acceptance," I told him. "And keep a to-do list. Visualise your goals."

That was several days ago. I hear his life is perfect now.


Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.