This column will change your life

You have to feel sorry for social psychologists: they never get to leave their work at the office. Even when they're not batting away irritating jokes at parties ("You're a psychologist? What am I thinking about?"), everywhere they go represents a potential research project. The Columbia professor and addiction expert Stanley Schachter experienced this each summer in the 70s, when he holidayed on Long Island, because he kept noticing something odd: he was always having conversations with people about how they had stopped smoking, lost weight, replaced bad habits with good. This was at odds with research evidence, and media coverage, which insisted habit change was fraught with difficulties, and usually failed: 86% of people who stopped smoking, studies showed, eventually restarted.

Schachter couldn't resist a spot of beach research, so conducted a study of sunbathers, other locals and staff at Columbia. He found a 63% success rate in the self-cure of smoking and obesity. (Later, a formal study on weight loss backed him up.) Psychologists were so pessimistic about habit change, Schachter concluded, because they mainly encountered hard cases: those who sought treatment.

It's curious how strongly most of us resist the idea that changing how we behave or feel might actually be easy. To disdain self-help's promise of a "quick fix" can serve an ulterior motive: it makes us feel better about keeping bad habits. Ironically, though, a lot of self-help is also about making change look hard - make it seem too easy and why would anyone pay for such insights? Most of today's bestselling pop-psychology books are based on neuro-linguistic programming or the "cosmic ordering" hokum of The Secret. One approach feels scientific, the other new agey. But both imply some difficult knowledge must be grasped before change can occur.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to deny that people genuinely struggle with issues such as smoking or diet. Sometimes, though, believing change must necessarily be hard feeds back into the attempt to change, and makes things harder. If you've experienced depression, you might be offended by Martin Seligman's gratitude studies, which showed a simple daily "count your blessings" exercise produced measurable improvements in almost all severely depressed participants. But it happened. That doesn't mean depression isn't serious, but it does suggest that a problem being serious doesn't automatically mean solving it will be complex or difficult.

A related issue bedevils the concept of "long-term goals" in life and work. Books on happiness urge you to formulate these; organisations love discussing them, too. But is there any better way to sabotage your efforts to get something done than to think of it as a "long-term" goal - a subtle way of implying that it's going to be tricky and time-consuming? The long term never seems to arrive; instead, we spend our time on activities we haven't made to seem so daunting. And so the things we care about the most become precisely the things we never get round to. Is the human brain annoying or what?

oliver.burkeman@guardian.co.uk

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