The point missed by the "transform your life now" culture of pop psychology is that the changes most of us would like to make in our lives aren't enormous. We don't have eating disorders: we'd just like to eat healthier meals. We don't lurch through our working lives, always about to get fired: we'd just like to finish a project on time for once. We're not debilitatingly depressed or anxious: we'd just like to be a bit happier. All we need is a nudge, whereas many gurus would rather deliver a kicking. Why Your Life Sucks is the title of one book, but the implicit message of many more.
Nudge, on the other hand, is the title of an absorbing forthcoming book by the legal scholar Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, an economist. It's about how we influence the decisions people make by the way we design the context in which they make them. Studies show, for example, that you can work wonders on school children's eating habits by repositioning healthy and unhealthy food in the canteen. You don't need to ban chips, and doing so may send kids running to McDonald's.
We can do this in our personal lives, too, nudging ourselves towards better decisions instead of instituting militaristic regimens of fitness or diet or productivity, against which we rebel. In Sunstein and Thaler's model we have, figuratively speaking, two brains - the planner, full of good intentions, and the doer, who's all too prone, when it comes to the crunch, to press snooze, or order the cheeseburger. One trick is for the planner to make rebellion unpleasant: this column's regular reader(s) may recall me asking a friend to mail a cheque I'd written to Ukip if I didn't go to the gym. (It worked, sort of.) At other times, it's about harnessing inertia: the authors praise schemes involving standing orders that increase by a tiny percentage each month. The planner knows it'll be easy to adapt to this, even though the doer would be unwilling, or too busy, to keep increasing savings. (Why won't British banks allow this?) If there are crisps in my house, I eat them; if there are not, I don't go and buy them. Both are my doer acting on auto-pilot.
For Sunstein and Thaler, this amounts to a political vision transcending the right/left divide. They call it "libertarian paternalism" - leaving people free to choose, but establishing small psychic costs and benefits to nudge them in the right direction. (Positioning healthy food prominently is no real obstacle for the determined chip-seeker.) Some US cities have tried rewarding teenage mothers with a dollar for each day they're not pregnant again: a small cost, but the prospect of losing the income does promote safe sex.
Taking a libertarian-paternalist approach to your own habits promises a middle path between strenuous self-improvement and resignation to the status quo. Finally, a direct connection between my self-help obsession and serious, progressive politics. Told you this stuff wasn't all nonsense.